We mothers put our children first. We do it from the very beginning, as the baby quite literally rips apart our bodies while being born. Putting our kids first is indeed 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” – of course they are! “My children are my entire life” – well duh. “My children are my whole heart” – aren’t everyone’s???
With all the rhapsodic tropes around 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.
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 (though it certainly it bears noting that romantic love differs from maternal love).
But what most 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 my eyes widened with 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 suns enable and sustain life. Thus, if our marriage is nurtured above all else, our little planets will thrive.
This tending-to and nurturing is 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.
- When my husband and I are talking and get interrupted by our children (which happens 978 times per minute), we are very firm on never 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.
- My children eat dinner before my husband and I do, and our grownups dinner time is fairly sacred. It doesn’t happen more than a couple of times a week due to busy schedules, and sometimes a child or two is still awake and loitering for whatever reason. However, if said 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 as often as we can, and when I can, I accompany him on business trips. Not only do we not feel guilty about this habit, 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, 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 discuss that privately, out of earshot of children, so as not to put chinks in our team armor.
- 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 — which we always do.
Not everyone’s marriage is the family sun. But my guess is that there are many women out there who wish their family lives could be a smidge less child-focused and just aren’t sure how to re-orient — or perhaps need some sort of cosmic permission to go there.
What’s that, cosmos? You grant permission?! Terrific news.