I love Stephanie Coontz. If you haven’t checked out her books yet, you should. She’s a history professor who focuses largely on the American family, and her work is fascinating. This latest op/ed is no exception.
Coontz’s work consistently points to the facts that (1) there really was no great 1950s golden age of the nuclear family, and (2) as gender equality increases, so does quality of life for men, women and children. Her Times op/ed is about research that suggests parenthood leads to decreased marital satisfaction and even divorce. More than 25 studies have confirmed that with parenthood comes a steep decline in marital happiness. However:
The Cowans found that the average drop in marital satisfaction was almost entirely accounted for by the couples who slid into being parents, disagreed over it or were ambivalent about it. Couples who planned or equally welcomed the conception were likely to maintain or even increase their marital satisfaction after the child was born.
Marital quality also tends to decline when parents backslide into more traditional gender roles. Once a child arrives, lack of paid parental leave often leads the wife to quit her job and the husband to work more. This produces discontent on both sides. The wife resents her husband’s lack of involvement in child care and housework. The husband resents his wife’s ingratitude for the long hours he works to support the family.
In other words, gender-egalitarian marriages and marriages where parenthood is planned tend to be stronger once kids are in the picture. And kids do better socially and academically in stable and happy marriages.
Coontz also emphasizes the importance of maintaining individuality and separateness from your children — not dedicating your entire life to being a parent at the expense of your marriage and your sense of self. It’s advice that is too seldom directed at women, for whom parenthood often comes with the expectation of total and constant devotion to someone(s) else.
The take-away: The conservative family ideal of a stay-at-home and subservient mother dedicated entirely to the domestic, a breadwinning and household-leading father, and as many children as God gives you is a recipe for unhappiness. Gender egalitarianism, including reproductive planning and the pursuit of individual needs and desires, is a better pro-family strategy.
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