When I was pregnant and people would ask me what my priorities were for motherhood (because people were always asking me stuff like that for some reason), I’d always tell them, “maintaining my relationship with my husband.” And, in response to this answer, I’d often get a confused frown, or a raised eyebrow, a slowly enunciated, “Oh . . . kay.” Because I think they expected me to say something about the baby. Something like, “to breastfeed exclusively for at least the first year,” or “to make sure I’m always fully present,” or whatever. But, it’s always seemed to me that the most important thing I can give my son is a mom who loves his dad.
It’s very tempting, I know, after becoming a mom, to feel totally justified in devoting all your time and energy to your children at your spouse’s expense. Your children are tiny, helpless beings who fill you with a love so fierce it’s almost painful. Your spouse is a grown-up who refuses to put the toilet seat down no matter how many times you remind him. But giving in to that temptation is a mistake.
Happy parents make happy children. And parents aren’t happy when their entire lives consist of diaper changes, making snacks no one will eat, and conversing with people whose main interests are bugs, trucks, and poop. All those things are great, of course (I actually really mean that), but if they’re not tempered by adult conversation, intellectual stimulation, a few laughs, and the occasional roll in the hay then you’re looking at a pretty dreary existence. And if you’re not happy, there’s no way your kid’s going to be.
So, that’s the first thing. But that’s not even all of it. Where do you think your kid learns what a healthy romantic relationship looks like? Not the movies, that’s for sure! He learns it from you. From the way you interact with each other as adults, not as parents. (He learns lots of other great things from how you are as parents, so you can stop screaming at me now. He just doesn’t learn this.)
And, look, I know that there are a lot of parents forced to parent without a spouse. And a lot of reasons why that might be. I’m not trying to say that your children won’t be happy or well-adjusted if that’s their situation. But if there are two parents, then they owe it to each other and themselves to actively work to maintain their relationship. For their own benefit, sure. But for their children’s too.
Be affectionate with each other around your children. I mean, don’t get all R-rated or anything. But hold hands, hug, kiss each other. Your children should see that. So they know you love each other, and what that looks like. Tell your children that whatever they’re interrupting you to say is very interesting but that you’re speaking now and it’ll be their turn in a second. Joke together and, when your kids ask you what’s so funny, tell them it’s none of their business. You and your spouse have a life together that includes your children, but it isn’t just your children.
Your child should feel left out sometimes. He should wonder what’s so funny. He should hear you passionately debating some news item, or a TV show, or a book and not understand anything you’re saying. Not all the time, of course. There will be lots of times when he is included. Lots of times when he dominates the conversation. Just not always. He should see that there’s a part of your relationship with your spouse that has absolutely nothing to do with him. Because that’s how he learns to build the kind of solid foundation he will need in order to start a family.
So many parents seem to save all the adult relationship stuff for special occasions. They go on “date nights” or weekends away, and suddenly they remember that they’re in a romantic relationship, not just a co-parenting one. And I’m all for evenings out and weekends away. Alone-time with your spouse is a crucial part of maintaining your relationship. It’s just that those shouldn’t be the only times you act like two people in love.
Maybe you worry that public displays of affection (I mean like hugging, kissing, holding hands, and stuff, calm down) between you and your spouse aren’t appropriate for your child to see. But isn’t it even less appropriate for him not to see them? To assume that married couples don’t do those things? Or to learn from books and movies that they’re supposed to do them but then not see them happening between his parents? He’s learning from you. Storing all this away until he gets to do it himself.
Or maybe you worry that telling your child to wait his turn, or talking about things in front of him that he doesn’t understand, will make him think you don’t care about him. That you don’t value his contribution. But all you’re teaching him by interrupting your conversation to listen to him is that you don’t value your spouse’s contribution. That whatever your spouse is saying isn’t really that important. Is that what you want your kid to learn about how to interact with his future romantic partner? If you tell him to wait his turn, and then give him a turn when you’re done talking, he’ll learn that everyone’s contribution is valued.
I haven’t always lived up to my goal. There have been days when it seemed like my son needed me every minute and my husband could wait. Days when I was just too tired to talk about anything other than bugs, and trucks, and poop. Days when the intensity of my love for my son overshadowed anything else. But I always come back to my original plan: maintain my relationship with my husband.
When I was pregnant, I said I’d do a lot of things as a mom that I haven’t ended up doing. I was naive, overenthusiastic, unrealistic, well-rested. But this? I was right about this. My relationship with my husband, this bond, this promise, is the reason this family exists. It’s the bedrock upon which our lives are built. An example to our son, and a joy to us. I’d be crazy to prioritize anything else.