I’ve always (even before I had any business forming an educated opinion on such things) thought that, in the context of a family, a husband and wife must prioritize their marriage above all else.
A marriage is the foundation of a family. Even once children come into the picture and demand (and deserve) so much time, love, and energy, Mom and Dad can’t lose touch with one another in the busyness of everyday living. They must work well together as a team to ensure the happiest home for those children, and they must remain close even after their children leave the nest.
Actually being married and having babies has taught me that this really is the best path toward a happy, fulfilled family. It’s also taught me that, some days, it’s a lot harder than I expected it to be.
My husband and I have been together for a long time. Since we were high school sweethearts, many of those years were spent before marriage and kids came along. I won’t say those years were easy, but I will say that the blind optimism of young love did us a few favors. When you’re right for each other, young, and susceptible to fairy tales, it’s very possible to stubbornly forge through a struggle simply because you’re confident “happily ever after” is just over the horizon.
Our newlywed years were joyful. It was a long-awaited privilege to wake up together each morning and come home to each other at night. And it was easy to take on the world together.
When our first child was born and I felt the shock of taking on a new identity, my husband was my resting place. He gave me confidence and reassurance when I was unsure of myself. His fatherhood made my motherhood manageable. We had no problem tackling parenthood as a team, and so we had no problem nurturing our marriage just as diligently as we nurtured our beautiful daughter.
I’m not proud to say this, but when our second was born, that story was different for me.
Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Effort
I’ve tried so hard to understand this struggle in order to resolve it, and it’s very difficult to pin down. But I’m going to try.
When my first was born, I had a period of confusion. I knew motherhood was in my bones—I knew it was what I was meant to do. But that didn’t mean it was automatic or easy to absorb that new part of my identity. My thoughts were suddenly dominated by a tiny person and how to order every one of my waking moments around her needs. For a time, I had trouble grasping what part of “me” was left after so much of my focus went into motherhood.
My husband helped me feel like the “me” that I recognized. Our marriage was an anchor to the “before kids” part of our life, and I needed that to stay grounded as I navigated our new normal. After a few months, we all settled in quite happily.
Still, as we prepared for our second to be born, I was thinking this same thing was going to happen: that I would have to learn all over again how to be a mom.
It turned out not to be quite so earth-shattering. My soul is happy and fulfilled as a mother, and I’ve settled into that identity well enough that adding a second child meant adjusting routines and habits, sure, but not another reinvention of myself. It was a happy surprise.
However, those new habits and routines did take a lot of physical energy, and the adjustment took plenty of emotional energy, too. It’s difficult to hear two children screaming for you when you can only lift and comfort one at a time. The sleep exhaustion that comes with a baby who dislikes falling asleep plus a toddler who’s not feeling well is profound. The list goes on.
So while I felt more at home becoming a mother of two than I did becoming a mom of one, I was physically and emotionally drained by caring for two kiddos. It is hard. I am generally happy, but I am tired.
As a result, when both kiddos were finally, (relatively) reliably asleep come 10:00 p.m. and I had my first chance of the day to do something without needing to cater to them first, all I wanted to do was cater to me. What energy I had left I wanted to hoard for myself. I didn’t want to use it up by asking my husband how his day was or helping him with a project.
Now, naturally, there’s going to be some period of survival after a baby is born. It’s a time to do what you can, set aside what you must, and learn to be okay with that. You make sacrifices. You must. But that doesn’t give me permission to be selfish with every spare minute. I am part of something bigger than myself, and I can’t function as an island—nor should I expect my husband to be satisfied with life on an altogether different island.
Give and Take
It may be unavoidable that our needs take a backseat to the demands of two small children, but it’s not unavoidable that one spouse neglects another completely. And sometimes, that’s what I did.
My husband, being the kind and attentive man that he is, saw that something was wrong. He saw that I was not reaching out, and he often thought that was a reflection on him: You are distant, which means you are unhappy, which means I’m doing something wrong. But it wasn’t about him; it was on me.
Over time, I learned how to do simple things—like ask for help (duh), set aside some me-time before the kids go to bed, and pursue new hobbies—that keep my energy bank full enough to share more with him. He’s been there at every turn to do whatever I ask of him; in fact, even as I was paying him very little personal attention, he was always thirsty for ways to make my life easier and more comfortable. That’s the kind of guy I married.
I’m still working on this and am nowhere near as good as I should be (even though the physical demands have lessened as the kids have gotten incrementally older and more independent, I’ve formed some bad habits that are difficult to break). But I’m getting there.
Thoughts on Unconditional Love
The biggest thing I’ve learned, I think, is that unconditional love may permeate a family, but it can’t be the backbone of a family. The backbone is made of effort and giving and trying. Backbones are hard, and they should be—they keep us upright. Love is soft, and it should be. It keeps us warm.
My children believe that my love is unconditional in a very real sense. They don’t question whether I will feed them, change their diapers, or be there to hug them when they wake up. A comfortable home and toys to play with are simply accepted parts of their environment. When they misbehave, they know that I will forgive them and, once any discipline is over, life will go on as if nothing is changed—because nothing has changed, really. They know that they can do whatever things their beautiful little minds invent, and I will be there to guide them through it. That is the innocence of a child. All the things into which I put so much work and prayer are taken for granted, and that’s okay.
My husband believes that my love is unconditional in a very different way. He doesn’t question whether I’ll be by his side because I’ve made vows with him, and I’ve proven my devotion in the way I’ve treated him. He counts our happy home among his greatest blessings—it’s something he knows is a gift made by us and by God. When we argue, we find room to forgive and amend our ways—and he is grateful for my doing so because he knows that I make a choice to do it, for his sake and for our family. He recognizes and appreciates my love for him at least partly because he knows that life would be so different without it. He feels it because I give it to him, not simply because it exists.
Children know the love of their parents because it is a fact of life. It is in the order of things, which they know deep down in their souls long before they could ever recognize that knowing. They know they are loved because there is simply nothing else to know.
Spouses know their love for each other because they have chosen each other: their marriage is an order of things that they have created and committed themselves to fully, without exception. They know they are loved because they receive that love as a gift.
As long as I can preserve that innocence for my children in these formative years (by giving them my best as frequently as humanly possible), they easily forgive the occasional loss of patience or the moments I need to rest instead of play. They are confident in my unconditional love because I am their mother, and that is all they need to know.
For my husband, though (and this is true for me, too), feeling loved isn’t that simple. He feels my love when I choose him: when I choose to ask him about his day or help him with a project or even just express my desire to be near him. He is confident in my unconditional love because I continuously prove that it is here for him, offering it again and again by living out my vows.