Why No One Comes First in My Family

Spending Time with One of My Precious Men

Spending Time with One of My Precious Men

Earlier this week, I read an article entitled, “Why My Husband Will Always Come Before My Kids.” (Read it here – really, please read it; I promise, it’s short.) The title evoked all kinds of nasty thoughts. It might as well have said, “Why My Children Will Never Come Before My Husband” – doesn’t sound as nice that way, does it?

But what if it’s one of those articles with a cool twist? I wondered.

So instead of continuing to judge, I read it. Then I got my husband to read it, then my mother. My husband – and this is the man who should be all for this kind of article – noted that author Amber Doty had a good point when she said parents should be good role models of what a marriage should look like. “But the rest is just crazy,” he said. (What’s he talking about? you ask. I told you to read the article.) He thought Doty was making excuses for relinquishing parental responsibility. Ouch.

My mom’s reaction was quite different. As soon as she finished it, she was full of praise for Doty, who values her relationship with her husband and has discovered that a child-centered lifestyle is not ideal for either parents or children.

I came away wondering who I put first – husband or kids? What does always putting one before the other look like? According to Doty:

With very few exceptions, you will not find our kids in our bed at night. If we can only afford one vacation a year, we take it alone, and I feel no guilt about soliciting the help of family so that we can have a date night where we talk about anything but our children.

Our household is not a child-centered one, but I can’t say that I follow Doty’s prescription, either. And I think the reason is because I don’t boil my life down to a marriage that has remained unaffected, despite the birth of our two children. Maybe this is where many people go wrong because they assume that a baby is simply another person sleeping in another room. They don’t expect the sudden wellspring of love that is born with the baby. Nor can they comprehend exactly how much care that baby will require. So there are pros and cons, and both can blindside new parents.

There’s a certain amount of preparation new parents can and should do to avoid this (although parenthood isn’t like the SAT, where you can just try again in a few months if you don’t like your results the first time). When I was pregnant with my first child, my sister-in-law gave me her copy of On Becoming Baby Wise (read my review here), and one point that authors Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam stress is the importance of marriage. Baby Wise parents are encouraged to welcome the new baby into an already-established family of which everyone is a contributing member. Children are raised in a household where they are loved and where they grow to learn to respect others.

So when Peter was born, even though there was that incredible insta-love that kept Thomas and me glued to his bassinet, watching in wonder as he slept, ours was not a household that centered around our new little guy. (But don’t read this to mean that we neglected his needs in order to not be child-centered – please!) We already had a structure in place that allowed us to take care of Peter while still taking care of us – the new, parental us.

Unlike Doty, who seems to think that one person must be ranked first, I’m not big into hierarchies. To use an absolute like “always” or “never” suggests that if I put Thomas before the kids, he might get a hot supper while the baby wails to be nursed. In reality, needs change from moment to moment. After changing my newborn’s diaper, I helped Thomas carry his food from kitchen to table because he was on crutches and couldn’t carry anything. (Yes, Thomas actually sprained his ankle within a few days of coming home with our first baby.) But you know what? Thomas also realized that I was sleep-deprived (so much so that, once with each baby, I referred to my new son as “her” because I was too tired to remember that I had not, in fact, delivered a healthy baby girl), and he hopped around on one foot and changed diapers in order to give me a few extra minutes’ rest.

This isn’t some sort of magic but rather how a good marriage turns into good parenting. We were and continue to be attuned to each other’s needs, as well as those of our children.

Baby Wise suggests parents have couch time every night, so the kids can see that the parents make time for each other. Couch time has never been my thing. It wasn’t before we had kids, and so I wasn’t about to contrive something to “show” our boys someone else’s idea of effective communication. Thomas and I cook together and bathe the kids together and talk as we go, and sometimes that means telling the kids not to interrupt us while we catch up. Sometimes we get away to see a movie. Even more rarely, we may go out to eat without them. And I don’t consider us martyrs because of this; I actually like spending time with my husband and my kids. It’s something I did with my parents growing up, and since it was a positive experience, it’s something I want to continue with my kids, and the way I see it, my time with them is short.

