[A series of posts based on a letter to SJ from 18 months ago]
SJ was the better parent, in many ways.
There. I admitted a hard truth.
But then, there is MY side to this story. I believe was a loving and good mom, but not perfect. I wanted us to raise good, kind, responsible adults. I was the more authoritative parent. I believed chores were good for kids; rules and consequences necessary. Tough love, sprinkled with fun, home baked cookies and cuddles. They still talk to me, and at times, confide in me. 🙂
SJ was the “fun dad.” SJ had the perfect temperament for kids: patient, funny, silly, flexible, forgiving, and devoted. “Let kids be kids,” and “they’ll be working the rest of their lives, so give them a break now” philosophy. From the time they were infants and all the way up, he was there for them, and involved in their lives. So much so that I often felt pushed aside and neglected.
Our kids love their Dad. And for that I am very grateful.
The not so good part is that the kids really did become the center of his universe for many years, a phenomenon that we had been warned to guard against in preserving our husband-wife relationship. And it predictably created lots of issues for our marriage. The kids knew that Mom wasn’t Dad’s #1, and they capitalized on it. When you seek to be liked, and friends with your young kids, you lose the benefits of structure and rules, IMHO. you abandon your spouse. It became a good cop-bad cop situation.
There were many, many things in our relationship that were wrong, but it was “the kids” that just about did us in. Not really “the kids” themselves (they are not bad people, just immature and selfish, and yes, perhaps a bit spoiled), but in how we had abandoned our first love, our husband-wife relationship, to three adorable but ruthless tyrants.
When we eventually went to couples counseling 17 years in, the counselor listened to us fight during our entire session about “the kids,” and essentially told us that we had let the kids become the center of our attention, and to divide and conquer us. The counselor would try to get us back to talking about “us” and how to work on our marriage; but when I looked at SJ I felt hopeless. I’d been abandoned (and in turn, I abandoned him). He’ll never pick me over the kids, I thought (and by this time, we had become very ugly towards each other).
We had about two more years with kids at home at this time. And I bided my time, planning to “endure” until I could escape my marriage with the least amount of damage to the kids. I tried my utmost not to harbor resentment towards the kids for their Dad’s choices to hyper-focus on them. Although misguided, it was love on his part.
Thank God my planned escape didn’t come to pass… and we chose to work on “us.” However, it essentially took the kids leaving the home for college for this to happen. For all its good, this makes me a little sad. I had to more or less ask SJ to choose if he wanted to stay married to me; or remain our kids’ best friend. Ironically, kid problems don’t just completely go away when the nest is empty. While they’re not in your house, the problems seem less, but they are still your kids. When kids visit home for the holidays, they bring their attitudes and entitlement with them. Frustrations set in when they seem not to be finding gainful employment, sit around eating your food, using your utilities, trashing “their” room. They may want to depend on your financial support a long time, maybe even move back in with you–if you allow this. SJ would start to revert to “appease” mode at times, to the point of enduring disrespect, and I felt a cold child of the past come over us. With each summer and winter break, SJ was starting to show signs of enabling them to use us–and divide us. Thus the concern I voiced to SJ in my letter:
Even if we’ve not been good about this parenting thing in the past, we need a way forward to be parents of our adult kids together. No, “let me handle this alone.” No one-sided decisions or conversations. We are parent-partners, we support each other. Please don’t treat me as though I’m a part of the problems. Use me to help come to solutions. I will work very hard on being open minded and following your leadership, but don’t go this single-handedly thinking you are making things “easier.” Feeling marginalized or unqualified in decisions about our kids upsets me, and alienates me, a lot.
Let me be clear. I love our kids. I didn’t go through pregnancy, childbirth and sore nipples to cast them aside now. I want them to be successful, independent, responsible adults, but I will never kick them to the curb. If they are in a lurch, I want to help them find a way to get back on their feet, and give them a temporary roof over their heads if need be. I want our kids to feel they are welcome visitors, but the that the time to live with us is now drawing to a close, a natural course of life. Kids being visitors does not mean they are hotel guests. They have to agree to certain standards to ever stay under our roof (and these standards we have to agree on and enforce). If they can’t agree, then they don’t get stay with us. I have no interest in long-term living arrangements, but if they are starting off looking for employment; in a bad place; between jobs; have a vacation and want to be with us… then I want to welcome them and have the door open, yet “tough love.” No enabling poor decisions or bail outs. At some point in the future, I want to have relationships and fun with them and grandchildren. I want them to call us, come to us, enjoy time with us, but respect is important. I want a life with you, my primary focus will be on you and on us; but I won’t forget our kids.
Outcome: SJ knew he still had a choice, and that our future as a couple hung on his choice. It wasn’t a choice between me OR the kids. It was, would he choose to support the relationship with his kids over the one with his spouse? Ironically, the kids didn’t want to come home as much anymore, they understandably wanted their independence. They didn’t quite want to be “best friends” with Dad, either… they loved him but more than anything they needed his money and if he didn’t have to talk too much, so much the better. Phone calls home were more often for money or help with solving problems involving money, rarely to just say “hi.” I think SJ’s eyes opened a little at their “opportunistic” sides, the prevailing urge among many of our youth to ride out a good deal, despite how dishonorable it might be. He watched them return home for the holidays, retreat to their room, close their doors, adhere to their own schedules, and make an appearance only to dart to the kitchen for food, or out the front door to see friends. If dinner was served, they may or may not deign to be at the table; they didn’t want to commit to family dinner in case something better came along (including convincing Dad to take the family out to a favorite restaurant where they could order whatever they wanted). This discourtesy on their part led to me not preparing nightly meals. I didn’t plan my life around their presence at home when they were being rude. During one break, we were told that if the “significant other” wasn’t welcome to share our kid’s bed in our home, then they’d rather go to the significant other’s family, who would let them share a bed. I think SJ finally understood that the relationship he wanted/needed to invest in was with the adult he’d spend the rest of his life with, and hope that his offspring would one day mature and become the kind of people we want to have as friends.
The absence of the kids in our day-to-day life has certainly lessened this challenge; but it always lurks as one of those phantoms of our marriage problems that never was totally resolved. I have no answers; we tried our best to get on the same page with parenting, and essentially failed. Just know that kids can truly introduce a lightning rod into any marriage, and do your best to be prepared– together. Hopefully you can get it right before they leave your home. God, spouse, children, world, in that order.