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"Being an At-Home Mom Is Ruining Our Marriage"

Kimberly and Jeff agreed their children needed a full-time parent, but they couldn't agree on anything else. Can this marriage be saved?
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Her Turn
"I always thought I'd enjoy being an at-home mom. But I totally underestimated how draining it would be, how isolated I'd feel, and how much I'd miss my office friends and the satisfaction of getting positive feedback at work. I hate to admit it, but I'm jealous of my husband's career. And ever since I quit my job, our marriage has been going downhill.

"Jeff doesn't understand why I'm exhausted, frustrated, and stressed-out all the time. He says I'm overreacting, and reminds me of our agreement that it would be best for Andrew, who's 6, and Hayley, nearly 5, to have their mother at home. But Jeff seems to think that they're my responsibility around the clock. 

"I met Jeff in a computer class for a master's program. He was smart and funny, and we had lots in common, including our large Midwestern families and a passion for travel.

"Three years after our wedding, I became pregnant with Andrew. We moved out of our tiny apartment and bought a fixer-upper house. As a new mother, my days were a whirlwind of nursing, diapers, laundry, and cleaning. I felt anxious and overwhelmed without my friends and family nearby.

"I felt lost without my career — and still do. I miss getting dressed up, going to business lunches, being around adults, the creativity of writing copy, a sense of accomplishment from doing my job well, and, naturally, the paycheck. Of course, the kids are a joy, but I don't feel intellectually satisfied. At heart, I'm a competitor.

"At night, I'm exhausted because I get practically no help. Jeff has been a little better about pitching in since our second child was born, but I never get a real break. Though he loves Andrew, Jeff is reluctant to be alone with him for long. As a toddler, he would scream when I left the room, and Jeff was afraid of losing his temper if he didn't calm down. 

"For the first year of Andrew's life, Jeff spent most of his free time working on the house. Wanting everything perfect immediately, he'd get up early to move rocks, haul dirt, and chop wood before work. At night and on weekends, he'd pick up where he left off. I once accused Jeff of putting the house before his family, but he insisted he was just increasing the real-estate value.

"Despite our problems, we wanted another child, and we were thrilled when Hayley came. Though I still missed working at the ad agency, I decided to continue staying at home, at least until the kids were well established in grade school.

"Even so, we didn't anticipate the added stress that a second baby would put on our marriage — not to mention the extra work. We're always fighting over the kids; Jeff thinks I'm too strict with them and I think he's too lenient. If I leave Andrew and Hayley with him when I run errands, he plops them in front of the TV instead of playing with them.

"Money is another hot-button issue. To make ends meet on one salary, I stick to a tight budget. My only 'splurge' is for weekly therapy to help me work through some issues related to being a child of an alcoholic. Jeff insists we can't afford my counseling, yet he thinks nothing of buying expensive lawn equipment.

"Our fights are like brush fires, starting quickly and growing fast. Once, Jeff called me a 'bad mother' for not canceling my therapy session when Andrew had a cold. It was the most hurtful thing that anyone has ever said to me. I'm not much better; just the other week, I threw the TV remote control at Jeff in the heat of the moment. Sometimes we don't speak for days afterward, and I can't remember the last time we made love.

"Though I loathe the thought of divorce, I don't want my children growing up in an unhappy home. Sometimes I wonder if quitting my job was the right thing to do."

His Turn
"Kimberly is right: Our problems started after she became an at-home mom. The arrangement has been great for our kids, but it's definitely damaged our marriage.

"When she was at the ad agency, my wife was happy and fun loving. Now she's a highly critical, argumentative know-it-all. She thinks she has all the answers about parenting and politics, and if I don't totally agree with every little idea of hers, she screams and calls me names. Naturally, I have to defend myself. Lately, we've been fighting in front of the kids, which I know is wrong.

"Our marriage was great at first, but everything shifted when we had children. I admit I'm not the best father in the world, and I think it's because I'm afraid of becoming like my own dad. He was a well-to-do architect with a violent temper, and when he got mad at us, he'd hit us on the backside with his belt.

"Unfortunately, I've inherited Dad's short fuse. It's a struggle for me to stay calm when the kids shriek and cry — which they do often — so I have to keep my distance. I love them, and I'd never hit them, but it's hard for me to keep from screaming at them, which can be just as hurtful. I adore Andrew, but he's a difficult child who doesn't want anything to do with me. When I try to spend time alone with him, he wails for his mommy. The only time Andrew seems to enjoy my company is when we watch cartoons in the morning, which drives Kimberly crazy. A little TV isn't going to destroy his brain, for Pete's sake! I hope I'll have a better relationship with my kids when they're older, but I think Andrew will always be closer to his mother.

