"Sean has no idea how hard my life is," said Amy, 27, who has been married for four years and is the mother of two sons, Jake, 3, and Ian, 4 months. "Housework, grocery shopping, bill paying — it's all my job. Yet my husband is oblivious. He comes home from work to find Jake in front of the TV, the baby in the swing and me slumped on the couch in my bathrobe. But does he run the dishwasher or do laundry? No, he complains that the house is a mess.
"Comments like that just get me more upset — as if I'm not upset enough already. Honestly, I don't know what's wrong with me. The other day I was making cupcakes for a bake sale at Jake's preschool and spilled flour all over the counter. I burst into tears. I can't sleep, either. I just lie in bed, my heart pounding. You'd think that having two healthy, adorable boys would make me happy, but I don't really enjoy them. This sounds terrible, but I haven't felt excited about the new baby. It's hard to explain: I'll hear him cry but I'll feel disconnected. Last week, when I couldn't find a clean outfit to put on him, I became totally unhinged. I called Sean at work, crying hysterically. At my last checkup, I told the doctor I was so unhappy sometimes that I didn't want to be in this world. She said, 'It's normal after having a baby — you'll get through it.'
"My second pregnancy was more difficult than my first. Six weeks before my due date I was hospitalized for toxemia, hypertension caused by pregnancy. The doctor said I could have had a stroke. He put me on bed rest and recommended a cesarean section. My mother flew in to watch Jake and help Sean. Ian was born a month early but he was fine. And so was I, at first. Then out of the blue, this heaviness set in. I could barely go through the motions of caring for the boys. After my mom left, Sean was so worried that he took a two-month leave of absence from his job. But as soon as he returned to work, my anxiety skyrocketed.
"This is not like me. I've always prided myself on being able to handle whatever came my way. After Jake was born, I was a little teary and anxious, but nothing like this. I'm sure a lot of it is due to our recent move from the Seattle area, where we grew up, to Dallas, where Sean, who's a software analyst, got transferred. I hate living so far from my family. I don't make new friends easily because I'm very shy. I also miss my job. I was a nursery-school teacher. I loved working with kids and want to go back to it. But right now I can't even manage my own kids — how could I manage other people's?"
"I've known Sean since high school, but we didn't get romantic until my last year of college. He was my older brother's friend and used to hang out at our house a lot. Sean says it was love at first sight for him. For me, it was best friends at first sight. Being with him was fun, pure and simple. A month after I graduated, he joined the Army. That's when I realized how much I loved him.
"We were such good friends that I never dreamt we'd fight so much. We can be nasty — shouting, name-calling, slamming doors. Once Sean threw a vase, missing my head but hitting the wall. I'd never witnessed anything like that. My parents were teachers — Mom taught middle school art, Dad high school physics — who were very loving. I don't recall them ever fighting.
"Even when we're not arguing Sean can be passive-aggressive. For instance, he undercuts rules I've put in place. He'll come home at 7:30, Jake's hard-and-fast bedtime, and decide the two of them should wrestle. He gets Jake so riled up that it takes me another hour to settle him down.
"On the rare occasions that Sean helps out, it ends up as more work for me. He bathes Jake and the bathroom looks like a hurricane hit. It never occurs to him to pick up the wet towels. Then there are the countless times he promises to do something — like check airfares to Seattle, so we can visit my family — but forgets. It's infuriating to find out days later that he didn't do it.
"Another huge strain is Sean's mom. She divorced her first two husbands — both abused Sean physically — but a few years ago, she married a very decent, quite wealthy man who lives half an hour away from us. This proximity apparently gives her carte blanche to drop by any time she wants.
"The woman meddles nonstop. She tells me I don't dress the boys nicely and buys them expensive outfits. She complains to Sean, within earshot of me, that our place is a mess. Sean never defends me, then gets angry when I refuse to have Sunday dinner at his mother's house.
"I just can't take it. I love Sean, and he says he loves me, but I'm not sure our marriage is going to make it."
"For the life of me, I can't figure out what's going on with this lady," said Sean, 29. "One moment she's fine, the next she's sobbing. When I ask what's wrong, she says, 'I don't know, I'm unhappy, I want a divorce.' She'll scream at me if I forget to buy juice or don't put Jake's toys in the color-coded bins. And she went nuts when I came home late one night and played with my son. Okay, it was past his bedtime, but it's not like he had to take the SATs the next day. Amy complains that I don't understand; well, I try, but in her book, I can't do anything right.
"I'm scared. My job is demanding. I already took a two-month leave because Amy wasn't functioning. My boss was great about it, but I can't take any more time off. I could ask her mother to come back, but that would only be a temporary fix.
"This is not the same woman I fell in love with the moment her brother introduced us. We'd talk and laugh for hours. To go from being best friends to lovers — how much better does it get?
"I loved hanging out at her house. Her family was picture-book perfect; mine was completely dysfunctional. My father was abusive to my mother and to me. I'll never forget the time a friend and I accidentally broke a neighbor's window while playing baseball. My dad said, 'Son, tell me the truth, and I'll stand behind you.' So I confessed, and he beat me so hard with his fist that I almost passed out.
"My folks divorced when I was 9, and I've hardly seen my father since. Then Mom married someone even worse. My mother, who is in deep denial, still claims she remembers nothing of the beatings the guy gave both of us. My grandparents saved me: When I was 13 I went to live on their dairy farm, just north of Seattle. It was a loving, safe environment and I stayed there through high school, then joined the Army. Meanwhile, Mom divorced and remarried again, this time to a really nice guy. He runs an oil refinery near here, so we see them a good bit."
