HOW TO BE MARRIED (WITH KIDS)—ADVICE FROM AROUND THE GLOBE
“I wrote this book for my unborn son,” I often tell people when they ask me why the hell I wrote a book about how to be married. “Not for him to read (he’s still in utero and won’t be here until the end of June),” I continue, but, because writing and reporting a book on how to have a happy and fulfilling marriage was a way for me to figure out how to get my marriage in a good place before I had a baby.
I watched my parents slog through a terrible marriage, the kind of marriage where they screamed and yelled and occasionally threw furniture across the room. It scared me as a child and shaped my own relationships as an adult. I never wanted that for my own kid. I needed my husband and I to create good habits and patterns before we started trying to get pregnant.
In that way, reporting and writing my new book How to be Married became like marriage bootcamp, a way for us to figure things out quicker than we might have had we spent the first year of marriage doing things like nesting or binging on Netflix.
During our newlywed year I traveled to 20 countries on five continents, both with and without my husband Nick. Along the way I interviewed hundreds of women and men about how to create a happy partnership. We talked about what it means to be a wife, what it means to be a husband, and what it means to be married in a world where marriage is becoming more and more obsolete. We talked about sex and communication and teamwork and compromise and housework and feminism and equality and polygamy. They were some of the most honest conversations I’ve ever had in my entire life.
But most importantly, for me at least, we talked about what happens to a marriage when you throw children into the mix. So many of my American friends compared introducing their first child into their lives to armed warfare. “Want to throw a grenade into your marriage? Want to blow it up?” They’d ask me. “Then have kids.”
Women in other cultures didn’t speak this way. It was interesting to learn that in America couples often report being less happy and less satisfied in their marriages after they have children. This isn’t true in other countries. Researchers who have studied the happiness levels of parents versus nonparents in twenty-two countries have found that in places like Sweden, Norway, and Hungary, countries with more flexible work options, generous parental leave policies, subsidies for day care, and more fluid notions of equality between genders, parents tended to be happier than non-parents.
In my own reporting I often found that women and men in other cultures did seem more content as parents. They complained less than we tend to in the States. They offered quality advice for how to keep a relationship strong when confronted with the many, many challenges of child rearing. They adapted their lives and their marriages to accommodate their new families, rather than trying to adapt their new families to accommodate their lives.
These are some of the best pieces of advice I gathered about how to remain happy and fulfilled within your marriage once you transition into parents.
Get Off Your Phone
Our phones, the miniature computers we carry around in our pockets, often get more attention than our spouse. I heard this from dozens of men and women in a handful of countries. But nowhere were the men and women more adamant about putting away their phones than in Denmark. Part of hygge, the Danish concept of creating a cozy life and home, is to embrace real life personal interactions without the distractions of cell phones and computers. “When you’re with your spouse, really be with your spouse,” the Danes told me. “Don’t be with your spouse and checking email and instagramming and googling the answer to every third question.” This is doubly true when you become parents when quality time can be even more scarce. Studies show that partners genuinely feel snubbed when the other chooses to engage with a phone instead of with them. Even the very presence of a phone on the dinner table can chill a conversation.
Prioritize Your Family The Way You Would Prioritize A Job
The Netherlands is a place that consistently ranks among the top five happiest countries in the world and where couples claim some of the most satisfying long-term relationships. I heard from the Dutch women whom I interviewed that one of the causes of this elevated level of happiness was that Dutch women don’t care about other people thinking they have it all. They don’t let their careers dictate their relationships or their family life. The majority of Dutch women, married or not, choose to work part-time in order to have more time for their marriage, their children, their hobbies, and their personal well-being. In 2011 nearly 75% of working Dutch women were employed part-time. Many of my Americans girlfriends scoffed at this. They’d never dream of working part-time. They’d call that giving up, or worse, failure. But, Dutch women call the decision liberating and they don’t see their choice as bucking the feminist system. Because of our jobs we often come home late at night, moody and irritable. Because of our jobs we don’t have enough time to work out or eat well, leading to chronic and costly health problems down the road. Because of our jobs we often live thousands of miles from our families and supportive communities. The best decisions for our careers will often trump the best outcome for our marriages and our families. What if it didn’t have to be that way? What if we could find space in our lives for ourselves, our marriages, and our careers? Beneath Dutch women’s fierce independence is an even fiercer love of family and a sense of practicality focused on keeping the family unit strong. “You prioritize your jobs first…just think about prioritizing your marriage and family as much as you do your job,” they told me.
Be Grateful For Your Spouse
Gratitude not only increases your own satisfaction with your marriage, but it’s something that is easily passed along to your children. Complaining about marriage is practically an Olympic sport in America. Women all over the world, in literally every country I visited, called out American visitors as some of the worst offenders when it came to complaining about their marriages. Indian women living in small villages along the banks of the Brahmaputra River (villages that are regularly wiped out by unexpected floods) advised me that having unreasonable expectations for my spouse or comparing my relationship to others’ were surefire ways to feel unsatisfied. Instead, they encouraged me to practice gratitude, being truly thankful for the good things my husband brings to our relationship through regular verbal expressions of thanks. Pay attention to the great things your partner does instead of pointing out the negative. Even a small text message saying thank you can go an incredibly long way, particularly when you’re both trying to juggle the demands of parenthood.
Equality Is Not 50/50 All Of The Time
This gem came from the stay-at-home dads I spent time with in Sweden. Due to the wildly generous parental leave policies in the country (18 months paid leave supported by the government) husbands in Sweden are often able to split their parental leave with their wives and I loved the insight that gave them. What the incredible men I interviewed told me (including the photographer Johan Bavman, author of the book Swedish Dads) is that sometimes you’ll be pulling 80% of the load, while your partner shoulders just 20%. And that’s fine. As long as, at some stage down the road, that flips over, then flips again, and it all tallies up in the end. It’s a long game. The burdens should be distributed 50/50 overall. But keeping a mental spreadsheet of the duties each of you has done every day is a dangerous game.
Caring For A Marriage And Your Children Takes A Village
In Kenya and Tanzania I spent time with the polygamist Maasai and Samburu tribes. It sounds like an incredibly patriarchal set-up at first glance, but pretty soon I discovered that these women were ruling the roost and more importantly caring for one another. My time with the tribes made me reflect on how we isolate ourselves in modern society. We get married and cut ourselves off. We form a little tribe of two. And then we introduce a baby into the mix we become a tribe of three that sometimes pays other people to help us. It just isn’t enough. In the Samburu tribe all of the children call all of the women mama. I nearly cried the first time I heard this. We need other women to share the physical, psychological, and emotional burdens of child-raising. Our husbands need other men. It’s imperative that we expand our tribes.
Take Care Of Yourself
Some of the wisest advice I received came from the Orthodox Jewish women in Jerusalem, a city constantly roiled by political turmoil and violence. “It’s easy to lose yourself in a marriage,” one Israeli woman told me. “It’s easy to nurture your husband and your children, and forget about nurturing yourself. Take the time off to reset and your marriage will be better for it.” These were women who walked their children to school every day despite threats of potential violence. They were strong and fearless and ready to protect their families. This was due to the fact that they made sure to nurture their own needs in addition to the needs of their husband’s and their children. “Take a walk alone, meditate, take a bath, go to a spa, cook yourself a meal only you like and eat it in silence by yourself,” they told me. “If you don’t take care of you then you will not be equipped to be anyone else’s caretaker.”
From the ladies at Mother.
For more sage relationship advice culled by Piazza, pick up a copy of How To Be Married.