"We Can't Agree on How to Raise Our Child"
The Counselor's Turn
Different approaches to child rearing can test the strongest marriages," the counselor said. "I understood why Jill's hovering would annoy her more easygoing husband. And I could see why Ron's laissez-faire parenting style would upset his wife. 'You both have Ashley's best interests at heart,' I said. 'But you each represent an extreme -- too cautious versus too relaxed. The trick is to find a balance.'
"First we explored how Jill's childhood had fostered her anxiety. Like many children of divorce, she became alienated from one parent and emotionally enmeshed with the other to the point where she worried constantly that her mother (who was, and is, perfectly healthy) might die. Jill characterized her mother as a 'lovable micromanager.' Indeed, to this day she calls Jill with reminders to carry an umbrella or to make a doctor's appointment. So to Jill hovering felt natural. Nor was it surprising that Jill would transfer her worries about her mother's health and safety to her daughter.
"I validated her impulse to worry about Ashley -- serious illness and accidents do happen -- but explained that backing off would help Ashley develop self-confidence. Otherwise Jill would reinforce the behaviors that she and Ron found alarming in their daughter. 'Good parents let their children take some risks,' I said. 'It sounds counterintuitive, but overprotected kids often engage in risky activities when they're older because they crave freedom.'
"Next we turned to Ron's upbringing. His father had been remote, and Ron was set on playing a large role in his own child's life, even if it meant belittling his wife. 'When you mock Jill you show contempt for her,' I told Ron. 'This must stop.' He needed to be a calming influence and acknowledge Jill's fears. As I told him, 'The more you assure Jill that you understand her concerns and that you'll protect Ashley, the more she'll loosen up.'
"I recommended concrete steps that would improve their communication and reduce Ashley's anxiety. For starters Jill needed to relax about cleaning house. She was so focused on tidiness that she didn't let Ashley play freely. I also advised Jill to stop expressing her own anxieties about the world at large. 'Children pick up on their parents' fears,' I warned, 'and make them their own.'
"Meanwhile, Ron had to accept that children need structure and discipline. 'Ashley shouldn't play on the stone hearth of the fireplace even if its rough edges have been childproofed with a padded bumper,' I told him. 'And you should encourage good hygiene.'
"In time Ron learned to bite his tongue and stop undercutting Jill. 'It's not easy,' he admitted, 'but counseling made me realize the damage I'll cause if I don't.'
"Gradually the tension between them eased and their emotional intimacy was rekindled. They began scheduling Saturday nights out twice a month. At first Jill was nervous about leaving Ashley with a babysitter, but relented when her mom offered to watch Ashley one Saturday a month and a good friend's babysitter signed on for the other. 'Our dates have been great for our marriage,' she said. 'I feel closer to Ron and that's made me interested in sex again.'
"Ron is equally pleased. 'I no longer feel like I'm last on Jill's list,' he said.
"Once Jill relaxed, Ashley stopped using the word 'worry' and grew more adventurous. After attending a birthday party at a karate studio, she asked for lessons. Karate has taught her some valuable life skills, including discipline and perseverance, and improved her coordination and confidence.
"'I'm a better mother because I'm happier and calmer,' Jill said in one of their final sessions. 'We're back on track as a couple and Ashley is thriving.'
"'I'm proud of our progress,' Ron said, 'and thrilled at the positive changes in our daughter.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2009.