And here’s a shocking revelation: when we are away from our kids (and this isn’t often, especially on vacations – I’m a family vacation girl all the way), Thomas and I can love being together but miss the boys at the same time. Yes, we talk about them. We marvel that we made two such amazing, unique people. No one loves our kids the way we do, and that is something very special that we share.

The two main points of Doty’s article are that 1) she wants her kids to be able to have the same kind of loving marriage that she and her husband have, and 2) she doesn’t want to discover, as an empty nester, that she no longer knows her husband. Some people are so wrapped up in their kids that they lose each other. They allow their children to be the glue that holds the marriage together. This isn’t fair to anyone in the situation, and when the kids fly away, so does mom and dad’s relationship. Sometime over the years, the kids were nurtured, but the marriage wasn’t.

One commenter on this article mentioned that on airplanes, adults must secure their oxygen masks before tending to children. So in the same way, parents need to make sure that their needs are met in order to take care of the kids. This makes logical sense. Sometimes that means “me” time or time apart as a couple, but as Thomas pointed out, we can’t use this as an excuse to ditch our kids on a regular basis. What are the oxygen masks of our relationships? By all means, let your kids see you and your spouse in a stable, loving relationship, but also give them the time and attention they crave.

What makes me sad is Doty’s answer: “I love my kids and would do anything for them. But I love my husband more.”

Wait a minute. Does that mean we have to make a choice between the two?

My choice is for a healthy balance. My choice is for my family. I love my husband and chose to marry him because he’s the man I want to grow old with. And he’s also the guy I wanted to have a family with, not so we could get away from our kids, but so we could be a family and grow together. We love our kids more than we ever imagined we could love anyone. And in loving our boys, our love for each other has grown. Even though Doty seems to think so, I don’t believe that love is quantifiable. Just as I don’t love one son more than another, I don’t love Thomas more than the boys – or vice versa.

If your marriage is solid, your children will see it played out in everyday life, not just in the times when you get away to prove how much you love each other. And while Doty seems to think “sacrifice” is bad, what I thought would be sacrifices (like not being able to go out on a whim or patronize my favorite restaurants as often because diapers eat up the former entertainment budget), don’t matter to me as much now as they used to. Spending time together with one or both of my kids and as a family is precious, and when Thomas and I do get to have an evening together, it feels more special. But also, some of the sacrifices, such as spending time and money on my kids’ education rather than the latest technology and our dream home, are the kinds of things my parents did for me and that Thomas and I want to do for our kids because it’s part of being responsible for the people we brought into this world, and we want to show them what it looks like to do something special for others besides ourselves. And I guess if it’s something you want, it’s not really a sacrifice but another act of love.

I know the nest will be empty one day, and while Thomas and I will be grateful for renewed freedoms, my hope is that our boys will realize how special our family is – and they will return to the nest often.

Five Years of Blessing

Peter Patter – November 6, 2007

The morning I decided to write this, I walked out the door ten minutes late, forgetting the baby’s blanket and leaving a sink full of dirty dishes for my sleep-deprived husband to deal with. I wondered if I really wanted to write this when my life felt more like “Five Years of Frustration and Disappointment.” When I allow something like running late to get to me, I turn into a mommy monster, complete with devil horns, forked tongue, and yellow eyes. While Peter, my elder son, moved at the speed of molasses, I frantically did everything that I had already asked him to do, and with my hands full, I saw that the baby had kicked off his shoes. I almost threw the things I was holding on the floor but caught myself and resorted to disgruntled muttering. Then Peter said, “But you know you still love us.” That’s his go-to line whenever I lose my temper, and it did the trick, yet again. I calmly replaced the shoes on the baby’s feet while Peter waxed eloquent about how adorable his little brother is and how much he loves him.

“Blessing” won. Let’s be honest, I was going to write this anyway, but making myself go through the exercise has made me hyper-aware of how I choose to live every moment. You see, five years ago today, I became a mother, and even with those many moments when my patience is tried to the limit, it is no exaggeration to say that these have been the best five years of my life.

