My Kids Don’t Come First and I Like it That Way

We mothers put our children first. We do it from the very beginning, as we sacrifice the ability to eat sushi upon conception and to sneeze without peeing upon birth. Putting our children above all else is so ingrained in the very definition of “motherhood” that, to some, it might be hard to even consider that there could be any other way to approach family life. My children are my world, my children are my life, my children are my whole heart – well duh.

With all the rhapsodic tropes regarding mothers’ obsession with their children, it can feel like a dirty secret to admit that in fact there are other priorities in the family besides the precious little angel darlings. But I’ll admit it: in my house, I prioritize my marriage above my children. (And the Real Housewives above my marriage, but that’s a different column.)

In saying that, I’m not trying to be provocative in the vein of Ayelet Waldman, who years ago wrote in the New York Times that she loved her husband more than her children – that she was “in love” with her husband, but not with her children. I do not feel that way. I do not love my husband more than I love my children, and I am desperately in love with my children. (See above re: whole heart, etc.)

But what resonated with me in Waldman’s piece was the way she described her children as “satellites, beloved but tangential.” She said they are “moons, rather than the sun.” When I first read her article back in 2005 when it was published, I wasn’t yet a mother, but I felt profound recognition when I hit those phrases. I was raised in a household where I felt both adored and like an ever-so-slightly second-class citizen when compared to my parents and their union. At the time, it felt perfectly healthy; it feels even more healthy now, as I strive to emulate the loving environment yet clear pecking order established in my childhood home. My children are satellites, beloved but tangential. They are the moons to my marital sun.

It is not just because of my familiarity with the model that I strive for this orientation.  It’s that the sun enables and sustains life. Thus, if our marriage is nurtured above all else, our little planets will thrive.

If I’m being honest, a second reason I aim for marital prioritization is that it is often the more difficult relationship to value. Mother-child adoration is simple, constant, and hard-wired on a biological level. No matter how awful or rude or annoying a child is, within minutes you want to nibble on his cheeks and snuggle his body, dirty fingernails, snotty nose and all. Fights are followed by immediate forgiveness, rather than emotional hangovers and pent-up resentments born of years of having the identical fight. Loving a child isn’t an active, day-in and day-out choice, and yet marriage is.

So I work hard at it. This not accomplished merely through “date nights,” or prescribed check-ins, or even sex. Rather, I think of Marital Prioritization as something of an overall, encompassing ethos, albeit one backed up by tangible every-day behaviors that are seemingly small, but mighty when taken as a whole.

For example:

  • When my husband and I are talking and get interrupted by our children (which rarely happens HAHAHAHAHAHA), we are firm on not breaking away from whatever we’re talking about to indulge them, unless there’s blood. Like, arterial blood. We make clear that we’re having a conversation and they can wait; we have become very good at ignoring.
  • When we are having dinner sans kids, if a loitering child wants to sit at the table with us, said child has to be quiet and listen respectfully to the conversation my husband and I are having. (See above re: ignoring.)
  • My husband and I go away for weekends together regularly, and when we can, we accompany each other on business trips. Not only do we not feel guilty about this, we take pride in explaining to our kids how important these trips are, and why. (i.e. we like to spend time alone, we support each other’s careers, we believe in knowing each other’s friends and colleagues, hearing the word “mom” on repeat all the live-long day makes me want to claw my skin off, etc.)
  • We make clear that we are a unified front, such that if a child asks one parent permission to do something and that parent says no, there’s no point in asking the other parent hoping for a different answer. We have each other’s backs and take each other’s sides – we’re on the same team.  If we end up disagreeing, we do our best to discuss that privately, out of earshot of children, so as not to put chinks in our team armor. (Plus those conversations can involve, um, “colorful” language.)
  • More abstractly, but perhaps most importantly, we do our best to talk often to our children about our love for each other — about how and why we love each other, and how that love is both independent and different from our love for them. We delight in their gagging noises when we kiss, and though we’re sensitive to the fact that they get upset when they hear us fight, we take that opportunity to explain that everyone has disagreements now and then and the most important part of a fight is the making up, and striving to do and be better in the future. (I then make sure to explain to them in private why I was, of course, right.)

Are these things always possible? No. Easy? Ha. What I want to do? LOL. But I try, and we try, and we’ll keep doing so.

Not everyone’s marriage is the family sun, nor would some want it to be. But for those who wish their family lives could be a smidge less child-focused and just aren’t sure how to re-orient, let my battle-tested ramblings be your guide. Hopefully over a nice plate of sneeze-free sushi.

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Alice Leiter is a recovering lawyer living in Washington, D.C. with her husband and four children. Her hobbies include making fun of her family on Instagram, watching Bravo, and worrying that people are mad at her. She hates when grown women call her “Mama.” Reach her at