How Modeling Good Behavior for My Daughter Saved My Marriage
By Jancee Dunn
When our daughter was a toddler, we’d whisper-fight — obscene gestures and all — over her head as she blithely watched Curious George. Because we restricted the war zone to us, I deluded myself that she would be unaffected. Of course, that’s not true, as I discovered one morning when I overheard her in her bedroom pitting her Beanie Boos against each other. She had one of them holler, in a perfect imitation of me, “I’m sick and tired of this crap!” Turns out, when you “model” aggressive behavior — say, loudly accusing your husband of being a “bag of dicks” — your child picks it right up. Not only that, but she is forming expectations for her own future relationships. So we decided to try and fake a more noble version of ourselves in the hopes that, when our daughter grew up, she’d seek out a better relationship than our own. Our household would thrum with the domestic bliss of a chirpy 1950s sitcom.
Getting into the character of a mature, reasoned grown-up proved difficult. One Saturday morning, Tom informed me that he had scheduled a five-hour bike ride upstate with friends (in what was surely a coincidence, he took up long-distance cycling the week after the baby was born). “Sorry,” he said, “forgot to tell you.” As a vein started pulsing in my forehead, I struggled to employ G-rated words. Several marriage counselors we visited said to start with “I,” not “you,” and to talk about your feelings, both strategies stave off a rebuttal (you can’t argue with how someone feels, can you?).
“I feel disappointed that you didn’t tell me about this,” I began, with all the sincerity of a telemarketing script. We both glanced at my daughter placidly coloring.
“I should have, and I apologize,” said my rational new husband. Then I clunkily pulled a “repair phrase” out of couples-counseling pioneer John Gottman’s playbook that I’d never used in my life: “What do we need to do to put this incident to rest so that we can move on?” He told me he’d schedule rides in Google Calendar, so there would be no surprises, and offered to take Sylvie on Sunday so I could meet friends. I leaned in for a playacting hug that neither of us wanted and covertly mouthed, “Thanks, dickwad!”
Over the months, the quality of our theatrical performance went from a passable community-theater production to Method acting, simply because it was easier to stay in character. Our biggest challenge arose one afternoon when we went to our accountant’s office to do our taxes, Sylvie in tow with an iPad. We got clobbered on our return and somehow ended up owing the IRS many thousands of dollars. On the car ride home, we normally would have started arguing immediately, but instead we both sat silently in the front to gather our thoughts. Then the curtain rose as we brightly reassured each other that we were in this together, it’s “only money,” and we still had our health. We calmly worked out how we were going to secure a loan.
Little by little, this forced, idealized version of our marriage, performed for the benefit of our child, became the norm. Treating each other with fake kindness and respect allowed our romance to rebloom. What followed was the age-old story: We fell in love on the set.
The Husband Who Hates His Wife’s Parenting
The clock read 3:04 when my wife leapt out of bed to check on our son, whose bedroom is at the other end of our apartment. As always, she’d awakened me. When she returned, I asked if our child had woken up. She said no. “Then why did you go out there?” “Fuck you!” she said.
In the light of day, the preceding exchange makes no sense. But it fits the pattern established the day we brought our son home from the maternity ward. There are times when I’m the one cursing unprovoked or coming back with the kind of cruel or snarky insult you can only sleep off. While we usually agree on the overall goals of parenting, she’s both more selfless and more neurotic. Our son is a picky eater, so she picks the parsley out of his food; I tell him if he doesn’t take at least three bites, he won’t have dinner at all. Then she tells me my way is the wrong way. I excuse myself and scroll on my phone.
Because our son is a light sleeper, it gets worse overnight; we get worse overnight. She worries over the temperature in his room, the banging radiator, the too-bright night-light; I worry about our son’s ability to soothe himself and our ability to focus the next day. Parenthood has given us plenty of joy, but when the stress of it drives us apart, it’s hard not to wonder: Did our son warp us or just help expose who we really are?
The Wife Who Wonders How the Empty Nest Will Remake Her Marriage
By Lisa Miller
Even before she was born, our daughter was our priority. My husband and I married late in our lives, propelled toward each other largely by a mutual urge to procreate, and we saw in the other the qualities necessary for raising a child: stamina, humor, intelligence, kindness, good health, a durable beauty. We hurled ourselves at the strictures of parenthood without a shred of ambivalence, and the life we built was designed to accommodate her, starting with the apartment in the excellent school district and ending most recently with the adoption of a black-and-white kitten who sleeps in her bed.
From go, we have included our daughter in our grown-up lives. On a road trip down South when she was 4 months old, I nursed her in the bathrooms of soul-food restaurants. We slept in elegant rooms with four-poster beds and put her down in nests we created by lining dresser drawers with bath towels. This dynamic continues to this day: Our daughter is abreast of our finances, our illnesses, our professional travails, and when decisions come up — where to go on vacation, new bathroom fixtures — she expects to have a say, to be kept in the loop.
We have little experience, really, of being a couple, so few years logged of just us two, and so it’s hard to say what we’ll become without the daily weight of parenthood. I don’t fantasize about another relationship or a different man or a different life. But I worry, sometimes, that we are both temperamentally single people — stubborn and defended individuals — and that her physical absence will release us from our shoulder-to-shoulder camaraderie, that we’ll become unbound. Without her, will we revert to what we were before, two solo readers, immersed in our thoughts? Or will we become something else, together?
