Marriage Is Part Of Parenting

Where's Papa?

You may have done a double take when you read the post title. “Shirley you mean that parenting is part of marriage?” Parenting is a part of marriage, for most couples. But when the opportunity exists, a successful marriage is a critical component of good parenting.

I bring this up because of a Yahoo! Shine post entitled “Mom Confession: I’m a Terrible Wife.” In it, an unnamed mother describes her shift in focus from her husband to her son (hat tip to commenter Dex at Dalrock). I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but the photo on the post shows a mother and a son, with the father cut almost entirely out of the frame (only his mouth is visible).

“I’m a very good mother. But I’m a terrible wife.”

Her “confession” is a contradiction. If you’re doing a poor job as a spouse, you are failing your child.

She’s operating from a paradigm that equates “good parenting” with “the amount of time and resources delivered to the child, no matter what sacrifice is necessary.” It’s of a piece with the modern cult of the child that has taken over middle-upper class suburbia, where parents are not vessels of authority but “best friends” with their kids. (For non-American readers, let me know if this is happening in your country – it’s this style of parenting that his given us the insufferable “Millenial” phenomenon).

The trouble with that paradigm is that it neglects the responsibility of parents to model social behavior for their kids to emulate – social behavior that sometimes puts the kids themselves second. As children age, their parents have to demonstrate that the world does not revolve around them. They need to learn why mommy and daddy go to work, to clear their dishes and clean their rooms, how to be polite and thankful, how to show remorse when they cross somebody and how to be good teammates and good friends. They need to know that sometimes parents curse, drink alcohol and watch Nightline or mature programs.

But it goes even further than social mores – husband or wife, you need to model marriage for your children. If you expect them to deal with the procreative instinct that most of us feel deeply, they need to see firsthand how to do it right. They need to see a healthy balance of focus on yourself, focus on your spouse, and focus on your other life responsibilities.  Your sons need to see how to be a good man and what he should expect from a wife, and daughters need to know how to be a good wife and how she should expect to be treated by a man who loves her.

If are a “terrible wife” (or husband), I dare say you are missing a significant chunk of being a “very good parent.” To go with a quote I read somewhere and can’t recall the source of – “the best gift a child can get is a mom and a dad who love each other.”

Don’t get me wrong – very young children require 24/7 attention, anything less is neglect. It should not be news to anybody that infants are totally dependent on their parents for food, shelter, clothing, hygiene, mental stimulation, language development, tactile development. Almost every couple can talk about an extended period in the childbearing years where sleep and sanity took a back seat to mollifying tears and changing nappies and sex (unless scheduled for the purpose of procreation) was decidedly on the back burner or even off the stove. In that stage of life, marital maintenance becomes a matter of quality, not quantity. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t have to kill your marriage.

And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying spending time with your kids, taking them places, getting them nice things and making them smile. (If you DON’T plan on enjoying these things, kids may not be for you. Which is fine as long as you are sure that’s what you want.) But when it becomes a compulsion at the expense of other things, including your health, your sense of self and your spouse, you’ve gone overboard.

In any case I don’t buy the young-child explanation here. If her son is old enough to ask for pizza and a movie he’s old enough to spend some time with a sitter, or at a friend’s house, while mom and dad grab some them-time. (We haven’t even discussed how cloying mothering might make the boy’s Freudian release from mommy an unnecessarily traumatic experience for both of them.)

“I no longer have the energy to connect with my husband on the level that we connected before we became parents.”

The most cynical interpretation is that this woman pulled a classic bait-and-switch – she gave love and attention and pledged eternal vows to her husband, but once she extracted sperm and resources from him (resources he will be required to keep paying whether she stays with him or not) she simply stopped investing in him or their relationship after she found something more interesting.

The good news for the confessing mommy is that there’s still time to turn it around.

“In spite of his frequently asking “What about me?” I sense that he is somehow OK with all of this. The problem is, I don’t know if I am.

