Social and Cultural Resources for and Constraints on New Mothers' Marriages

By Milkie, Melissa A. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Social and Cultural Resources for and Constraints on New Mothers' Marriages


Milkie, Melissa A., Journal of Marriage and Family


Dew and Wilcox are to be commended for their careful analysis of wives' changes in marital happiness as they become mothers. Their comparison to wives not making the transition to parenthood is a rigorous test of the importance of babies for marriage. Dew and Wilcox showed with this longitudinal representative sample what some qualitative studies have richly documented: Married women's radically changed time allocations on the arrival of a newborn influence feelings about their marriage (Cowan & Cowan, 1 992; Fox, 2009; Hochschild, 1989; LaRossa & LaRossa, 1981). Married women who have first babies increase time spent on child care from typically 0 hours to many, decrease time spent with husbands alone, and face increased housework (Bianchi, Robinson, & Milkie, 2006; Fox, 2009; Nomaguchi & Milkie, 2003; Sayer, 2001). When married women exclaim that their lives are drastically different from before they became mothers, such as one in Fox's 2009 study, they do not exaggerate:

[My life is] changed absolutely. It's changed in terms of my own time, what is my own time, what are my priorities. It's changed in terms of how I relate to work, how I relate to [my husband], how I relate to my social life. [Becoming a mother] has had an impact on every single sphere of my life, even my health. [Life has] changed drastically, (p. 3)

Dew and Wilcox were thoughtful in using comparison groups to understand changes in marriage. Of course, there are possible selection effects as to which couples become parents and which do not. Still, comparing new parents to nonparents is the best way to understand what happens to women's lives when a child arrives. The interesting thing about babies is that, though they change marital happiness, say from 5.5 to 5 on a 7-point scale, family satisfaction or purpose in life may increase, and compared with married mothers who remain childless, these may be higher even as marital happiness is lower. The deep and profound meaning most women report gaining on becoming mothers adds new dimensions to their lives that childless women have less access to. Women often joyfully embrace this new role and extension of themselves, even as they are exhausted and overwhelmed from responsibilities that the child brings (Fox, 2009). I point this out because it is useful to think about marital satisfaction as one of many aspects of new mothers' well-being. It is not that the declines in marital satisfaction that new mothers experience relative to their nonmother counterparts are unimportant; it is that the lives of new mothers become more complex and require us to see "satisfactions" and overall well-being as more complex, too. For married mothers, life is not necessarily bad, despite the decline in marital happiness, particularly in that they have just fulfilled a major culturally heralded role by giving birth. In a study using the same data as Dew and Wilcox, and in the same spirit of attempting to understand the effects of having babies on adults, Kei Nomaguchi and I (Nomaguchi & Milkie, 2003) found that such married mothers were actually better off relative to married women who did not become parents in terms of being more socially integrated and in terms of (less) depression, a key measure of mental health. In fact, married women who became mothers were better off on this measure than any other group who became parents (unmarried women, married men, and unmarried men) relative to those who did not. Thus, viewing married new mothers' marital happiness in the context of their ' 'whole" lives as well as relative to other groups is important. Unmarried women and men need a great deal of support when they become new parents, more so than married women, but that is a different story (and a crucial one given that such a large percentage of births are to unmarried adults today).

Taking marital satisfaction in its own right, how do we support the marriages of new mothers to keep them as satisfied with husbands as those who, by choice or default, do not take the plunge into parenthood? …

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