Monday, May 2, 2011

Here, Let Me Save You $500

I'm not trying to brag, and I'm not trying to say that my marriage is perfect, but I am going to say that the "pre-baby counseling" discussed in "So Cute, So Hard on a Marriage" at The Wall Street Journal seems a little pricey. Couples are shelling out $500 (I'm assuming per couple) to take a 6-session course in how to juggle marriage with a baby.

Does a baby change a marriage? Sure. Can a baby make parts of your marriage more difficult? Absolutely. But the advice this article summarizes isn't advice for prepping for baby; it's advice for treating your spouse like a human being, and I would hope that not that many people need lessons on how to do so.

The participants learn to use "I" statements, a lesson that I teach first-year college students when discussing how to give a constructive peer review. It should shock no one that couching requests in  language that maintains the listener's autonomy gets you further than barking demands.

Because chores can be a place of tension (isn't that the understatement of the year?), "[c]ounselors at Urban Balance have expectant couples make a list of every potential task—from paying bills and cooking dinner to getting up with the baby at 3 a.m.—and decide who is going to be responsible for each one."  Wait. These are pre-baby workshops. And they're writing down the chores. I had no idea what a typical day would look like as a new mother. I had no idea how long it would take to do anything. And there are all kinds of chores I didn't even know existed. Plus, there's no way that kind of schedule could remain in place without jeopardizing everyone's sanity. Maybe it's different for other people, but flexibility is the only thing that keeps this house standing.

They also learn to make a weekly meeting "to sync their calendars," which is good advice, but Google calendar is free, and probably does it a lot more effectively.

"The Bringing Baby Home program suggests that couples spend at least 20 minutes a day talking with each other." Twenty minutes? A day? Seriously? I know (trust me, I know) that schedules get hectic. On many days, there is literally not one minute that I'm not doing at least one required duty, whether that's nursing the baby, doing laundry, reading for class, editing a writing assignment, grading papers, lesson planning, or showering. My husband's schedule is equally hectic. But I cannot think of a time when we've talked less than an hour a day. It may be an hour spent talking while one of us folds clothes and the other one sorts mail. Or while one's cooking dinner and one's playing with the baby. But we always talk. Always.

Our relationship grew out of talking, and it makes no sense to me without that component. We have so many inside jokes after eight years of constant talking that we probably annoy other people. No less than ten times a day I laugh out loud at things I see because I can't wait to tell him later. We text each other what would appear to anyone else to be nonsense throughout the work day. We do crossword puzzles and play Sporcle together (yes, we're total nerds, we even have a pact that we can't look at the Sporcle quizzes unless we're both present--that's cheating).

I recognize that not everyone's relationship looks the same, so it could be that the way our relationship grew just happened to give us some skills that are good for coping with change. I'm not one to advocate my way of life over other's, but I also can't help but feel that our wholehearted attempts at equally sharing parenting responsibilities are truly keeping our relationship on track.

The study cited in the article found that "Mothers' satisfaction in their marriages plummets immediately; for men, the slide is delayed a few months." While the article attributes mothers' woes to physical changes after baby comes, I would argue that it's also related to the cultural pressures of being a mom that start way before the baby is ever born. I don't think men get as many of those pressures beforehand, so it takes some time for them to build up.

I'm not saying that this kind of counseling is useless, but the article admits that even though people who took the courses reported more satisfaction in their marriages, it had no effect on whether or not they would ultimately divorce.

I truly think that learning to communicate with one another has to start way before a baby enters the equation, and it should be as organic as possible. While there are certainly times you're going to fight, you should never forget that your spouse is a friend and, above all, a person worthy of your respect. Save your $500 and go play some Sporcle; it's free!


  1. "Plus, there's no way that kind of schedule could remain in place without jeopardizing everyone's sanity. Maybe it's different for other people, but flexibility is the only thing that keeps this house standing.": Us too. We seem to have an informal rule that the person who's at the end of his/her rope, most strung out, feels like he/she is dying, etc. is the person who doesn't have to do whatever it is. Who changes the sheets? Both of us together (hey, look, talking time!) if possible; whoever CAN if not; no one if they're not that dirty yet ...

    On the other hand, I suspect that in a lot of partnerships, that degree of flexibility and that reliance on mutual understanding of pressures/capacity/stresses/exhaustion would result in one person (generally the female one) getting utterly screwed. So I understand why sometimes more specific ground rules and plans might be in order.

  2. 'The study cited in the article found that "Mothers' satisfaction in their marriages plummets immediately" '

    I find this surprising and wonder how they measure / define satisfaction. Sure, after my son was born, it was tiring and frustrating at times to figure out how my husband's and my relationship worked in our new situation. (still is, sometimes!) But my marriage is about more than that, and it never felt like more than just an adjustment period, like any other new phase in life (ok, maybe a bit more substantial a phase!). Maybe it is because, like you, we have always talked a lot--we were long-distance for the first 18 months, so we needed to learn how to talk to each other!

  3. I tend to disagree with you in dismissing this - it sounds like you have a great relationship but not everyone does. My relationship with my husband has always been difficult - mainly because he has depression, and a high-stress job, and also because I have feminist expectations of our relationship and it feels like the whole world is out to thwart our ability to do that. Sometimes I feel like we should break up, but mainly I feel like he is the father of my child, he loves me, and he has good intentions. I think that anything designed to support people like us to not kill each other in the first 12 months of being parents would be very much appreciated and recommended, although paying for it is another issue entirely...

  4. @Kat- I don't mean to sound dismissive of all counseling or mediated communication. This just sends up my red flags, and it sounds exploitative to me. The new parent market is a profitable one because we're so nervous about everything and don't know what we're doing. I don't see how trying to divide chores up before the baby even comes could possibly be helpful in any real-world way. The whole description sounded so pre-determined and cookie cutter, and it feels like it doesn't leave much room for real-life complexity, something that I think can only really happen after the baby has arrived and you can take stock of your new life.