Baby-Proofing Marriages with Pre-Parental Ministries

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This article is featured in the Rites of Passage (Nov/Dec/Jan 2011-12) issue of Circuit Rider
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Marriage is good. Married people consistently report being healthier and happier than single people. “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-11). Marriage is good but that doesn’t mean it’s easy--especially when children enter the picture. Sociological studies consistently reveal that marital satisfaction typically drops with the birth of the first child and continues dropping until the youngest child leaves home. Children are blessings, but parents of young children can nonetheless benefit from pre-parental ministries such as counseling and care programs.

Becoming a parent is considered one of the most unsettling of life transitions because the arrival of a child abruptly changes people’s lives. Childbirth classes describe how to get through labor, delivery, and those first feedings, but the new baby will require the parents to do much more. They will have to renegotiate their time together, their time at work, their leisure, their housework—everything. Without clear guidance, many first time parents may have unreasonable expectations about their new lives and one another.

With the desire to understand what happens to couples during their transition to parenthood, I surveyed and interviewed twenty-seven first-time expectant parents. Five years later, I interviewed them again. What I learned is that unrealistic expectations made the transition more difficult. For instance:

  • Fifty percent of the couples had at least one unexpected pregnancy.
  • None of the expectant parents thought they would have conflict over parenting, but all of those parents admitted to some conflict five years later.
  • Most expectant parents didn't think work would interfere with family life. But five years later, the mothers' number one complaint was that their husbands worked too much.

Issues regarding paid work affect a majority of parents. In my study, three quarters of mothers and two thirds of fathers had changed their work situations during their first five years of parenting. Stress points from job changes are mounted on top of the stress points of being a new parent.

Mothers often feel conflicted about whether they should work for pay and often put heavy pressure on themselves to be a mother full-time but also to make money. Consequently, many mothers in my study had changed their work situations a number of times during that five-year period. Ashley illustrates a common pattern. Eagerly awaiting the birth of her firstborn, 24-year old Ashley planned to work from home as a medical transcriptionist. But this plan was soon foiled as Ashley explained years later with a laugh, “You need quiet for that. I didn’t even make it through the course!” Instead, Ashley worked fulltime while her mother took care of her son. Later she decided to become a stay-at-home mom. She laughs now, but the indecision and changes were stressful at the time.

Fathers tend to make work changes in order to make more money for their family. When asked what fatherhood meant to them, all the fathers mentioned breadwinning. Half of the fathers were so focused on how a good father financially supports his family that they didn’t mention actual interaction with their children at all during their interviews—even when asked how their lives would be different once their child was born.

Interestingly, only three described their plans to interact with their children while the children were infants. Others talked about sharing time with their children by involving the child in their own hobbies or in attending their children’s school and extracurricular functions. Here are two examples:

Interviewer: How do you think your life will be different once your child is born?

Vance: There’ll be, probably, less free time.

Interviewer: What about your hobbies and sports?

Vance: There’ll still be time for that—I hunt and fish, my main hobbies, so I plan on teaching the kid how to hunt and fish.

Jerry: I love to fish and I could fish every weekend if I wanted to, but with a child, I know there’s gonna come a time when you gotta go to track meets, you gotta go to basketball games, whatever, volleyball. And that’ll change an aspect. I’ll just focus more on her life and . . . still make her a good fisherman, one way or the other.

It is fun to hear these guys describe how they will get their kids involved in their favorite activities. On top of that, it’s exciting to hear how they plan to be involved with their girls as well as their boys. Obviously these men are considering how they will keep a sense of themselves while incorporating a child into their lives. However, since these activities are well past the time of infancy and toddlerhood, it seems that many of those interviewed had not considered the time of infancy as a critical time for father-child interaction. Or, at least, these men haven’t identified themselves fully as fathers yet, not visualizing life with a baby, except in terms of financial responsibility. The transition to being a father of an infant will be easier if men spend some time holding babies in the church nursery as well as discussing how their relationships with their wives and their children will be better if they share childcare from the start.

