Marital Happiness, Reproduction and Traditional Gender Roles

Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, addresses recent research that suggests that “marital quality drops, often quite steeply, after the transition to parenthood” in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. This conclusion was drawn from over 25 separate studies on the subject.

Interestingly, Professor Coontz mentions that a drop in marital satisfaction does not usually occur when the partners in a marriage have decided together to have a child. In fact, the marital satisfaction of these couples stayed the same after the child’s birth, or even increased. When couples weren’t planning on having a child, disagreed over parenthood, or were ambivalent about it, they reported a drop in their marital satisfaction.

And she has this to say about traditional gender roles when it comes to marriage and parenthood:

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.

When [researchers] designed programs to help couples resolve these differences, they had fewer conflicts and higher marital quality. And the children did better socially and academically because their parents were happier.

Feminist goals – equal sharing in parenthood, valuing both paid work to provide for a family as well as the unpaid work of raising children, and having control over reproductive choices – result in happier families for both parents and children. Now that’s research we can get behind.


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