We often talk about and are encouraged to put our children first. It is considered proper or even required to make our personal needs take a backseat to our children, to be good parents. While I agree with the idea of not being selfish in our lives and interactions with our children, I don’t agree with this as a blanket statement. I believe that we should put our whole family unit first, not just our kids.
Allow me to elaborate. For you and your spouse to function as the best, most cohesive parenting unit possible, you have to stick together. We have said in the past that this means you have to discuss your decisions and choices then agree on the implementation. Truthfully, there is more to it than that. You also have to dedicate some time to being together, in the same room, focused on each other, doing things together for your relationship. I have mentioned parents needing to be present, in the now with their kids. All the benefits of that present attention that the family reaps can also help to improve the relationship between just the parents in the very same way. Practice spending time not just in proximity, but actually together; holding hands, not phones, listening to each other solely and independently, focusing your attention on your partner, and respecting them with your active participation in your life as a unit.
In the past, I have written about how difficult it is to effectively parent when your partner doesn’t agree with the direction you are taking, so that should be a concept that we can grasp. It is, however, more than that. I also mean that parenting as a team sport is more difficult when you are not connecting mentally, thoughtfully, lovingly with each other in areas that do not include the children. If your spouse is always upset because you are between jobs, they will not be as rational, and level headed when dealing with a parenting issue either. If you are feeling angry, ignored or generally unappreciated, you will not be as reasonable to deal with when your child is in need, or you have a parenting decision to make.
To go back to my previous article, some of the features in my new car are a bit selfish and focused on me. If my wife were feeling used or angry with me over some other issue in our life, she might not have been able to look at this decision fairly and been objective. She may have countered me on it, not for any sound reason other than she wanted to get even for something else. To put it simply, to be the best parental unit you can, you also need to focus on being the best spousal unit you can. Until now we have placed most of the emphasis on parenting, but at its core, if you are part of a parental unit, you have to put that unit first above all else to maintain its integrity so that it is present to function at all.
It is often easy to get hung up on the daily grind of running a family, to be so focused on the children you forget to focus on yourself, and your partner. You have needs, so do they. If those needs aren’t met, you will have division, chaos, and discord in the parenting structure which is the very foundation of the family. In my case, it is my wife and me, your situation may be different, but the point behind it is the same. If you don’t make time for you, for them, for the unit, you will have no strength to guide from. Here is my example.
In 2008, during the economic downturn that was so widespread and damaging here in middle America, my wife and I had some hard choices to make, what was at stake was no less than the stability of our family and our very way of life. We are both small business owners. We both had employees, we both had overhead. We both had an income derived from our business that supported our family. Now in the past, my wife and I have made a point of always being available to help out the others in our life. We tithe our income at our local churches, we donate to charity, but before all that, we make a point to help our family, neighbors, and friends first. When things went so poorly, many of them, the family, neighbors, and friends needed our help badly. As long as our businesses could afford it, we helped out. However, once our own business, our livelihood, the very food on our children’s table was in jeopardy, we had to cut back our giving. It was an unpopular thing to do. At the time, our church was counting on that funding, our employees, friends, and neighbors were counting on the assistance too. The only way we could justify it was to realize that we had two choices. We could continue to give until we ruined ourselves, then we would never be able to give again because the businesses would be gone. Or we could stop giving, temporarily, until our businesses were out of trouble, then we could start giving again. At the time, it seemed to many people that this decision was selfish, that we abandoned them when they needed us the most. The fact was that by doing this we stayed strong enough to help for many years to come and though they missed out on a few critical dollars right then, they later were able to receive far more, and for a much longer time, hopefully for as long as they needed us. This analogy is the same way you should look at how you sacrifice your relationship, your love, and your time to others instead of taking the time, seemingly selfishly, to put your marriage first. By sometimes making your children take a back seat to your own needs, and those of your partner, you keep your relationship strong and viable for the long term. Those who have to wait patiently a little now for your time or attention, gain vastly more from your strong relationship in the long run.
Another great example of this point is this: I mentioned that some of the features in my new car were “just for me,” or “selfish” and that’s OK, I did that so that I would be happier in the long term use of that car. The very same can be said of the things you do in your loving relationship. It may seem selfish or shallow to leave the kids behind sometimes and go out on a date, just the two of you, but it isn’t, it is critical to your survival as a unit. You need time to bond, to grow together and to stay focused on your relationship. When you have this together time, you not only get a chance to relax a little, it gives you time to openly talk about or deal with things you can’t address around the kids. Things like your hopes, dream, and aspirations of where you and the family are going over time. If you do this regularly, you can also make a little boardroom time. Time for you, the family’s board of directors to discuss strengths and weaknesses of current policies, strategy, observations, and intended outcomes. It also provides a forum for discovery which is less threatening and more open to embracing change, especially if you approach it with that intent at the onset. My best example of the value of time together away follows:
Many years ago, my wife and I had a funny thing happen. In my house, I cook. I am good at it, I like doing it, and my wife is very happy not to have to do it. At some point, I made mixed vegetables. You know, diced carrots, potatoes, beans and peas, all mixed together and served as a side dish. My wife told me how good they were, so I put them into our regular dietary rotation. I don’t care for them, but I don’t hate them, and she liked them. Here is the funny part: She doesn’t like mixed vegetables. At all. She was being politely appreciative of my work in the kitchen. When I made them a regular part of our diet based on her response, she thought they must be a favorite of mine. So for over a year, we ate a lot of mixed vegetables. Both of us quietly chewing thru food we could both do without. Both wishing for something else, and both enduring it in an attempt to please our spouse. Yup, funny. In a sick metaphorical way. Anyways, one night we were out on a small work trip, stopped into a nice restaurant, and one of the vegetable sides was a mixed. We were chatting and laughing and enjoying each other’s attention when one of us mentioned how nice it was that the other could get their mixed vegetables and we both didn’t have to eat it. A long discussion about communication followed, and we no longer eat mixed vegetables. Also, when we want to make sure that we are doing something in locked step, we may ask if this is a real intention or if this is “Mixed Vegetables?”
The point is this: it was communication away from home, away from the kids, that gave us the chance to connect in a way that we were comfortable opening up to each other. In doing so, we found an area where we were both only working together to achieve an end, not to fulfill a personal wish or need. Add to this an openness that can often only come in a safe or neutral place, away from the conflict zone, like on the beach or a date, or pillow talking in some hotel half a state away from the chaos of home. Not only is this relaxing and refreshing, this frees up your mind for other things like the strategic planning, the budget overview, the dreaming and refocusing your family on the things that matter to both of you. When you come back home, you have a clear vision of where the family is going, and can make a plan to take it there. Think of these little away missions for mom and dad as the team building exercises that are so common in upper management in a large business. You go out, learn, trust, talk, plan, dream, then you come back and refocus on aspects you see need work. Maybe you learn that you need to budget for some new thing, maybe one of you has a dream to be an artist, and you need to start changing the schedule and budget to fit in a painting class. You get the point. If you don’t take the time to strengthen your relationship and be together and love and dream together, you will instead grow apart, which sucks for many reasons, but for this article is also a much more difficult position from which to parent, guide and instruct your children.
So there you have it. Be together, and don’t be afraid to be alone, together. It is OK to be a little selfish when it comes to your love relationship. This is only my opinion, but I have been married to the same wonderful person for over 25 years now, so that opinion carries the weight of experience.