The delights of marriage in the Empty Nest are many, my friends all assure me, and first among them is the rediscovery of unbounded time: the freedom to wander — without worrying about bedtime or babysitters or homework or curfews — into a new restaurant and order wine and dinner and dessert, to tack an extra day or week to a business trip — even to take separate vacations and reconvene at home. Most appealing of all (to me) is the sense of transgression I hear in these stories, as if in middle age these friends are getting reacquainted with their former, more rebellious selves. A woman I know says that since her children went away, she and her husband have cultivated an interest in mixology. Another is demolishing her children’s bedrooms in order to create separate spaces for her husband and herself to (separately) do as they please. But my favorite story comes from a woman whose last child just left for college. When her kids were at home, screens-free family meals were sacrosanct. These days, she and her husband will occasionally sit down for dinner on the couch in front of super-crap TV. What a pleasure it must be to cast off the charade of model adulthood — and to have a partner by your side with whom to transgress.
What a 15-Year-Old Knows About Her Parents’ Marriage
My mother is always very charmed by my father. They’re not a big PDA type of couple, but the hierarchy in our family is obviously Mom, Dad, me, but she’s a little bit like, “Ah, yes, my court jester.” She’s pleased by his presence. They like each other. My dad is very funny, and my mom likes to be around his very funniness. My dad had a lot of problems with organization when he was my age, and he’s still pushing that ball up that hill. And my mom is kind of a control freak, and so my mom will text him to remind him to pick up the dry cleaning or to feed the dog. And he’ll be like, “What dog?” She’s very committed to making sure that the whole ship of our lives runs smoothly. When my mom does that to me, I’m like, “If you don’t stop bugging me, I’m never going to learn how to be independent.” But my dad’s solution was definitely like, “Instead of learning how to be independent, I’m going to find this woman to control my life, tell me what I should wear.”
My parents are very like, “Here is our marriage, and here is our relationship with you, and they are completely separate.” Their romantic interest and intricacies are kind of between them and them. I think that when I have kids, that’s the way I’d like to do it. In the 15 years of living in this apartment with them across a hallway, I’ve never heard them having sex. I’ve been like, “When do you guys have sex?” My mom’s like, “I’m not talking about that with you, my daughter.” Every summer, my mom is like, “I think you should go to camp. And I think it’s possible because they’re like, “You need to get out of the house.”
The last big fight I remember them having was a really long time ago. I don’t remember what it was about, but I remember my mom throwing something on the ground and screaming “I hate you” and coming into my room and dragging me out of my room and going out to my dad. She was like, “I want you to see this.” And going up to my father and saying, “I don’t hate you, I love you, but I am very mad.” They’ve been going to marriage counseling for almost as long as I can remember, so I very rarely see them fight. That all happens behind closed doors. But by this point in the 15 years of their marriage, they’ve settled into a very tight, good rhythm. Like any person that you live with, there are little things that you scrape about. I think that they’re not the type of people who are ever going to get divorced. They’re very solid and they’re very grown into each other. Do you know how a tree grows around a sidewalk? It’s like that.
When You Want Another Kid and He Doesn’t
My husband already had two kids, twins, when we got together. His ship and life were full. I was in love, and happy, but also dappled by an intrusive and overwhelming terror of losing him.
“Let’s say I get hit by a meteor,” he used to say. “You’re still going to be okay.” I think these random eliminations were invoked to recall to me an inner strength. But also they were a smuggled-in expression of his own fatigue and darkness, which I knew was in some part related to his being overwhelmed by being a father. Sometimes he longed to be hit by a meteor. Regardless, I knew he was wrong — I would not survive his being hit.
Tired as he was, he quickly agreed to have another child with me and told me that he thought it would be wrong to even ask me to consider not having one — it was that important. He also said he couldn’t yet imagine how he would handle the responsibilities of another human being, “but the heart always makes room for more love.” But please, he emphasized, could it be just one? He didn’t think he could do more than that. He just didn’t.
That was grand. I wanted to have a kid — I really, really, really wanted to have a kid — but one sounded like plenty. I felt sure that no matter how much I would love and need the as-yet-nonexistent child, an unspeakable truth was that I would never love or need the child as intensely as I did this man. Probably not even close. It was a monogamy thing, kind of.
Well. Next I remember going out for dumplings with my 3-week-old son. My husband wasn’t with me. I thought I would be so, so sad if he were hit by a meteor. Like really, really, really, sad. But I would be okay. My son made me feel more human and resilient and aglow with love than I had ever felt in my life.
That magical feeling bloomed into its own problem. Not right away, but soon. Many or most people feel destroyed by their children, at least for a few years, even if they love them madly. I knew that my husband felt that way, but I didn’t at all. I had happy daydreams about being a mother of seven. I wanted at least one more. I can’t be mad at him, I said to myself. These are my decisions, I said to myself. I am so mad at him, I said.
I floated something about a second child. He responded quietly: It wouldn’t be right for me to deny you that, if that’s what you really want. I recognized in that the kindest version of “Please, no” that he could offer.
I knew how he would feel if there was another child. He would feel like his life had been hit by a meteor. Even if I’d be okay, he wouldn’t. I decided to find a way to accept not having a second child. I told myself that it was a monogamy thing, kind of. This time the love affair was with my child and another might break that. Even though I also knew the love had not broken the time before. Anyhow, time passes.
*A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!