Some cultural changes such as people having fewer siblings and more people living far from relatives mean that, more than ever, new parents don’t know what they’re getting into. When they’re expecting their children, they are focusing on the joy of having a baby and many are not thinking about certain particulars. This is where the church can help. In my book, What They Didn’t Expect When They Were Expecting . . . And How They Became Better Parents, I describe common points that caused couples to have a difficult time adjusting to being parents. Ministers can use these points for constructing a series of counseling sessions or workshops. The following are two common problems revealed in my research followed by solutions I suggest in my book and in seminars.

Competition for Time

Problem: As mentioned earlier, a common experience for married couples, well-documented in sociological research, is that marital satisfaction goes down after the birth of a child. That doesn’t mean that the couple is unhappy, but they’ve gone from being two people with “lives” and time and money to being parents of a baby. A common problem for parents is that they can get into competition with one another over the scarce resources of time and money. Time can especially be a problem, and mothers in particular have trouble getting time to themselves or time for leisure.

With the parents I studied, moms tended to be more responsible for childcare overall. Dads sometimes took advantage of that and ducked out for fishing or golf. When I asked moms what they did to get some time to themselves, far too often they said, “I go to Walmart.” And guess what they tend to do once they get there? They buy stuff for the family.

Solution: “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Have the couple make a schedule where they give each parent three or four hours “off” per week. These are nonworking hours where the parent is not responsible for childcare. For instance, he can have Tuesdays from 6:00-10:00 and she can have Thursdays from 6:00-10:00. That means, even if she’s a stay-at-home mom, this is time she doesn’t have to worry about childcare. If something comes up and he can’t take care of the kids one Thursday evening, he has to find a babysitter because those four hours a week are protected for her. This is time that each parent needs to use for visits with friends or for a hobby. It’s important for our children to have parents who have interests outside the family.

Dashed Expectations

Problem: New parents grew up in different families. While in many ways this is very good news, it presents a problem when it comes to the assumptions we make about how we expect our spouse to be as a parent. For example, one man I interviewed, Steve, had grown up in a household where his father was the only disciplinarian. As Steve saw it, this caused the children not to respect their mother’s authority. Consequently it was very important to Steve that his wife share in disciplinary matters.

Another interviewee’s father came home at 5:30 each night and was very involved in meal preparation, clean-up, and the children’s bedtime rituals. All of this was very important to Olivia and she assumed that her husband would be the same. The problem is that Steve and Olivia never articulated their expectations to their spouses—not until those dashed expectations had become a problem in their marriages.

Solution: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Help this couple develop into a parenting team. Like all good teams, they will need to know what is expected of them, and to realize if their teammates suffer, the whole team suffers. Flip a coin to decide which spouse goes first. Let’s say it’s the wife. Have her talk about how she perceived her mom and dad. What did she like about how they parented? What does she want to differently? How does she see herself as a mom? How does she see her husband as a dad?

Now turn to the husband. How does he feel about her expectations and desires? Ask him all of the questions you asked her and finish by asking her how she feels about his expectations and desires.

While one might think all of these things would have been discussed during the course of their relationship, many times they haven’t been. Discussing these expectations will ease the transition even though they will definitely need to revisit them once they actually have children.

Other topics to be addressed are:

  • Practical techniques for resolving parenting conflicts.
  • How parents can take care of their family's needs as well as their own.
  • Why it's good for moms to get some space from the kids.
  • How to recognize toxic messages from the workplace and the media; messages that work against a happy family.
  • Balancing work and family.
  • How dads can be equal parenting partners.
  • Guidelines for finding the most appropriate types of childcare.

Over twenty-five years ago, the church responded to the record-breaking divorce rate by providing premarital counseling and marriage enrichment seminars. Today, whether in the form of pre-parental counseling, seminars, or other care programs, churches can also provide biblically based guidance for expectant parents and parents of young children. Like premarital ministries, pre-parental ministries can help couples identify common stressors in some of life’s most meaningful events. Effective pre-parental ministries will result in increases in the number of parents who will say “Marriage—and parenthood—is good.”

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