I would be hard-pressed to think he was OK with being ignored in favor of his progeny. In fact she states that he has made clear his frustrations, so we can tell her hamster is trying to talk her into believing he’s the selfish one. As a matter of fact a comment by MichelleK took the words out of my mouth:

If he’s saying “what about me,” then you must have imagined that he’s “somehow okay with all of this” to make yourself feel less guilty. Who would be okay with their spouse placing somone else as higher priority over them??? He is making an effort to STATE his feelings and you’re just imagining them away. Nice…

In all truth, he’s probably resorted to begging because he hasn’t been taught the social tools necessary to make himself the center of your attention again. (Shameless plug for Athol Kay’s Married Man Sex Life.)

Hamsters aside, I’m encouraged by her faint admission that she’s not cool with the situation. That means there’s still time to save the marriage before she makes the mental decision to give up, or he decides to seek emotional or sexual comfort elsewhere. (As she tells it, it’s hard for me to even describe this as a marriage – it’s just a statutory framework within which they live in the same house and take care of the same child.)

If I can speculate, this woman’s post has a bit of a fitness-test smell to it – I bet she is secretly hoping someone will give her the straight story and tell her to get things in gear post haste. Not to mention that SHE has a wonderful tool for pulling at his heart – she has HIS child. A few well-placed “I’m so glad my boy has such a studly father” might work wonders.

Another comment didn’t mince words about what’s at stake:

“You’ve made your choice, now allow him to make his.  You decided that you don’t need adult companionship, but perhaps he does.  As long as you allow him to find what your relationship lacks where he can (with reasonable rules, of course), you can keep your family together.  Don’t make him leave you and your family to find it.”

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Marriage Is Part Of Parenting

  1. Wow, great post Badger. In my experience, it’s very common at the birth of a child for the new mom to focus so much on the infant that the father can feel left out or ignored. He may feel, “what you do mean I can’t touch your breasts?” Jealousy is very common among new fathers. Especially in marriages that were not strong prior to the birth of a child, the maternal drive can really derail the marriage.

    It’s critical for the man to state clearly that he has no intention of taking a permanent back seat. A woman who values her marriage will wake up and hire a sitter or carve out time for her mate. She will also provide plenty of opportunities for the father to bond independently with the child, not claiming that he needs his mother when his needs can easily be met by dad.

    I agree that parents need to model a good marriage for their children – and that includes allowing them to witness the process of open disagreement, negotiation, compromise and reconciliation. I’m not talking about exposing kids to private details, but rather giving them the understanding that a strong marriage can withstand disagreement because of the commitment of both parties.

  2. OffTheCuff

    Well done, and damn perceptive for a guy who (I think?) doesn’t have kids yet. I’m just glad I learned this stuff before it took too deep a hit on our marriage.

    [I've just seen too many adults destroy their relationships over kids, and too many kids hurt by over-parenting.]

  3. A colleague of mine gave me some excellent advice before the birth of our first child. He said my job during the birth process was to be my wife’s advocate. She would be in a vulnerable position, and would be looking to me to protect her and take on any challenges that came up. Simple advice, but I think it helped us keep the right dynamic. In game terms, he reminded me to be the alpha for our family. Simple things came up during the birth of both of our children when the nurses or doctors weren’t listening to my wife. I stepped in and made sure they heard.

    I haven’t experienced the jealousy that Susan mentions in her comment. Part of this is certainly to my wife’s credit, but I think the tone of our relationship starting in the delivery room made a difference as well.

  4. Twenty

    A few well-placed “I’m so glad my boy has such a studly father” …

    Whoa! Way to undermine the patriarchy, Badger!

    In quasi-seriousness, I think your proposed formulation is somewhat undermining/emasculating. It suggests a situation in which the boy belongs to the mother, and the father is sort of a helper or an accessory. This is a subtle point of language and word choice, but one that I think might be important. “Our boy” would be a little better, and something like “You’re a wonderful father” would be better still.

    [She needs to move towards the side of affirming her husband. Someone like Athol would know better but I'm not going to overcoach her if she's moving in the right direction.]

  5. Mafwoj

    “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley”
    (I surely hope you adjust that spelling)
    Great stuff otherwise

    (feel free to boot this comment once you see it)

    [Don't call me Hope, she frequents these parts of the Internet.]

