Not long after Kathleen and I got engaged, I was having a conversation with a friend (let’s call him “Jeremy”) about his relationship with his girlfriend (let’s call her “Val”). He was struggling with what to do about a few different issues he had come across and wondered what I would do in his situation.
“Well, what does Val think of all this?” I asked.
“I haven’t spoken to her about it yet.”
I was silent for a few seconds before asking the obvious follow-up question, “Why not?”
Jeremy was scared to talk to Val about his concerns, so he turned to me to get a little advice. The problem? I had no idea what his relationship was like, but I did know that something was severely wrong with if he felt he couldn’t bring his biggest concerns to the one other person with whom those concerns mattered.
“Look, Jeremy, there’s no issue in my relationship with Kathleen that I wouldn’t bring to Kathleen first. I may talk to you about it, but if I need to work something out with her, then she gets first crack at the situation.”
Kathleen and I built a foundation for a solid marriage very early in our relationship. We didn’t know it at the time, but our willingness to just, you know, tell each other what was on our minds without having the other getting instantly offended helped lay the foundation for a trusting relationship. That’s not to say that we don’t have our disagreements and fights. Of course, we did, and do, but Kathleen believes we are on the same team, and I know whatever she says comes from a place of love.
Now that we are expecting our first child in June, our philosophical core needs to be stronger than ever. Decisions around children can be divisive: What method do we use to get Creature to sleep through the night? What’s the best disciplinary philosophy? What should we do when it comes time for Creature to go to school?
These questions are all important to answer, but, for Kathleen and me, the solutions we decide on will be based on a key philosophical concept: In all decisions, our marriage will always come before our children.
What Putting Marriage First Means to Me
Though it may sound like quitting my job to become a full-time dad was a decision for the kids, it was actually a decision for the marriage. It would have been easy to stay at my company, get a few promotions and raises, build up the 401K, and grind it out as an anonymous, replaceable cubicle dweller for 25 more years. I would have earned enough money so our kids can have “every opportunity” to do whatever people who think they know what’s good for kids say they should do.
Of course, I would be a miserable, cantankerous man. Resentful toward everyone for putting me in the position to sacrifice any semblance of happiness in the name of providing for my family. That resentment would build into a depressing gravitational pull. At first, Kathleen would have compassion, but over the years her will to cater to my mental state would erode. She would go from walking on eggshells around me to ignoring me to hating me. The marriage would disintegrate before our children’s eyes, and where would that leave everyone?
This is an American marriage cliche today. If you or your parents didn’t go down this path, I bet you know at least one couple that has.
Role Modeling for Creature
We can’t control our child’s environment at all times. We will have no control over what happens in the classroom, on the playground, at friends’ houses on the weekends, but we can create a healthy environment for every member of our family to come home to. Demonstrating that Kathleen is the priority in the household will role model good relationships with peers. Children are not stupid; they can sense that something is strange about a bad marriage, and if a bad relationship is what you’re role modeling for your children day-in/day-out, don’t you think there’s a high degree of probability they will apply those same principals in their relationships?
Focusing on our marriage also means that we can deal with our child’s issues as a team. There will be no undermining Kathleen’s authority in the house by going around her to ask me if something is acceptable. There will be no talking behind Kathleen’s back to my teenage children. It is imperative that our front remains united. Not every individual decision can be made together, but we have to support each other’s decision-making when we are not able to work it out.
This dynamic will take conscious and regular effort and both of our parts, but keeping our relationship the main priority in the household will work to keep our marriage strong for the long term. There will be disagreements, many of them I’m sure, but as long as we recognize that each of us is trying to help make the best decision for the entire family, working through these disagreements will help to strengthen– not dilute– our marriage.
Our marriage is the yardstick against which our children are going to measure every other relationship they see and have. If they see that Kathleen always comes first in my life, and I always in hers, then Creature will be comfortable just being a child without having to worry about mommy and daddy. I believe putting the marriage first in our house will benefit everyone in our family.
Trade-offs, Not Sacrifices
Having children is not about sacrifice, it is about trade-offs. A sacrifice is forgoing your happiness in the interest of others. I am not willing to sacrifice my happiness; I made the decision to start a family because I believe it will bring my life more happiness and fulfillment. I am not “sacrificing” anything in pursuit of this path; I chose it because other paths were not appealing to me. Staying at a job you hate and wallowing in your depression for another’s sake is a sacrifice nobody should make.
Kathleen and I are doing this because we believe the success of our family starts with the success of our marriage. If Kathleen and I can’t be on the same page about the big picture issues, how can we expect to maintain a stable home environment for our children? And if we can’t provide that stable home environment, well then you can give your children as many opportunities as you like, but if they can’t be happy and comfortable in their home, where else are they going to go?
In The End…
The problem with putting children first is that it is a mid-term solution to a forever relationship. If Kathleen and I do our jobs as parents properly, then by the time our children go off to college, they will be ready to move on to their next stages in life. Being a parent to adult children is still being a parent, but the dynamic is radically different in the home. Being in a full house every day for two decades builds structure and routine, and that entire structure is pulled out from under you when your youngest leaves the house. If you put the marriage on the back burner for 20+ years, it will be almost impossible to relight that particular flame.
One day, your kids will leave the house, but you will wake up in your bed next to your husband or wife.
And then what?