Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

If Momma Ain't Happy: Explaining Declines in Marital Satisfaction among New Mothers

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

If Momma Ain't Happy: Explaining Declines in Marital Satisfaction among New Mothers

Article excerpt

This study tests competing explanations for the link between the transition to motherhood and declines in wives' marital satisfaction. Using data from the first and second waves of the National Survey of Families and Households (N = 569), we found that new mothers' marital satisfaction declines could be attributed to reductions in wives' quality time spent with their husbands and to increases in perceptions of unfairness in housework. Family role traditionalization in the wake of the birth of a child did not directly explain marital satisfaction declines but was linked to perceptions of marital unfairness. Attendance at religious worship services did not moderate the association between the transition to motherhood and marital satisfaction changes.

Key Words: equity, marital satisfaction, motherhood, religion, role traditionalization, time use.

Over the past century, the emotional functions of marriage have emerged as paramount in defining the nature and purpose of marriage in the minds of many Americans, especially as other functions historically associated with marriage have become less tightly bound to the institution (Cherlin, 2004; Coontz, 2005). In particular, childbearing and childrearing - once considered integrally connected to marriage - are less tightly linked, both cognitively and practically, to marriage for many adults (Edin & Kefalas, 2005; Thornton & Young-Demarco, 2001). Indeed, studies have suggested that the transition to parenthood is more likely to lead to declines in marital quality than it was in the past (Twenge, Campbell, & Foster, 2003), perhaps because contemporary couples take more of an expressive approach to marriage than couples once did (Belsky & Rovine, 1990; Coontz, 2005). In other words, the evidence suggests that nothing threatens the reverie of contemporary soul-mate marriages like the arrival of a bawling, hungry infant.

At the same time that an expressive model of marriage has gained traction in the lives of many Americans, so, too, has an intensive ethic of motherhood that would seem to stand in tension with this expressive model of marriage (Hays, 1996; Lareau, 2003). Indeed, perhaps one reason the transition to motherhood is increasingly associated with declines in marital quality is that mothers expect to devote more time and emotional energy to the tasks of motherhood now than in the past, even as their expectations for emotional satisfaction in marriage have increased. If this is the case, then we expect that changes in the nature of marital relations after a baby arrives - for example, women spending less time with their spouse - account for much of the negative association between the transition to motherhood and marital quality.

Alternatively, marital satisfaction may fall because women's expectations for equitable work -family arrangements after the arrival of a child are not met (Cowan et al., 1985; Hochschild & Machung, 1989; Twenge et al., 2003). Typically, the transition to parenthood leads to increased traditionalization of family roles, where women focus more on domestic tasks, focus less on work outside the home, and become more financially dependent on their husbands; at the same time, husbands often increase their focus on work outside the home (Baxter, Hewitt, & Haynes, 2008; Cowan et al., 1985). Many women may experience such shifts as restrictive and unfair, especially because recent research has suggested that wives are happier when they share housework and child care with their husbands (Amato, Johnson, Booth, & Rogers, 2003; Wilkie, Ferree, & Ratcliff, 1998). If women experience family role traditionalization as restrictive or unfair, then we expect that increases in housework and decreases in labor-force participation account for declines in marital satisfaction during the transition to motherhood.

Accordingly, we use data from the National Survey of Families and Households to investigate whether changes in couple time or in women's family roles explain the association between the transition to motherhood and marital satisfaction changes. …

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