When Peter was born on November 6, 2007, I understood what a friend meant when she said she fell in love with her daughter. During pregnancy, I knew I loved my baby, but until he was born, I really had no idea how much love was in me. I in no way imagined what becoming a mother would do to me. Those first few days, my husband and I just stared at Peter in wonder while he did nothing more than just lie there–asleep, awake, cranky, it didn’t matter to us. Everything Peter did was (and still is) art.

Now, don’t misunderstand, I loved my life before children. Thomas and I had a great time going to movies on weeknights if we wanted or going across town on a whim, not tied down by nap times or the endless chores that come with child-rearing. And if I didn’t get my coveted eight hours of sleep per night, I only had myself to blame. But when I had Peter, it finally made sense how my parents could love me so much, could sacrifice everything for my well-being. I never could understand how, when Mama’s mother died, she was able to cope, to seemingly love me so deeply when she no longer had a mother for comfort. I know now. When my boys need their mommy, I only pray that I can be as good a mother as the women before me.

I am not overstating it when I say that Peter’s a good kid, but he does have his moments when he tries me past my last nerve (throwing a shoe at me, for instance, then not understanding why I’m irate). And as stupid as I’m sure I look and sound, doing silly things just to hear Ian laugh, there are those dark times that I hope to never relive. Parenting is not all rainbows and unicorns, folks, although it’s my choice to either keep going or to throw my hands in the air and give up. With Peter, the bad moments were just that—moments. And they weren’t often. Since Ian’s birth, there have been much longer stretches of time when I have felt like a miserable failure. For the first five or six weeks of his life, if I slept at all, it was usually on the couch, holding a pacifier in his mouth while he screamed. There were times when I had to put him down, close the door, and walk away–for his sake as much as my own. Of course, it’s not his fault that he had colic and reflux–but so did Peter, who didn’t seem to cry nearly as much, nor spit nearly as projectile-y.

But there are those moments of peace, when both boys are happy (if not quiet), and moments of triumph (like when potty-training finally clicked for Peter or Ian started taking naps without screaming himself to sleep). And when those rough times come, they still somehow love me, even when I’m in the midst of a Sigourney Weaver-turned-Zuul type tantrum (minus the levitation, of course).

What did I ever do to deserve such love? No, what did I do to deserve them at all? There are women who have lost babies late in pregnancy, due to no fault of their own. There are children who have leukemia or other rare diseases, but the worst either of mine has had so far is reflux and the occasional ear infection. There are so many women out there who would do almost anything to just have one child, yet I have two. Sometimes my husband and I joke that people will look at us and say, “Who let them have two kids?” and whisk our boys away. Because there is no good answer as to why we have this double blessing.

Five years ago, almost to the very day, the recession hit my parents’ small business, where I am the bookkeeper. If I hadn’t gone on a two-month maternity leave and come back with a severe cut in salary, I would have lost my job completely. It’s been tough on our family, even tougher with the second child. If we’d been strictly logical about it, Thomas and I would have waited (might still be waiting now) and then probably only had one child. I could have bettered my job situation at a time when it still would have been possible, and today, I might look back on five years of financial blessing. Instead, I am a statistic, but the trade off is that I see my parents every day and can bring my children with me to work. And, of course, I’m struggling to do something with this writing career that has been taxiing on the runway since I graduated from college. Maybe it will take off someday. But if it doesn’t, I’m enjoying myself, even if I’m not raking in the cash. I’m glad that we risked it all to become parents. I would never trade a chorus of “Ian’s a Rockstar” (that’s a Peter original) or “Albuquerque Turkey” (accompanied by Ian’s squeals and “bluh-bluh-bluh” in place of the lyrics Peter can’t remember) for a career.

I hope for many more years with my boys. In the moments when Peter feels the need to remind me that I love him, I can be thankful that I have fodder for my blog–but most of all, thankful that, as my grandfather always used to say, “I am blessed beyond belief.”