I was 4-years-old, sitting on the bathroom floor and chatting with my mom while she soaked in the tub, when I blurted out this question. “No, of course not!” she immediately responded. “Why would you think that?” I don’t remember what I said next, but somehow we moved on to a new topic.
Later I heard her whispering on the phone about what I’d said. She must have been thinking, How did my little girl, the one with the stay-at-home mom and Catholic upbringing, know about divorce? It’s not like my parents were screaming and slamming doors all the time. Their unhappiness wasn’t supposed to be obvious, especially not to a little girl. But somehow, even at that young age, I could sense that my parents were deeply unhappy in their marriage.
Turns out they did get divorced—four years later, right around my eighth birthday. The quietly hostile relationship that my parents had when they were married bloomed into an outwardly hostile one during the split, and it stayed that way for years after the divorce papers were signed. By the time my sister and I were pre-teens, our dad had remarried and pretty much vanished from our lives.
The whole thing—the divorce, our father deciding to go his own separate way—was incredibly sad and unfortunate, but it taught me an important lesson: It’s almost impossible to have a happy childhood if you have miserable parents. At some point I decided that if I were ever to get married and have kids I would do everything I could to have a happy marriage that lasted for the long haul…and if that wasn’t possible, then at least I would do my best to forge a positive relationship with my ex-husband for the sake of my kids.
Years later, I met an amazing man. I got married and we celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary last June. We’re very happy, and because I want to stay happily married and give our 5-year-old son and 20-month-old daughter the kind of joyful home I didn’t have while I was growing up, I put my marriage first. That’s right. My husband comes before anyone else in my life, including my beloved children.
Before anyone calls me a selfish, terrible mother, please let me explain what I mean by that: I think you’ll see that it’s not as harsh as it sounds. And, in fact, the priorities that we’ve set benefit everyone involved.
Putting my marriage first means I’m protecting the relationship that’s central to my children’s happy childhood; I’m making sure that Chris and I coexist happily despite the changes that we experienced in our relationship after they were born, particularly in those first few months (from the way that we needed to divert our attention and, at times, affections to this new little person in our lives to the mind-boggling lack of sleep that lasted for months and made us argue about silly little things like who forgot to buy more coffee when the last bag ran out).
Putting my marriage first does not mean neglecting our kids; Chris and I are extremely involved parents. We both say constantly that Mason and Poppy are the love of our lives. They’re the greatest things we’ve ever done; we can’t imagine our lives without them. We love them infinity plus. So for our children’s sake (and for ours), here’s how we make our marriage our top priority:
1. We plan child-free couple vacations. This isn’t something my husband and I do every year; in fact, we’ve only done it once so far, but we plan on taking more trips alone in the future. Our first vacation a deux took place when our oldest child, Mason, was 6-months-old.
Too soon? No way. Chris and I needed to go somewhere and reconnect after my extremely difficult pregnancy (which included 30-weeks of morning sickness and extreme anxiety), so my mom graciously volunteered to come to New York to stay with him for five days. She insisted that we needed that time alone, even though I dreaded leaving the baby.
And you know what? She was right. Going on that trip was the best thing we could have done for our marriage. We had sex, we got some much-needed rest and we had wonderful dinners together. By the time we returned to New York, we were a stronger, happier couple—and ready to take on whatever Mason dished out. Bring on those sleepless nights, baby: we can handle it!
2. We present a united front. This means we always have each other’s back, no matter what. When Chris needed to take a job that would keep him in another city five days a week, I supported him. When I told Chris in September that I needed to leave my nightmare job and do something else, he supported me, no further explanation needed.
With our kids, it’s all about being on the same page at all times; we never try to become the favorite parent by caving in to what they want versus what we believe is right. For example, I feel strongly that our oldest child, Mason, needs to go to bed at 8 p.m. unless it’s a special occasion. Chris, on the other hand, would be fine with letting him stay up later…but he knows this issue is important to me, so he respects my wishes.
We’re being consistent with our messaging to Mason so that he doesn’t get confused and so that he feels secure with a consistent routine—but more importantly we’re showing him that we’re united in the decisions that we make, as well as demonstrating unequivocal support and respect for each other.
3. We keep the baby out of the bed. Chris and I made a conscious decision from the very beginning not to co-sleep (although both children were in a bassinet in our bedroom for months), because we wanted a space where we could have sex or cuddle without worrying about a baby sleeping between us. Now that they’re older, they may come into bed with us in the early morning hours, and we’re not going to kick them out; we’re more than happy (and grateful!) for that cuddle time. But when it’s time to go to sleep every night, it’s just the two of us, no exceptions. And since that’s always the way we’ve operated, we’ve never had an issue with them about it. They understand that this space is mommy’s and daddy’s special place, just like their room is theirs.
4. I respect my husband’s needs (and he does the same). Neither of us are morning people, so we take turns getting up with our youngest child, Poppy, at the crack of dawn every day. Sometimes she insists that mommy (or daddy) needs to be up, too, and we’re very clear that she gets the undivided attention of one parent every morning because mommy or daddy is tired and she/he needs some extra rest. Or sometimes mommy needs to go to the gym alone, or daddy needs a night out with friends. We protect the other partner’s needs out of love and respect. Those time-outs make us better parents—and better partners, too.
5. I recognize my husband’s greatness (and he returns the favor). I am Chris’ biggest fan (his publicist, even) and he’s mine. We praise each other to other people, as well as to our son. Every morning when I come out into the living room, dressed for work, Chris points to me and says to the kids, “Isn’t mommy beautiful?” When Chris cooks us one of his amazing dinners, I point to the food and say to them, “Isn’t daddy the best cook?” We compliment each other in front of our kids, both to build his respect and love for the other parent, as well as to show our love and appreciation for each other. It’s our way of keeping the other partner from feeling unimportant, unnoticed, or on the back burner.
*© Heather Morgan Shott, as first published on Your Tango.