Every so often it crops up again: a comment, a blog post, a book review, a talking head on TV. Maybe I just notice it so much because I'm a parent now, or maybe it's just because it always rubs me the wrong way. It gets my hackles up. Ever since Maggie was a little baby or maybe even before she was born, I have noticed people making a statement about parenthood and marriage that I could not agree with less: that people should love their spouse more than their children and prioritize their marriage above their kids.
It happened again recently when I ran across this article and then this article. The argument is that the marriage is the foundation of the family, so in order for the family to be strong and the children to be happy, the couple has to make sure the marriage is rock solid (I'm OK with most of this until...) by putting themselves first and loving each other more than the kids. Oh no. I can't go there with you, sorry.
I agree that America has a bit of an over-parenting problem. Among middle-class people it does seem that many children are raised as treasured, precious snowflakes. And I understand that divorce is a frightening spectre that looms over many marriages and threatens to destroy families. And I definitely know first-hand how challenging it is to balance the endless needs of young children against your own needs and those of your spouse.
But I would NEVER say that I love Mike more than our daughters. On the other hand, I don't feel like I love Maggie and Kate more than my husband either. I'm more protective of them. I'm more concerned about their well-being. I'm more attentive to their diet and their health and whether or not they have on warm enough pajamas. It's my job to be responsible for these details. I'm their mother and they are very young children who can not take care of themselves, unlike my husband who is a grown man and quite capable of making sure he gets enough sleep and eats a well-balanced diet and can express himself clearly if he is feeling bad or needs something.
Why would anyone want to be married to a man (or a woman, for that matter) who needed to be cared for and fawned over like a tiny baby, who needed to be petted and crooned at like one of those little dogs that fits in your purse? I actually don't even treat my children that way, so why would I treat my husband like a helpless imbecile or a precious jewel? Cowboy up, big guy! This married with children thing is not for crybabies! Lucky for me, my husband is not that guy (and I'm not that girl).
Actually, the argument that makes me the most apoplectic is, "You should put your husband first because your children will grow up and leave you and then all you'll have left is your spouse." What?! I live half way across the country from my parents, but I did not abandon them and they are not all the other has left. In fact, my brother lives near them and sees them all the time and they are quite close to their own siblings. Shocking! Despite the distance between us and my independence, we still have a loving and supportive relationship. And for the record, I would never say that I love Mike more than my parents, or my parents more than Mike, either! I am still their child and always will be. And the children that Mike and I have together will be our children for as long as we all shall live, and that's a covenant far stronger than any vow that could so easily be undone by a divorce court.
The real heart of the issue here is that I don't see our family as a marriage that happens to have two kids dangling off of it. I also don't see our family as a house of cards with our marriage as the foundation holding it all up, as most of these Marriage First articles usually frame the situation and perhaps as most people automatically think about family structure.
Our family is a circle of four people. Each person has a unique and valuable relationship with each other person, and none of those relationships trumps any of the others. Our daughters' sisterhood does not have less value than our marriage. My relationship with my children is not greater than their relationship with their Dad. We both love each of our daughters individually and have a different and special bond with them as separate people. None of those relationships takes the priority and none can really stand without the others. It is important to me personally to nurture all of those relationships because I believe we need all of them to be equally strong in order for the four of us to stand together. Mike and I do value our marriage, and I feel like it has weathered a lot and gotten stronger for it. And I try not to stand in the way of him parenting the girls and showing them that he can care for them and they can rely on him. And I work on making sure the girls love each other and share a bond that will carry them through times when we can't be there and all they'll have is each other.
I don't think I can put my marriage first. It's too interwoven into the web of relationships and experiences and emotions that exist in our home. Once we were a family of two, and then three, and now four, and there is no going back. That family of two doesn't exist anymore and never will again, even when our children grow up and move away. Once they have spouses and children of their own, the circle will actually get bigger and bigger, not smaller. The circle itself is my priority.
Let the circle be unbroken.