It’s always bad news when a friend prefaces a statement with, “I have a friend who’s a therapist, and she says…”
No good can come of an exchange that begins like this. Whatever is said after, you can’t really argue because an Expert has been invoked. And whether I agree with it or not, I’ll end up in a spiral of self-doubt wondering if I agree with it only because an Expert reputedly said it or if I disagree with it because I’m, you know, nuts. Invariably, the spiral ends in me disparaging the mental health professions.
“I have a friend who’s a therapist,” my friend told me on a walk one day when our first babies were less than a year old, “and she says that parents don’t get near enough time away from their kids. Two nights a week, mom should go out by herself. Two nights a week, dad should go out by himself. Two nights a week mom and dad should go out together without the kids.”
“Really?” I said, keeping my eyes on the little flashing walk guy on the signal across the street. “That’s more than my husband and I went out before we had kids.”
“Well, she says that if you don’t take care of your marriage, your kids are going to suffer for it.” I couldn’t really argue with this assertion. But I just wasn’t sold on the suggested method of caring for my marriage.
“What about time spent together as a family? Isn’t there value in that?”
“That’s what the seventh night is for,” she replied.
I decided not to argue anymore. Instead I told my husband about the suggestion when we talked that evening, and we both had a good laugh at just how impractical and inconsistent with our values as parents that advice was.
Ever since then, I’ve been leery of experts who tell parents that the best thing they can do for their kids is spend time away from them. Seriously? With all of the two-income families who even on a good day spend only the two hours between dinner and bedtime with their kids, the answer is to spend even less time with their children?
When I decided that February would be Marriage Month, I checked out from the library a bunch of books about caring for one’s marriage while raising kids. Then I left them unopened until they were due back and I returned them. Then mid-January I checked two back out. I skimmed one, wrote down a number of ideas, and then went with the resolutions I’d made up back in July, but with some little changes based on what I’d read.
My favorite thing in this book (Happiness for Two: 75 Secrets for Finding More Joy Together by Alexandra Stoddard) was that she said that couples should make errand time quality time and run errands together. This is an ongoing argument I’ve been having with my husband for years. I want to go grocery shopping together. He wants us to split up because it’s more efficient. I all but jammed his nose in the book when I got to this chapter.
“See?” I said, reading from the book. “‘Happiness for two is not about efficiency. Partners must keep reminding each other that their lives together should be far more nobly spent than in crossing things off their “to do” list.’ So I was right. We should go grocery shopping together.”
Never mind that just moments before I’d read the author’s bio and decided that I wasn’t sure an interior designer was qualified to give me advice about how to be happy in my marriage. Or that smugness is at least as bad as efficiency when it comes to fostering loving feelings towards each other.
The other book I checked out in January is due in two days, and while I took it with me to Florida and back, I’ve just opened it this week. This one’s What Happy Parents Do: The Loving Little Rituals of a Child-Proof Marriage by Carol Bruess, Ph.D., and Anna Kudak, M.A. It’s got suggestions from parents about how to keep a marriage strong in spite of the kids along with expert endorsement of these suggestions (John Gottman is quoted a lot). It’s got cutesy little silhouette pictures of happy couples throughout, multi-colored text, a little orange ribbon page marker. The basic advice seems pretty repetitive, but it’s mostly good advice. Establish routines. Watch your tone of voice. Make time for each other. Run errands together.
Then there are the warnings.
“Your marriage is a model for your kids. They will most likely base their future relationships off yours. Even your baby, if you have one, is taking note. Did you know, for instance, that a baby’s blood pressure actually rises when the baby hears or sees his parents fighting. Imagine what your fighting does to the blood pressure of your toddler or teenager.”
So, I’m giving my kids heart disease when I yell at my husband. No pressure, though.
“Although giving lots of love and attention to your children is essential for their growth and development, having what Drs John and Julie Gottman call a ‘child-centered marriage’ is not a good thing at all…Why? Because couples in child-centered marriages often neglect their marriage, putting their parenting responsibilities and their children’s needs first…When, as the Gottmans say, your marriage (and everything else) takes a backseat to your children, you are missing the point.”
I don’t know. I tend to be of the opinion that if I weren’t willing to make my children at least as important as my marriage, I probably shouldn’t have had children. If this is missing the point, perhaps I’m not clear on what the point is.
And frankly, the section of cutesy euphemisms for body parts and the marital act I just found embarrassing. If my husband told me, “Hey, Babe. Frank wants to go swimming,” I can’t imagine I’d be interested in anything remotely intimate with him.
I suppose these books have given me some things to think about, but mostly I think they’ve helped me to realize that I already know what I need to do to keep my marriage happy. I don’t need some expert who wrote a book telling me how to stay in love with my husband and how often I should let Frank go swimming.