Parenting and the Marriage Mess
"It felt like breaking up with myself," says Lisa-Jo Baker, describing the challenge of becoming a parent. "Because there are all these things you used to love about yourself and your life without kids—things you didn't even realize were special at the time. Those late-afternoon naps. Those spontaneous movie nights. Uninterrupted meals, sleep, bathroom breaks."
Mom of three and the author of Surprised by Motherhood: Everything I Never Expected About Being a Mom, Lisa-Jo continues, "And then the kids arrive and they huff and they puff and they blow your life down. It can be a disorienting experience that takes a while to wrap your head around—how you are breaking up with yourself for someone you love so much more."
The reality of parenting is that along with all the amazing joy, blessing, delight, and soul-deep love can come some heavy tolls: emotional struggles, stress, exhaustion, frustration, and a sense of lost identity. These are serious matters that are tough to grapple with. But these tolls don't just cost us as individuals—they can exact a dangerously high price from our marriages as well.
Time and time again, counselors and family experts report that parenting conflicts are a huge source of marital problems—and time and time again, our experiences bear this out. If you've got kids, then you know this to be true: It doesn't take much for parenting challenges to boil over into relationship struggles.
Completely and utterly drained
For Leslie Burke—mother to a two-year-old and a four-month-old—one of the main parenting struggles that has led to challenges in her marriage has been how transitioning from working full-time in a gratifying job to the often thankless daily tasks of stay-at-home motherhood has affected her own emotions and energy level. "When I worked full-time, I achieved daily goals and made tangible progress on projects. I experienced success," Leslie explains. "But now, as a full-time mom, I struggle daily—trying to get kids to sleep, trying to get them to eat, trying to keep the house in reasonable order."
Leslie's experience is a common one—full-hearted parenting involves a lot of tending, serving, and giving . . . which invariably means it can feel like there's not much left to give to one's husband. "I can easily become short with my husband Pat, inadvertently showing little care or concern for his needs," Leslie candidly shares. "Over a long stretch of time, this really wears on our relationship and it feels like all of our interactions are ungracious or contentious."
Different and divided
"You'll often find me saying 'parenting is stinking hard sometimes!'" says Erin Smalley, co-author (with her husband, Greg, and father-in-law ,Gary Smalley) of the forthcoming book, The Wholehearted Wife. Mom to four kids spanning 20- to 6-years-old, Erin explains that the main challenge she's faced in this arena is when she and her husband have different approaches to parenting. For example, Erin shares, "One area that has challenged us is our different opinions on movies and video games with our son." Erin often takes a more conservative stance on digital media while Greg tends to see movies or video games as launching pads for conversation with their son. They can slip into what Erin calls a "reactive cycle" in which they're just reacting to each other rather than working toward a win-win.
For me, one sure cause of marital struggle is when differences in parenting approaches get intermingled with protective parental instincts—with the mama-bear (or papa-bear) desire to step in and protect our children. Though my husband and I share a pretty unified vision and philosophy for how we parent, there are inevitably times when one of us is responding to a situation in a way the other perceives as too strict or too harsh or just too different than how we would do it ourselves. Then those protective instincts kick in. When physical and emotional exhaustion are thrown into the mix with parenting differences and protective (and often prideful) reactions, you've got a mess on your hands. A great, big, huge, marital mess.
Strategies for battling the marriage mess
The challenges that parenting poses within marriage are inevitable. But letting those challenges become relationship-busting sources of tension, anger, resentment, or unresolved conflict? That's not inevitable. Rather than letting parenting-related marriage tension erode away at your relationship, you can take steps to shore up your relationship.
1. Know your (physical) limits.
In conflicts during her sleep-deprived season as a new mom, Lisa-Jo explains that her husband Peter "learned to tell me to take a nap. When I got all irritated at him for calling a 'time-out' on my tirade, he'd promise to pick it back up again after I'd slept. And of course, once I got some sleep, my sanity returned—as did my love for my kids and the man who made them with me." Don't try to be superhuman (even if parenting seems to demand it). Instead, recognize your physical limits and choose to prioritize sleep, exercise, and healthy eating so you're able to be more of who you really are.
2. Focus on faithfulness—not feelings.
For Leslie, being drained at the end of the day from her role as a parent to two young boys is a reality—but she also strives to combat its emotional toll. "I choose to be intentional about moving the focus from myself, how my day was, and so on, and instead remember that this is the role God has called me to—being faithful is success whether or not it feels like it," she says. Leslie also navigates the tough spots by reminding herself that she and her husband, Pat, are on the same team.
3. Review your common ground.
Though Erin and her husband see some parenting issues differently (as all married couples do), Erin strives to be realistic about these natural differences rather than take them personally. Yet despite those differences, Erin and her husband like to look back and reminisce over common ground and shared experiences in their marriage. "Often we can laugh together—when enough time has passed—as we process how we reacted in different scenarios, as we rejoice at where our kids are now, and honestly land at 'We actually are pretty great together,'" Erin says.
4. Prioritize fun.
Whether it's a regular date night or a favorite TV show and snacks on the couch after the kids' bedtime, take time to have fun with your husband. Don't let life steel your joy! And don't, absolutely don't, reserve all your joy and smiles and energy for your kids—leave some for your husband too! I can be guilty of this too . . . so as a valiant act of resistance, choose to laugh together! Tickle, tell jokes, make out! Play games or try sushi or go for a run or whatever it is that makes both of you smile from deep down inside. This stuff—this miraculous glue of having fun together—is what strengthens the bond needed for those other moments of tension. It's an investment that helps you remember later on that you are a God-fashioned team.
5. Cling to Jesus.
The truth is that just as parenting puts a strain on the marriage relationship, it can also powerfully affect our spiritual lives—and not in a good way. When we're busy, giving constantly, pulled in a zillion directions, and just plain worn out, it's very easy to let our intimacy with Christ slide. Yet it is in and through a strong relationship with Jesus that we're equipped to handle those tough aspects of parenting and marriage—to be forgiving, patient, kind, gentle, and full of grace. When we choose prayer and Christ-reliant humility during those tough moments of mom-desperation, we find a strength that shapes and empowers us to face life's challenges.
Clean up and build
In my house, there are often Lego-filled heaps left helter-skelter about the carpeting. Messes like these seem to come with the territory of having elementary-aged kids.
But as moms we ask our kids to clean up those messes. Often, in and through the cleaning, a little cottage emerges or a cool lavender car or a spaceship equipped with an amazing escape hatch. The cleaning up leads to something better.
And our parenting/marriage struggles can be the same. The inevitable mess just comes with the territory of being Mom and Dad and kids. But we don't have to wallow in the mess. We can clean it up. We can come together, get creative, have a little fun . . . and build.