THE LADIES' HOME JOURNAL recently took a poll of some 30,000 of its readers and found out the usual things about love, fidelity and its crashing bore of an alternative, infidelity. It also found out some interesting things about children. They tend to sour a marriage.
This finding, long the view of an occasional cynic, runs counter to the conventional wisdom, which is that children enhance a marriage. They are thought to bind it, to sweeten it, to give it purpose and scope and the sort of shared experiences that make for wonderful commercials about wonderful snapshots.
So common is this view that along with renovating the kitchen and going on a cruise, having a child is something couples do when their marriages go on the rocks. As remedies, all three are disasters, but only one can mean orthodontia sometime down the road.
What the Journal found was that married women with children were less optimistic about the future, feel they have less control over their lives, tire more easily, are more irritable, have less sex and are less satisfied with the sex they have. All in all, women with children said they were less satisfied with their marriages than women who did not have children. The Journal called the findings striking.
What is really striking about them, though, is that they are no surprise at all. Ann Landers, to drop a name, found pretty much the same thing when she took a readers poll some time back. Her readers said that if they had it all to do over again, when it came to children, they wouldn't do it. Other polls have found the same thing, and not only when it came to women. Men, too, feel that children can put the kibosh on marriage or, to quote the psychologist Nathaniel Brandon, "make it harder for a marriage to proceed happily."
All of this would be merely interesting if it were not for the fact that despite the polls, the effect that children can have on marriage remains a dirty little secret. We tend to believe that couples who choose not to have children are somehow wierd, perverted, antisocial or its moral equivalent, selfish. That they might have looked the proposition coldly in the eye and decided for wholesome reasons concerning their own relationship that children are not for them, is not something that occurs to most people.
It is as if some people think that to acknowledge the problems children can cause in a marriage means, somehow, that they don't love their own children or they are conceding that they made some sort of terrible mistake. This may not be the case at all. What is the case is that the first step toward dealing with a problem is simply to acknowledge it exists. Freud said that -- or should have.
This, after all, is what we have done when it comes to marriage. It has only been recently that we've dropped the public pose that all marriages have to be perfect and conform to the same ideals. They are all, each and every one of them, different, and even the same one is different at different times. They change. They evolve, and to admit that they can go from good to bad and then (knock on wood) to good again, is not an admission of failure, but a statement of fact.
The same should be true when it comes to children, but that is not the case. Instead, we seem willing to swallow all doubts, to hold up the traditional family as some sort of universal ideal -- something everyone should have. That there are options, choices, alternatives that make sense for some people and not for others is a fact that quickly gets brushed under the carpet: Have children or be labeled wierd.
None of this will change the facts. All it will do is deceive people, make them feel like failures for the inability to live up to impossible ideals -- have children and a blissful marriage. The truth is that children change relationships, and not always for the better. It is important to realize that. After all, children are involved.