|By Amy Alkon|
Four wettings & a funeral
Q: My hubby and I had our first child last year, and we’re so happy and proud to be the creators of the most adorable creature either of us has ever seen, but our marriage is tanking. We aren’t naive; we expected change. But we’re both stressed and exhausted and we never have sex. Our lives seem like one big dull, diaper-changing, kid-focused routine. The scariest thought keeps crossing my mind: What if our marriage can’t survive our having a kid?
— Bundle Of Worry
A: Dr. Seuss is not a couples therapist. “Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?” needs to be followed up, at least one night a week, by Mommy and Daddy making some sounds that don’t come from the horsie, the rooster, or the hippo.
The advice to have “date night” that you probably see everywhere but the bottom of your shoe is right on. Where it misses is in how to do it and why. Researchers have actually quantified where happiness comes from (no, not from stoned leprechauns passing around a bottomless bag of Doritos at the end of the rainbow). According to studies looking at fraternal and identical twins raised together and apart, how happy you are appears to be as much as 50 percent genetic. About 10 percent of your happiness level stems from your life circumstances (stuff like your health, income, and the fact that you are now parents and feel like you haven’t had a good night’s sleep since John Quincy Adams was president).
The good news is, about 40 percent of your happiness is within your control, through how you think and activities you can do (like date night). The bad news on the good news is something called “the hedonic treadmill,” which is not a new form of torture at the gym. It’s researchers’ cute name for how we quickly adapt to both positive and negative changes in our lives and pop right back to our baseline level of happiness or mopeyness. This means it might not be enough to drag your weary, bleary parental cabooses out to dinner every Wednesday night. Sure, that’s better than sitting home fretting that your kid won’t get early admission to Harvard, but research by positive psychologists Dr. Kennon M. Sheldon and Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky finds that variety — “a continual stream of fresh, positive experiences” — is key in increasing and sustaining happiness.
So, you need to go out on a variety of date nights — changing up your activity every week and taking turns planning it so one of you will always be surprised. Lyubomirsky talked on my radio show about having Grandma babysit her toddler overnight and taking off with her husband to a hotel just a few miles from their house. (If you can’t afford babysitters, or Grandma’s six states away, trade babysitting with friends with a kid around the same age.) You don’t have to do anything elaborate or expensive. You can borrow a Wii and ski the Swiss Alps from your living room rug, have a picnic dinner and then ride the Ferris wheel, or just go get hot dogs and make out in the car.
Keeping your sex life alive is what differentiates you two from very tired roommates who once got drunk, hooked up, and forgot birth control. Like many new parents, you probably think you’re too exhausted to have sex, but maybe you’re just too exhausted to have the spontaneous sex marathons you had before the kid came. First, forget the idea of spontaneity. Parental sex needs to be scheduled sex, or you’ll probably never have it. You should also redefine sex as something along the lines of “doing things together naked.” (Think of it as a snack-sized version of your former sex life.) Remember, the point isn’t breaking endurance records; it’s getting started making out and then having as much sexual activity as you can stay awake for.
I know, having a baby looks so idyllic in picture books. The stork drops him off one day, and then on the next page, he’s 5. In real life, there are back-to-back trips to Poison Control, meaningful conversations about the day’s shade of poo, and hopes that people will think you’re just holding the baby for some other lady when he’s screaming his lungs out on a plane. But, surely there are good times in between. And according to the research, another way to be measurably happier is expressing gratitude — taking moments throughout the day to appreciate what you have and to express appreciation to each other. Put in some effort to be happy and maybe you’ll not only stop fretting about divorce, you’ll start having reckless sex (with each other), and before long, your husband will be taking time off from worrying that your 2-year-old doesn’t have enough extracurriculars to read Dickens to your womb.
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