My husband and I celebrated our anniversary recently. We met at summer camp when he was 17 and I was 16-years-old. I knew, in the middle of my senior year of high school, that he was the one for me. While I was dating someone else. But that’s another story.
As a geriatric social worker, I have been privileged to know, and learn from, many older adults. Many have shared their life stories with me. And it is clear to me, based on those stories, and my own observations of my peers, that the families that work best achieving self-actualization and happiness for its members are the ones where the kids, not the marriages, come first.
I guess if Ayelet Waldman reads Kveller, we’ll be hearing from her shortly…
It is absolutely true that throughout your marriage you need to make “us” time for you and your spouse, to stay connected, to make sure you grow together, not apart. It is wise to take a short vacation together every year, without your kids, if at all possible. But I do believe that spouses can make room for kids coming first, in terms of time and need, better than kids can understand having their needs consistently deferred and their parents’ put first. Kids need to feel that they are absolutely number one. That you always have their backs, that you have the time and attention to deal with them (even if you don’t). That they can come in at 10:30 at night when you’ve already “had it,” can stretch out and talk about their day. And you do need to keep your eyes open and stifle your yawns. And defer a romantic evening (and sleep).
It’s important for your kids to see you physically affectionate with your husband–holding hands, hugging, kissing. But I’ll bet you that when they’re young, they will squeeze between the two of you to make it a family hug. (And when they’re older, they’ll pretend it’s gross, but secretly they’ll be smiling.) Kids are happy when their parents are happy, but that’s not all that makes them happy.
The older adult couples I have observed who are lucky enough to still have each other in old age and who do everything together, are the ones who seem most disconnected from their children. They rarely mention them and seem imposed upon when asked to babysit, if they are asked at all. I have often wondered if their kids will take care of them when they are older and feebler, unable to take care of themselves. It is my guess that the children of such partnerships have not felt taken care of by their parents. These couples’ primary units are themselves, and certainly that is their choice. But, in my opinion, for a successful family life, in which children feel most loved and nurtured, appreciated and respected, in which their friends are always welcome to their home, in which kids are close to their parents and to their siblings, and ultimately to their spouses and their own children, the kids, not the parents as a couple, need to come first.
It is indeed a difficult, delicate balance. There is only one of you to meet the needs of a spouse and children, not to mention your own. So you do have a lot of time management and emotional issues to work out. But agreeing to put the kids first gives you, as a couple, a common purpose and an ideal to work towards that can bring you closer.
Our home was filled with lots of noise and laughter from our four children and their friends. Now, it’s just the two of us and it’s a lot quieter. I often miss those tumultuous times and the empty nest did take getting used to. But my husband and I still walk down the street holding hands and we haven’t yet run out of things to talk about, especially now that we get reports of the kuntzin (Yidd., literally, “tricks,” connotes actions that are clever and somewhat mischievous) of our grandchildren.
We are proud of our family and of the teamwork that produced it, although we humbly acknowledge God’s grace (or pure, dumb luck, depending on your point of view).
Our unspoken commitment to our children’s primacy and best interests, and through that, our own, seems to have been the very best choice we could have made all those years ago.