"The Army was a great experience for me. I met men I respected and who respected me. It also paid for college. I majored in electrical engineering, and when I was recruited for a job as a systems analyst, I leaped at it. By this time, Amy had decided she was madly in love with me, too. After that, everything happened quickly. We got married, had a baby, moved halfway across the country, had another baby.
"The move was a huge sacrifice for Amy. But I never thought things would get this bad. I'll do more around the house if that will help. I'll work harder at controlling my temper. But I don't know what to do about my mother. I know she's difficult — okay, impossible — but I never thought she and Amy would become enemies. I hate fighting with my mother. We finally have a decent relationship. Is it asking too much to have Sunday dinner with her?
"When Amy called me at work, hysterical, I got very rattled and told my secretary what was going on. She said she'd had a rough time when her daughter was born and that counseling helped her. I'm hoping against hope it can help us, too."
The Counselor's Turn
"I quickly surmised that Amy was suffering from postpartum depression (PPD) but because of all the misconceptions surrounding this condition, she and her husband didn't recognize it," said the counselor. "Amy told me her doctor had misdiagnosed her PPD; many women never get the help they need. Yet PPD is treatable with medication and counseling. But until it's treated, it can be hard for a couple to communicate healthily. That's why Amy needed to feel better before we tackled marital issues.
"My first step was to educate the couple. The 'baby blues' — the period of weepiness, exhaustion, or mild anxiety that many women experience for a few days after birth — tend to get lumped together with the more serious PPD, which affects 10 to 15 percent of new mothers. PPD can happen any time within the first year after childbirth and it can last longer if left untreated. Uncontrollable crying, feelings of worthlessness and isolation, anxiety, irritability, inability to sleep — all symptoms Amy described — are common.
"Amy also had several risk factors for PPD: a complicated pregnancy, loneliness, and a tendency toward perfectionism. She had high expectations of motherhood. When reality fell short, she became despondent. 'This is not your fault!' I reassured her. Turning to Sean, I said, 'You can't "fix" PPD; you just have to continue to be there for Amy.' Amy first consulted a psychiatrist specializing in PPD, who prescribed an antidepressant. Amy was reluctant to take medication — 'I feel like a failure,' she said — especially since she was nursing. Doctors differ on this point, but several studies have shown that some antidepressants are safe and effective both during pregnancy and while nursing. (In fact, for a severely depressed woman, it may be riskier not to take them.) After discussing her options, Amy decided to wean Ian, who was 4 months old, and start the medication. She felt better within weeks. With encouragement she joined a support group of mothers with PPD and has become friendly with two women who now join her with their kids for playdates.
"Having calmed down, Amy could then focus on her marriage. Neither Sean nor Amy understood why they had gotten along so well before marriage and so poorly afterward. 'New couples don rose-colored glasses that filter out traits that later prove problematic,' I explained. 'When you factor in young children and a stressful job, you have the ingredients of a marital meltdown.'
"Like many couples, these two had gotten into the habit of responding time and again with irritated voices, angry rants, and lots of blaming. They needed to find ways to speak to each other in a calm 'pass-the-butter' voice — quietly, without criticism or judgment — and recognize when they were slipping into accusations and name-calling. Sean, especially, had no model for discussing issues and resolving conflicts without yelling or throwing things."
"I suggested some simple ways for them to soften their conversations. For instance, instead of beginning a sentence with 'you' or 'why' (which puts the other person on the defensive), I instructed them to begin with 'I,' 'what' or 'how' (which opens dialogue). 'I had a rough afternoon — could you put the kids to bed?' achieves better results, for example, than screeching, 'Why don't you ever help with the baby?' Amy, in particular, had to practice these techniques instead of assuming that Sean knew what she needed and erupting in anger when he didn't. And Sean had to learn to recognize when he was getting upset ('the pit of my stomach knots,' he noted) and literally count to 10 before opening his mouth.
"In time Amy was able to curb her micromanaging and stop blaming Sean when things didn't go exactly as planned. 'Next time you find yourself getting mad at Sean,' I told her, 'ask yourself, "Is it more important that Jake get to bed on my schedule, or that he have fun with his dad?"' She has become better at letting things slide as well as staying calm despite having a living room strewn with toys.
"I also worked with Amy and Sean to create a schedule that gave them kid time, couple time, and time alone to recharge emotional batteries. Chatting 15 minutes together in the morning over coffee helps them catch up and plan for the day ahead. Saturday is family day at the Y — Amy works out in the gym; Sean plays basketball; the kids play in on-site daycare. When Jake turns 1 Amy plans to return to work. 'I miss it,' she said. 'I think being more fulfilled will make me a better mom.'
"Amy's relationship with Sean's mother is still thorny but the tension has eased. At my request, Sean told his mother that her comments were inappropriate and requested that she call before dropping by. 'She's a little better, but not much,' Amy reported. 'For the sake of the kids I go to an occasional dinner.'
"Though Amy still has bad days, they are much fewer and farther between. 'Sean and I are back on the same page and that helps enormously,' she told me recently. 'I'm finding joy in being a wife to him and a mom to our two wonderful sons.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Janice Burnham, a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Dallas. 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.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, July 2006.