New Child and High Stress in China

Reader’s Question

I am 29 years old, married for 3 years to a Chinese lady who is 25. We have a son who is nearly 2 years old. I am a British man, and we have lived in China for 4 years now. We both work hard in our jobs, me in the media, and her as a work-at-home Mom, trading goods. Her mother has been living with us on and off for more than 18 months while our son is still small. We ALL love him so much; he’s a sweet, intelligent kid. I miss him so much when I work long hours in the office. We feel though that perhaps the pressure of having a child has taken away the independence we so badly wanted. When he was born I felt like the helpless father for more than 6 months while all the Chinese relations coo’ed over him. But I have grown into the father role, and always fit it around my working hours as much as I can. My wife feels I should spend more time with him.

Family is very important and closer knit in China, than perhaps in most Western countries, so there is a tendency for my wife to not be able to ‘survive’ without her mother’s support nearby. My wife suffered from neglect (though no other abuse) when she was a young girl while her parents also worked long hours to raise the family. On one day she will feel as though the world is a wonderful place. She will be a pleasure to live with. And then, the next day, she will be in an angry rage, closed to all outside offers for help and uncontrollably screaming hurtful words and threats to me, and to anyone else who stands in her way.

Since soon after our son was born my wife feels I don’t love her, or don’t care about her, and this has turned into a ‘my wife and my son vs. me’ scenario where she claims I hate my son, her, and her whole family and I am a selfish man. Sometimes I am lazy at home, I admit, but I do help with household chores. I work long, tiring hours — 12 hours per day is common — 6 days a week, but I do this to earn money to maintain a fairly good lifestyle. My job is stressful though. Recently the company has been undergoing some turbulent times as well as the fact that I am underpaid.

Her mother, who is still living with us in our home often plays cards for money, in a local club, (though not destructively) as a way to relax from childcare. My wife continues her work-at-home business. I disagree with the gambling and feel it has had a big effect on my son’s sleep-pattern.

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My wife admits she has a wild temper, which she says runs in her family. Her extended family has its own set of in-fighting and bickering which annoys me a lot as sometimes it affects our everyday normal life. I notice this because my own family’s life has been comparatively peaceful for many years.

One day my wife says she loves me and really works hard to show she cares, but at least twice a week she is a very angry person. Sometimes I begin to wonder if she is the right person to have married or not. It seems she has two very distinct sides to her personality, and she is always sorry for her anger. I am even beginning to feel angry myself because though I’m a patient person, this can’t go on forever. I love my wife very much and I want everything to be happy.

We live in hope that once our son is 3 or 4 years old we will have our lives back.

But what’s the general problem here? Is it me and my constant workload/pressure, my mother-in-law (she is a kind-hearted person) who has her own way to bring up kids and to do things, or my wife who one minute feels secure in the happy family environment, and the next minute wishes I would be gone forever in a paranoid fit of rage and that I am a cheating, lying, uncaring husband? Incidentally, I have never cheated on my wife, nor lied to her. Perhaps I just don’t care enough. I do try.

Basically though, it feels so complicated.

Psychologist’s Reply

As odd as it seems, most of what you are experiencing is very normal…for all of you. Having a child completely reorganizes the life of the parents, and sometimes the lives of other family members. Having a child is also highly stressful, though joyful. Most men do feel incompetent during the first months as men typically don’t have the modeling and role example of infant parenting that women receive in their homes. With the arrival of the child, your wife will appropriately become preoccupied with the “big picture” — looking at all aspects of how to improve the life of the child — including an inventory of how much support, time, effort, emotional investment, etc. you show. It’s also not uncommon for the mother-in-law to join in the parenting of a small child — something that typically decreases as the child becomes older.

The high level of stress in the home — child, financial issues, in-house in-law, conflicting parenting styles between Mom and Wife, etc. — is now amplifying the normal personality of each member of the home. Issues that your wife has mentioned randomly in the past are now major concerns and accompanied by anger and accusations. Temper outbursts have increased. At this point, only Mother-in-Law has developed a strategy to deal with the increased stress — playing cards.

If we look at the bottom line in your wife’s comments and behaviors — being cheated on, lied to, being unloved, not loving the child enough, etc. — it’s insecurity. Her life is in a state of turmoil and insecurity at this time. She is questioning her parenting skills, relationships, future, etc. It seems complicated because she has so many questions, comments and accusations that you don’t know how to address them and in what order.

Recommendations:

  1. Focus on the bottom lines. Look at the feeling levels rather than the specific comments. Make your wife feel more secure. Talk about plans for the future.
  2. Develop a stress reducing strategy for all three of the adults involved. Her mother has her strategy…you and your wife need to develop your strategies. It’s important that the marital relationship continue with romance, not just a child. Arrange for dinner/activity dates while her mother babysits. Have family times…and couple times.
  3. Ask your wife what you can do to help her feel safer or more comfortable.
  4. Recognize that your wife is angry at times. Like you with the infant, she feels obligated to know what to do yet helpless and incompetent at times.
  5. Improve her parental self-confidence. Provide positive feedback regarding her parenting skills. Right now, she feels she’s in competition with the in-house expert in parenting (her mother).
  6. Improve your ability to independently take care of the two-year-old. Send your wife and her mother to play cards. That keeps their relationship healthy.

I’m not seeing any dire warning signs here…just the stressful adjustment to a first child. No one is ever the same after their first child arrives.

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