"I'm also annoyed that Kimberly dumps on me the minute I come home, complaining about her hard day and all the stress she's under. Well, I'm tired and stressed, too. She seems to think that I'm having a grand old time at work while she slaves away at home, and I resent that attitude. That's part of the reason I object to her being in therapy. Apart from the cost, I don't think it's helping her much. Plus, she doesn't appreciate the nice way I've fixed up the house. I wish she'd give me a little praise once in a while.

"I don't want to spend the rest of my life fighting with my wife, but I'm tired of listening to her cut me down. If counseling can help bring back the love we used to have, I'm all for it.

The Counselor's Turn
"Becoming an at-home mother can turn a working woman's world upside down. Suddenly, she's alone with a demanding baby. She may miss the camaraderie of her co-workers and the self-esteem that comes with earning a paycheck. She may feel incompetent as a mother, or even start to resent her husband for having a career. Kimberly's difficult transition was normal, but the fact that she didn't have friends or family close by was intensifying her unhappiness. 

"I believed this couple could stay together because they were willing to acknowledge their own shortcomings and to work at rebuilding their relationship. First, they had to improve their communication skills — a challenge given the habits they'd learned as children. Growing up with an alcoholic father and emotionally remote mother, Kimberly never learned how to express her feelings or to ask for support and nurturing in a positive way. When she raised her voice or belittled Jeff in the heat of an argument, she was echoing behavior that passed for normal in her parents' house.

"Meanwhile, Jeff had his father's volatile temper — though not his abusive streak — so he, too, was prone to exploding. Accustomed to constant criticism from his parents, Jeff became overly sensitive to any perceived slight.

"I instructed the couple to set aside 15 minutes every night to discuss their daily frustrations and any sensitive issues requiring negotiation. No more yelling, name-calling, throwing objects, giving the silent treatment, or fighting in front of Andrew and Hayley. Over the course of many months, they practiced having respectful conversations until it came more naturally to them.

"Next, Kimberly and Jeff needed to split the child-care duties more equitably. Jeff had expected that his wife would be with the children around the clock, but I told him that it was his job to pitch in at night and on weekends and holidays to give her a break and so he could develop a closer relationship with his son and daughter. Simply being aware of his temper and knowing how to defuse it — walking away for a few minutes when he felt too tense — went a long way toward making Jeff feel in control. Over time, he overcame the fear that his anger would get the best of him.

"Kimberly had also been pushing Jeff away from the children by constantly criticizing his parenting abilities. If she wanted him to be a more active father, she had to accept his relaxed style and be more tolerant of his decisions. Gradually, Jeff became a more confident parent, and the children's behavior improved because they're now comfortable around him and they're not exposed to their parents' arguments.

"Next, the couple needed to compromise on how best to spend their free time and their savings. While working on the house helped Jeff unwind, he had also been using it as an excuse to escape from his family. They agreed that he could still do some home improvement on weekends, as long as he told Kimberly how much time he needed so she could plan personal and family activities as well.

"After they assessed their finances realistically, and determined how much was going toward fixed expenses and savings, I suggested that any leftover money be split, with each partner having the right to spend his or her share in any way. They came to realize that expenditures like Jeff's yard tools and Kimberly's therapy made them each happier, and therefore more contented as a couple.

"Because their days revolved around the children and home, they needed to put the romance back into their lives. Now, they hire babysitters — one looks after the children on Friday nights so Kimberly and Jeff can go out to dinner, and another comes by on Saturday mornings while Kimberly goes to the gym and Jeff works in the yard. Their sexual intimacy has improved as a result.

"Finally, I encouraged Kimberly to take better care of herself by pursuing new hobbies and cultivating friendships. She began taking yoga classes, where she has met some women with whom she now goes out for coffee regularly. And to reclaim the stimulation of working, Kimberly decided to sell beauty products part-time from home. 'I feel like my old self,' Kimberly said. 'And I think it's good for the kids to see their mommy working at something she enjoys.'

"Kimberly and Jeff were ready to end counseling after two years. I give them credit for being committed to resolving their differences for the sake of their children and their marriage. 'Now that my life is more in balance, I'm better able to see, appreciate, and love Jeff for who he is,' Kimberly recently told me. 'Our marriage is getting stronger every day, and I feel fulfilled as a wife, a mother, and a wage-earner.'"  

"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews and information from the files of Ronnie Fuchs, M.D., a psychiatrist and marital therapist in Lexington, Massachusetts. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation. 

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