We heard about the sex. Or the lack thereof.

Any time a couple mentions they are considering having children, or a woman becomes pregnant for the first time, the whole No Sex thing follows the knowing, smarmy smirk of “Your life is going to change.”

But no one really tells us what that means. Sure, they might talk about sleepless nights, endless diaper changes and spit-up. But they fail to mention how children profoundly change us and how they can strain a marriage to the breaking point.

“We don’t think our marriages are going to take more time,” said Carol Ummel Lindquist, a Laguna Beach, Calif., psychotherapist and marriage counselor who wrote “Happily Married With Kids: It’s Not Just a Fairy Tale.”

Many parents-to-be imagine hours of blissful bonding together with baby. Reality can be quite different.

Among new parents, 67 percent say they have less sex, less fun and more arguments, especially during the first five years of their child’s life. Ummel Lindquist calls them the “danger years.”

“If you don’t make yourselves a priority, you’re hurting your kids,” she said.

Here, three Orange Country couples in different stages of child-rearing share their experiences:

The beginning

Lori Ring obsessively watched the childbirth programs on the Discovery Channel while she was pregnant with Jacob. She figured if she closely observed each nuance, grimace and grunt, she’d be prepared for her own labor and delivery.

Right.

“No amount of forewarning can tell you what labor is,” Ring said. “It’s the same thing when you have a child. You can’t prepare for the stress, lack of sleep or the way it changes your relationship.”

Ring is a Ph.D. candidate at University of California at Los Angeles. Her husband of six years, Erik, is an engineer. Jacob was born in December. Erik stays home one day during the week so Lori can go to school.

“We’re both trying to juggle so many balls, sometimes there’s not much left for each other,” Lori said. “We plop down in front of the TV, eat dinner and go to sleep.

“We’re really good friends, and that’s a strength. We fall into roles and that allows us to get through. We worry about the lack of romance and intimacy.

“It’s OK in the short term, but it’s going to be important to recapture that for the long term. For the first time in my life, I see how marriages unravel over time. What do couples do together?”

Both struggle with their identities. Lori is now essentially a stay-at-home mom, and she worries that Erik might not respect her as much because she doesn’t have an outside career.

Erik can’t work as many hours, so he feels he’s not giving his all at work.

“I want to support my wife and kid in ways other than a paycheck,” Erik says. “It’s a struggle. There’s definitely moments when you’re choosing one or the other.”

They consciously work on being supportive of each other, except maybe in those dark hours in the middle of the night when Jacob is yelling.

“We’re in tune to the fact that watching Jacob is hard and can be stressful,” Erik said. “We try to give each other breaks, and I try to stay in tune with when Lori’s at the end of her rope. But it really is day-in and day-out. It’s not like other things in life.”

The middle

Kelly Kunkle knew exactly where he would fall on his wife’s priority list when their son was born four years ago, and when their daughter came along two years later.

“The kids, the dog, then maybe me,” Kelly said.

Kelly and Jennifer Kunkle, of San Clemente, have been married almost seven years. They are each other’s best friends – a fact often forgotten once the children arrived. Being a great parent didn’t always translate to being a great spouse for either one.

Jennifer didn’t consider that Kelly had, in a sense, lost his wife. Her mind and body were occupied with taking care of children.

They sought counseling. They read books. They learned to communicate in a positive way, to remember they’re on the same team. They made sure they had a monthly date night.

Kelly watched the kids so his wife had a weekly night out alone. Jennifer made sure Kelly had fun with the kids – like giving them baths instead of just sticking him with diaper duty.

“We are in each other’s corner.” Kelly said. “Even when our hands are around each other’s metaphorical throats, we had to stop and remind ourselves of the prize at the end of the journey.”

The end

This time, they ended up drinking beers – out of paper bags – in front of a general store out in Trabuco Canyon. The next, it was the beach view from the Ritz-Carlton. And the first little drive took them to a sidewalk cafe in Tijuana, Mexico.

Debbie Garcia was having a hard time adjusting to life in Rancho Santa Margarita, where she moved with her family last year from San Antonio. So her husband, Angel, started taking her on drives to help her get to know the area.

It is just one way the Garcias have kept their marriage thriving, after three kids and 22 years together.

“I know he’s doing these things for me from his heart,” Debbie said. “That’s how he proves he loves me. It’s important.”

The Garcia children – Jeremy, 25; Jennifer, 21; and Jacob, 17 – have turned down nights out with friends to have dinner with their parents. They go on vacations. They go to the movies. They go for long, long drives.

That is not to say there haven’t been issues. Jeremy is Debbie’s son from her first marriage. He was 3 when she married Angel, creating an instant family. Jennifer was a honeymoon baby. Jacob came along three years later, and wasn’t an easy infant. Angel got a new job that involved travel. The relationship became tense.

“I felt like I was doing it on my own,” Debbie said.

Then in 1988, they moved to Texas from the Modesto area. They had no extended family and had to rely upon each other.

“The focus was so much on the kids,” Debbie said. “It was a wakeup call. The marriage was not solid.”

They needed alone time. They flew in Grandma to watch the children and took a trip to Cancun.

“We met this older couple. Just watching them, how their marriage was, we had the greatest time,” Debbie said. “It was an eye-opener.”

It’s a lesson she still is learning.

“There was a time I was making the whole marriage work,” Debbie said. “We all think that way. A lot of times you don’t think your husband is involved. We don’t see the little things. I learned to be patient and look for the little things that let me know that this is my mate and I really, really love him. There are times in the past when I didn’t see them and I regret that.”


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