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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Putting Your Marriage First

The Friday outrage centered around this deeply misguided Good Housekeeping article where the author explains why it is okay that she is a terrible wife and that she puts her children and everything else above her husband on her priority list. Anne gives the piece the fisking it deserves.

And yet I am somewhat sympathetic to her plight.

“For most of the last 10 years, I’ve been the breadwinner. I worked long hours commuting into Manhattan full-time. Now, John has a job, but I still commute, and also work from home trying to keep us ahead of the bills.”

Breadwinner and mother. It's challenging and exhausting. There are so many demands made on you, your body, and your time and there isn't enough of you to go around. You are completely used up, not in a sweet, fulfilling kind of way, but in a chewed-up and spit out kind of way.

I recognize the temptation to view your spouse as an adult who just has to deal while you tend to the more urgent demands in life. It's hard to carve out time for your marriage when you don't have a strong, philosophical understanding that your marriage must be your top priority. It's hard even when you do have that understanding.

When your time at home is extremely limited, your children don't care that you are tired or have been working all day or that their father also needs your attention. They want your attention. Now. They need it and have a right to it.

 “John’s a great dad, but I play a singular role in each of my kid’s lives.”

It could be that the author is one of those women who demands to be in complete control over her children's lives and leaves nothing to her husband's judgement. He must not pick out the toddler's clothes because He. Won't. Do. It. Right. We all know people like this, so it could be. Or it could be that children want their mother's attention more than any of us quite remember or imagine.

My children spend the majority of their time with my husband. He changes diapers and gives baths and rocks babies and drives them to activities and does all the standard parenting that goes with 'at home' parenting. And yet I am the one to whom they want to pour out their problems. When I come home from work, it is I who gets to hear about the problems of the day. Problems that they never breathe in his direction, even though he asks about their day. It's isn't because he won't listen, but because I am their mother. They surround me, fight over me, and cling to me. I am astounded by how much children desire their mother. And, honestly, I am astounded that I am astounded. What could be more natural? And yet the culture has beaten this knowledge out of us.

It's easy to want to sleep after the children go to bed, especially when you know one of them will be waking in the night soon enough. My husband isn't the only one who sometimes gets overlooked. There are other things that get pushed down the priority list too, like my own hobbies and personal exercise. When you only have three to four hours a night to do EVERYTHING, a lot just isn't going to happen even if it is important.

Our oldest is nine so we still haven't exited the demanding stages of early childhood. Of course, parents of older children and teenagers say it doesn't ever get any easier, it only changes. (Oh, I don't know. I say if you get to sleep all night, it has to be easier than being woken up twice a night, every night.) But I understand the temptation to say I am done for today. I can see where you might slide into a habitual doneness if you didn't actively decide to avoid it.

If you happen to have a worldview that puts having a career! and micro-managing your children as the most important activities in your life, which is pretty common these days, I can see why you would put your spouse at the bottom of the priority list. If you must work and commute eleven hours a day and be the class room mother and plan blowout birthday parties and have your children involved in seventeen different enrichment activities and sleep and eat with your remaining time, what's left? You are completely expended. You have nothing left to give your spouse. I can understand why she can't see her way out of the problem.

Now unlike the author, I don’t think this situation is okay and I don’t think it is sustainable. Something has to give. I am already not a micromanaging parent and yet, most of the time, I feel stretched to my limit. For me, my status as breadwinner is preventing me from leading the life that we want to live and prevents me from putting first the people who need to be first. They might be first in my intentions, but my time is a different matter. We are fighting hard to change our lives so I can put my priorities in the proper order. The order *we* want them in.

But until you see that using yourself up in your job is the problem, that the money you make isn't worth the broken relationships and sheer exhaustion from doing it all, that there is more to life than avoiding student loans, and that a happy, stable marriage is the best gift you can give to your children, I can totally understand why she thinks she has no other options than to ignore her husband and hope he is still around when the children leave.

This author is wrong, but I understand more than I would like. It's like peaking over into the dark side of what might have happened if we didn't deliberately choose another path. When I read what she has to say about her life, I feel scorn and outrage and wonder what her husband thinks about his public castration, but I mostly feel pity.  Their children need their marriage more than her money.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great essay, Jenny!

Meredith

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Well said.

I think that the reason I felt less sympathy was that she led with the anecdote about the dog. That really put me off and made it easy to dismiss the rest of the piece. People who treat animals as people, as surrogate children or who practice parenting by having a dog... I have a hard time not being in scorn of that particular disordered sort of prioritizing of affection.

The Sojourner said...

The part that stuck out to me is how OLD her children are. She does mention that her middle child has special needs, but I don't get the idea that he has the "full-time care" type special needs. Maybe I'm wrong. (And if he did that would make it even more important to avoid burnout!)

If I were a teenager with this kind of mother, I'd be pushing her out the door to go have lunch with Dad. She sounds like she breathes down her kids' necks and coddles them something terrible.

The Sojourner said...

Now, I could have written a similar opening few paragraphs (minus the chihuahua) if I was talking about the first year of my son's life. He was an all-consuming little vortex of neediness and I really can't wrap my mind around the idea that my husband (who is an adult with a well-developed sense of delayed gratification) should "come first" compared to a newborn baby who is completely incapable of meeting any of his own needs. But even then I didn't completely ignore my husband. We still watched TV, with the baby nursing or sleeping in my arms. We still went out for ice cream, with the baby napping in his carseat or sitting on somebody's lap. We still went for walks and talked about our lives, with the baby riding along in his sling.

Jenny said...

I think there is definitely a seasonality in what prioritizing your marriage will look like. When you have an infant, you are not going to have long stretches of time alone as a couple. You just aren't, but that doesn't mean you have downgraded your marriage.

What you describe sounds like a good balance of meeting both your baby's and your husband's needs.

But some people think caring for the baby means excluding their husband. Not going on walks. Not allowing the baby to spend time with both of you together. Sticking to the nursery while husband finds something else to do. Talking to him exclusively about the baby and never about anything else.

It is in avoiding these things that you prioritize your marriage even if on an objective measure, the baby gets most of your time.