By BRIGITTE ROZARIO
When you get married, everything is beautiful. A few years later, the baby comes along. Then another.
Soon, both you and your spouse are so busy taking care of the family and earning an income that you hardly connect emotionally or mentally as husband and wife anymore.
Having children changes a marriage, naturally. But it doesn't mean your marriage has to suffer.
Registered and licensed mental health professional Johana Datuk Johari sees a lot of couples in her line of work. She says couples should make sure they have a relationship first before they get married and have children.
“First you get to know each other, then when you like the person you start courting. When you can relate to one another, then only can you call it a relationship. Anything short of that cannot be called a relationship.
“A lot of people jump into marriage without even having a relationship. And then they wonder why, when the baby comes, they find themselves in a place they don't like and they're disappointed because their expectations are not met. These are the things that need to be clarified first.
“People get married because they're in love. When you're in love, everything looks nice. But you need to ask yourself, can you like that person? Because, there are times when you feel you want to strangle your spouse but it's the 'like' that makes you want to hang on. There are times when you think 'I don't love you but I like you, so I'll stay on',” she says.
Johana believes that without a strong relationship, having a baby can actually break a marriage. She says that having a child will not save a marriage and children are never a good enough reason to stay on in a marriage.
She advises couples to have a strong relationship before bringing children into the picture.
“A lot of people think that just because they're married, that that secures everything. No. There's a big difference between a relationship and a marriage. A marriage is a certificate saying that you are the husband and you are the wife but if you don't have a relationship then the marriage is worthless; it's just a piece of paper. What adds value to the marriage is the relationship. And, if you don't relate to one another you don't have a relationship.”
When a baby comes along, the couple finds their limits pushed to the maximum. They're both tired and stressed and lacking sleep. Whose turn is it to change the baby or comfort the baby when he cries?
The roles – who does what with regards to the chores in the house and taking care of the baby – need to be discussed and agreed upon, says Johana.
“Negotiation is not just between business partners. Especially for life partners, you should have an agreement. You should come to the table and say, 'Okay, this is what I can offer into the relationship and this is what I can offer as a wife and mother, and this is what I need in return'.
“And the man does the same thing. 'This is what I can offer as a husband, this is what I can offer as a father, but this is what I need in return'.
“Then you see whether you can jive. If there are any differences, that's when you negotiate and compromise.”
The talking, renegotiation and compromising has to continue over the years as the children grow up because with the circumstances are always changing.
Johana rubbishes the myth that having a child can cause a breakup. She says it is often because there was no relationship to begin with or the relationship wasn't strong enough.
“There was an assumed responsibility and expectation upon the other person but it was not discussed therefore it was not met. Therefore, you find two people very frustrated and disappointed with each other and with themselves and not knowing why,” she explains.
Regaining the 'us'
Will more communication help?
While communication is important, Johana says it is not the magic tonic for every problem. Often a couple may think they are communicating but are they really listening? Communication is not just about getting your opinion heard; it's also about listening.
How about having a “date night” with your husband?
Yes, it can help but you need to focus on your spouse and temporarily forget about the children.
Citing her own marriage as an example, Johana says she and her husband have an “anniversary honeymoon” every year even though they've been together for 21 years now.
“We agree not to discuss the children. We just get in touch with the two individuals who fell in love and wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.
“Most often we get lost in the roles we are supposed to play as a mother and wife or a father and husband that we forget the individual; we forget who we are and who we were prior to the relationship.
“So it is good to look at each other with fresh eyes and appreciate each other as who you are now and see how far you've come. It's a really great way to look at your milestones.
“There's no point having a ritual date night and say you must do it at least once a week or once a month and when you go you just talk about the kids. You must want to be with each other. A lot of couples who end up in my (counselling) office have nothing in common except for the children.
Johana: 'The kids are never a good enough reason to save the marriage.'
“The kids are never a good enough reason to save the marriage. If you want to stay in the marriage because of the children then your marriage doesn't stand a chance because you don't want to be together. You just want to be in the marriage for the sake of the kids.
“The kids don't need your marriage. The kids need their parents. It doesn't matter if the parents are together or apart as long as their parents are there for them when they need them.
“So, don't use the kids as a reason to stay married.
“If you want to work at the relationship and marriage then work at it because there's something worthy in it.”
As for those who feel like they have lost their identity and now are only somebody's wife and somebody's mother, Johana says most of the time this only happens to stay-at-home mums.
It's natural for them to feel this way if 90% of their time is devoted to the children and the balance to the husband.
Those who feel this way often have no “me” time and that means they are not managing their time well. They then need to take a look at their priorities.
Johana advises those who feel they have lost themselves and their individuality to rethink their priorities.
“When the child is sleeping you can have some time out for yourself, some 'me' time. And reconnect with yourself by doing the things that you love doing; what were the things that made you feel happy and when you do them made you feel strong? Those are your strengths. You need to do all those things again, engage in those activities in order for you to feel connected to yourself.”
Having “me” time does not make you a bad mother so don't feel guilty about it.
To be an effective wife and mother, you need some “me” time.
“If we don't help ourselves then how can we be there to give to those who need us? You want to give yourself to your child, but if you don't have 'you' to give, then what have you got? Nothing. Zero. You end up becoming emotionally, physically and mentally bankrupt because you never gave yourself a chance to recharge, re-energise or rest.”
The new love triangle
To make matters worse, a woman will sometimes find herself in a love triangle as both her child and her husband vie for her attention. And, the husband seems jealous of their child.
Yes, there are such situations. Johana says this happens when the husband was mothered by the wife in the pre-baby days.
Naturally, if you encourage that then when the baby comes along the husband feels left out and is in the same boat as those going through the first-child syndrome. He will then be competing with the child for the wife's attention.
Johana pulls no punches with her advice for such a situation:
“Don't mother your husband! Be a wife to him. He's got a mother already!”
According to her, there are also cases where the husband no longer views the wife as a wife. To him, a “mother” is sacred and he then sees the mother of his child as sacred and is turned off sexually.
“I point out to them that first of all he did not marry your mother; he married his wife. And it is their child who should idolise his wife, not him.”
When in doubt
If you think the relationship is strained or in trouble, after the baby comes, then seek help.
It doesn't matter who you go to as long as you find someone who can help you with your relationship. If there is strain in the husband-wife relationship, then it is about the relationship; it's not about the baby.
Johana advises against waiting for the last minute to get help.
“Don't wait till you think you're heading for a divorce. The moment you feel that something is not right, you'll know because you feel frustrated and disappointed. Those are already signs and symptoms that something is not right. So, before it gets to the point where you're sick of each other, please seek help.
“Don't try to fix it yourself. Nobody can. Even counsellors go to another counsellor for marriage counselling.”
A happy relationship between a father and mother makes a happy family because when you have a happy relationship, you have a happy marriage and a happy family.
It all starts from the relationship between the husband and wife.