  6. Great post Badger. And Susan’s comment here:

    “It’s critical for the man to state clearly that he has no intention of taking a permanent back seat.”

    was right on. Allow me to offer an anecdote: I did not make it clear to my now ex after the birth of our first son that she was pushing me aside to be an ueber-mom. Then I did the gamma-omega thing and withdrew into work rather than fight for my rightful place at the top of her priority list. Result: divorce 2.5 years later.

  7. Lavazza

    Very good advice here.

    A father of four friend said that with the first child you start to neglect your friends. With the second you start to neglect yourself. With the third child you start to neglect each other as a couple. And with the fourth child you start to neglect the kids.

    This woman seems to have jumped to the three kids scenario right away.

  8. Dex

    Researchers have noted that marital satisfaction declines after the birth of a child. The two most important mediating factors of this are 1.) Time alone together with spouse – Grown Up Time, as my wife and I call it- and 2.) Perceived fairness in household work.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00782.x/full

    The author of the Good Mom/Bad Wife piece is setting herself up to be miserable. All that helicopter mommying/husband neglecting is going to burn her out and leave her stewing alone in resentment and bitterness. Sad, really. Didn’t have to be like that.

  9. Dex

    It’s marriage, not the birth of a child, that begins the formation of a family. I guarantee you that this dynamic was already present in the author’s marriage – the child simply exacerbated it.
    After my firstborn was a few weeks old, my MIL showed up one Saturday unannounced and informed my wife and I that we were going out on a date and that she’d stay with the child. (We went to see “Children of Men”, a movie about a world with no babies.) It was exactly what we didn’t know we needed.

  10. Confidunce

    Great post. I admit that I’m doubting my life-long desire to have kids primarily because I think it will spell the end of my marriage — informally, if not formally. This post nails the solution. The trick is to find a woman who’s willing to embrace a similar worldview.

  11. meistergedanken

    I’m surprised I haven’t read about this widespread phenomenon sooner – I’ve have been dreading what the effect of having children will do to my wife, and I sense she will go precisely down the road described above! She already treats her cats better than me. Hopefully by the time a first child arrives on the scene, I will have perfected an effective means of letting her know she is shortchanging me without sounding petulant or spiteful. After all, jealousy is never an attractive quality. But sometimes, you have to really lay it out on the line for people to grasp that there IS a problem, and that you are SERIOUS.

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  13. Confidunce

    I just read this article in the WSJ that confirms — or at least dovetails with — a lot of this conversation. It’s worth a read for anybody determined to apply PUA to their marriages.

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  17. LAS

    Abandonment and trust issues were present for me early on in our relationship. I was the horrible possessive controlling girlfriend and then wife. Then we had our first child and I was suddenly relieved of a terrible burden. Now I could focus all my need to be needed on our son. It was still a huge adjustment because my H continued to party with his friends and play games and I felt he should be behaving like a father not a teenage boy. (go ahead and attack me for that, it was a feeling, right or wrong).

    Eventually we had our second child and more and more I found my needs met in caring for them. This has been the happiest and most productive time of my life. When we moved away from our hometown and family and my H had to travel for business, it was often just me and the kids for days at a time (I homeschooled them).

    It’s not like when women say “you don’t spend any time with me” or “I’m not important to you” and they want something like a date or time spent talking or whatever. Men want you to make time for sex. Period. If that’s taken care of to their preference, then you don’t have to carve out any other time for them. They don’t care about conversation or hobbbies with you. They can have that with their friends. It’s the only thing that men understand to mean that you love them. Their needs are not dependent upon you talking to them or spending other time with them.

    Now a woman’s supposed “needs” for conversation and companionship are sometimes supplanted by mothering. They were for me. But that catch is, mothering is a temporary job. You have to find a life for yourself after they leave. Don’t count on women friends, they are flightly and self-centered. Maybe a job or donating time to charitable causes. Help others. That’s the only thing most women who have been child-centered can do to feel like their lives matter in the great scheme of things.

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