June 1, 2020

When people get married not everyone talks about what it will be like when they have children. Even those of us who did have the “when we have children” conversation find that once they are actually here, there is no guarantee that what we envisioned will come true.

When my husband and I got married we were young and idealistic. We were both going to have careers and children and we were going to share all the responsibilities. We didn’t really parse out how that would actually happen.

When we did start our family, earlier than we “planned”, we did a fast and furious learn as you go style of parenting together. We went through many “versions” of childcare as we went from one child to two and then three - tag team parenting, small center daycare, large center daycare, home daycare, preschool/daycare, home daycare again (all in 6 years!) – finally, I left my career to stay home.

When I left my career I was terrified that I would lose myself. I was smart, educated and had a future. I had arrogantly looked down on women who had given up their careers to stay home and felt like they were undervaluing their skills and intelligence. I worried that if I took on more of the “work” of family and home my contribution to the wellbeing of said family would not be as valued as the contribution of my husband’s salary. I wanted to do everything at home to prove I was pulling my weight, but I wanted him to share tasks because that’s what we agreed to back in the glow of early marriage.

Over the many years since, as we raised our family and I observed the lives of so many other families, I’ve learned much about what works and what doesn’t. As I re-enter the work of Marriage and Family Therapy, I’m reminded more and more that parenting and living in community with a family is HARD WORK. We assume that we should know how to do it all, but we don’t. Getting married because you love someone and want to build a life with them is lovely. If you don’t know how to actually live in community with someone and share the burdens of day to day life, and aren’t willing to do the work and have the hard conversations and make compromises, that rosy vision you held as a newlywed just might fog over.

When you add children it’s even more complicated. We come to marriage and parenting with our own assumptions about what it should look like and how it should be. So does our partner. If we assume we believe the same things and don’t talk about “how” to actually raise children, or at least have a basic level of respect for each other such that conversations can be had, the ground is laid for a whole lot of conflict.

Here is some of what I’ve learned:

1- Make no assumptions. You don’t know what your partner thinks about parenting, children, discipline, etc. unless you ask. Even then it’s hard. Tell your family stories. Talk about growing up yourself and what that was like. Share your thoughts on parenting and if you don’t have any, do some research. Don’t expect to know what to do when you are handed a baby unless you’ve actually be taught. If you have vastly different beliefs or thoughts about these things, WORK THEM OUT. Don’t leave them unresolved.

2- Expect to be flexible. No matter what you plan for, things can change. A lost job, a sick partner or child, a change of heart. Anything can alter the plan and if either partner digs in and refuses to be flexible, resentment and conflict are inevitable.

3- Couples or families who appear to have it all or to be “perfect” are either putting on a really good show, or are doing the work. Even those who don’t seem to have to put the time in now, most likely put it in up front. Peaceful happy families don’t just happen.

4- Work/Life Balance is whatever it means to you and your family. As long as partners have a mutual respect for what each person brings to the table, the balance of work/life for both will look different from family to family. One family might have two careers and equally split household tasks but if one partner doesn’t respect the other’s contributions it means nothing. Another family may have a stereotypical family with one parent working outside the home and the other raising the family and caring for the home. As long as there is respect for the contributions of both partners to the well-being of the family and both partners feel valued, it’s an equal partnership.

5- As an extension of 4, how parenting is balanced has a much to do with respect as well. If one parent does the bulk of the parenting, but the other parent is unsupportive and dismissive, undermining the primary parent, not only does it cause increasing trouble with the marriage, children get the message that the rules are “flexible.” When parents can present a united front with mutual support for each other, regardless of the actual distribution of parenting “labor,” children understand the rules and expectations of the family and can get on with the work of being children without feeling the need to figure out what the boundaries are.

6- When children are struggling and acting out, clarifying parenting roles and family rules to ensure both parents are on the same page is a great place to start (see 5). Children are incredibly intuitive and when the security of their home or family is at risk in anyway, it’s not unusual for them to shake things up.

Parenting is hard. Living with other people is hard. We all need to be heard and seen. We all need to be respected for who we are and what we contribute to the world big or small. The last thing I want to share is that one of the most powerful things you can do if you and your parenting partner are struggling is talk to each other. Tell your story. Listen to theirs. Forgive each other. Start fresh. Remember why you got into this in the first place. If you are stuck, there is too much pain or anger, ask for help. Marriage is hard. Parenting is hard. But don’t you value what you work hard for more? 

Do the work.