Don't Lose Your Marriage to Your Kids

It's natural to want to put your kids first, but don't forget that a good marriage is the foundation of a happy home.
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Don't Lose Your Marriage to Your Kids

Why do we give away our marriage to our kids? In some ways it is necessary to put our children first. They are the most vulnerable and needy people in our homes. When you want to make love with your mate and your wet, hungry baby wakes up and starts crying -- well, you know what you do next. When your teenage daughter is beside herself after being dumped by her boyfriend, you put your spouse's bad day on hold and attend to your daughter.

While adjustments like this are natural and inevitable, there is a difference between adjusting your marriage to meet your children's needs and losing your marriage to parenthood. In a two-parent family, marriage is the foundation of the family. We fall in love with each other before we fall in love with our kids. After they leave home, we will still have each other, or so we hope. Our children rely on the stability and security of our marriage for their own stability and security. So why do so many of us resign from being spouses when we become parents?

Part of the reason is that children are natural and eager consumers of whatever time, attention, and goods and services that parents will provide. It's the job of parents to discern how much is enough, how much is too much, and to enforce the difference. Most understand this when it comes to providing material goods to children. But setting limits on how much time and attention we give them, and how many opportunities and activities we provide, is not stressed in our culture. In a swift turn of a generation or two, we went from the norm that children should be seen and not heard when adults are around, to the norm that it is only the children who should be seen and heard when adults are around.

Take the case of bedtime. Studies are showing what many of us have observed: Bedtimes are vanishing from the family scene once kids get old enough to give voice to a strong preference. Some working parents say that they want to spend as much evening time as possible with their children, so they let them stay up as late as they want, until they fall asleep on their own. (Of course, children are then tired in the morning for school, and the parents are also losing the potential of good bedtime rituals with their children.) But there are other reasons harder to own up to. How do you make your child do something that he or she does not want to do? Why deal with the fuss and hassle of enforcing a bedtime routine? Suppose they keep getting up anyway? No, it's easier to simply let them watch television or play a video game.

At the risk of sounding antiquarian, years ago, kids had set bedtimes and routines - and that arrangement provided three critical functions: It gave the children down time and enough sleep. It gave parents a chance to have a one-to-one ritual with each child. And it gave spouses adult time.

However, parenting today is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week store, with service on demand. Children of all ages now have a new universal human right to interrupt adult conversation at any time and for any reason. The adults must disengage from their conversation and turn immediately to the child. Many parents now define rudeness, not as a child interrupting willy-nilly for a minor reason that could wait, but as adults putting the child off while finishing their sentence! It would be rude to keep talking or to ask the child to say "excuse me" and request permission to interrupt.

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