A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Loving Spouse and Children...at the same time!

Living with the imperfections and idiosyncrasies of one's spouse can be a challenge. But sometimes another difficulty arises, namely, trying to be loving and attentive to one's spouse while also being loving and attentive to one's children.

We often hear presented a dichotomy of priorities: Kids first, spouse second! Or: Spouse first, kids second!

It makes sense that these options are presented in such a manner inasmuch as parents often experience a real conflict in being attentive both to a spouse and to kids. The first camp will argue that that kids are more evidently needy than one's adult spouse. The energy we put into caring for our kids is likely much more than we dedicate to caring for a spouse, who can eat, bathe, dress, etc. without assistance. Our kids' dependence upon us makes them our first priority.

The second camp will say that family life cannot succeed if the parents fail to prioritize the marriage relationship itself, between the husband and wife. The kids are important but should come second to the spousal relationship. In case of a conflict, attentiveness to the needs of the spouse should win out.

As mentioned above, such a dichotomy indicates a real challenge that parents face: to love spouse and children at the same time. And yet, this presentation can be quite misleading.

Spousal love is the foundation of marriage; family is built upon this relationship. Children follow upon this love; we can even say they are incarnations of this love. Spousal love precedes the love for one's children, and it should not be cast aside or demoted when children make their appearance.

Yet at the same time, we have to acknowledge that the acts of love that characterized courtship and early marriage become more difficult when children are present. The diversion of finances to support children can prevent indulging a spouse in filet mignon, fine wine, chocolates, and roses. The relaxed quality time together becomes rarer. Opportunities for physical affection and intimacy become harder to find. The effort of serving children by caring for them can drain a parent of the effort required to serve the spouse as before. And in the midst of the numerous challenges of parenting, such as sleep deprivation, having your belongings destroyed by kids, being insulted by your kids, and so on, it can be hard to remember to appreciate your spouse verbally in compliments and kind words of affirmation.

Clearly, then, we are presented with the challenge of loving our spouse and our children at the same time. It cannot be an either-or, wherein we focus solely on our spouse and ignore our children or focus entirely on our children and ignore our spouse. The situation may often appear to us as imperfect. A spouse may arrive home from work with big news to share just as a child vomits on the floor. The baby may wake up for a feeding just as you and your spouse finally sat down to start your game of Scrabble. Your romantic anniversary dinner may be postponed due to a trip to the emergency room for a broken arm. It may seem that children are interfering with the relationship or intruding upon the marriage relationship.

Yet the apparent imperfection of the situation seems to be God's will: the spouse is a gift, and so also children are a gift to the spouses. And if God wills it, we must find some way to embrace the challenge. Here's where mortification enters the picture: loving both spouse and children at the same time will certainly require a death to self. If we accept the opportunity to die to self, God will give us the grace to love spouse and children as best we can.

To be more practical, here are a few ideas to ensure that we do our best with this situation:

1. Because kids are needier than the spouse, it is easier to neglect a spouse. Therefore, it will be important to make an intentional effort to love and spend time with the spouse. Daily practical efforts include remembering a morning kiss and hug, pouring the spouse's coffee, getting out of bed on time to make sure the morning goes smoothly, putting down a tablet when the spouse enters the room, and so on. Ensuring an opportunity for conversation on a daily basis is also helpful. On a weekly basis, it is beneficial to have some set aside time without kids - a date night, for example. Of course we want to love and be attentive to the spouse, but consistency in effort to these little acts can become a mortification, where we have to put aside ourselves in order to love a spouse well.

2. When it comes to spending time with a spouse, don't let the best get in the way of the good. We often have an easy time envisioning an ideal:  a romantic, week-long trip to the Caribbean with no kids or a three-course meal at a fancy French restaurant. Upon recognizing that these ideals are not possible, many respond by giving up and doing nothing to spend time together. It is often possible, however, to come up with another option. A regular date night may appear impossible with multiple young children who are difficult at the time you'd be leaving them with a sitter; going out later would mean being tired and unable to enjoy the meal. And the cost of a nice weekly dinner out may be unrealistic. But what about Saturday morning breakfast, when the kids are better-behaved for the sitter, you are both wide awake, and you can get a bagel or pastries with coffee and not spend too much money? It may be a far cry from the luxuries of courtship. It may not be the ideal; it may not be the plan for quality time 20 years from now. For the present moment, however, it is better than not doing anything together. Working with the current situation while maintaining flexibility and the possibility of reevaluation can also be a mortification; we may need to kill our ideas of "best" and recognize that what is actually "best" at this time is sticking to something that is possible.

3. Caring for children is a way of loving a spouse. Time spent with children should not be viewed as set against the time spent with the spouse. When a parent cares for children well, with love and attentiveness, he or she is loving a spouse through this service. Sometimes, this is obvious, like when one gets up early with the kids so the spouse can catch up on sleep. At other times, this truth is not as apparent. Nonetheless, parents do the best they can caring for children and performing other work in order to contribute and serve the family as a whole. The children should not be seen as "mine" or "my project." Whether father or mother is interacting with the children, the sacrifices involved are not simply for the sake of the children themselves, but for the marriage. A parent's time spent at work earning money can also be seen as a way of loving one's spouse. With this perspective, it is important to work well, for the sake of the family, and also to work efficiently (not wasting time) so as to maximize presence and contributions to the home.

4. Because loving spouse and children at the same time can often seem difficult or even impossible, it is important to make a frequent examination of one's efforts. Spouses can benefit from reflecting on existing problems, such as being too busy to have time for each other or letting screens interrupt opportunities for conversation. Accompanying this examination is a willingness to change, even when it is difficult.

5. Of course, even with the willingness to change, failure is imminent. The demands of parenting may make it difficult to be loving and kind to one's spouse. After a hard day with kids, it can be challenging to be attentive to conversation. With the touch-time required by toddlers and infants, it may be hard to attend to a nightly spousal holding time or even to remember a goodnight kiss. As with any failure, however, parents have to be willing to try again, seeking the sacrament of confession regularly for support in the struggle.

6. It is a challenge to love spouse and children simultaneously. To meet their needs, to be affectionate, etc. Rather than cursing this challenge or regretting the situation, however, we are best off embracing the difficulty. It is a mortification; it requires a death to self and dependence on God's grace to do one's best when conflict ensues.

7. Keep the big picture. In the beginning of the marriage, the home began with the husband and wife. Eventually, it is likely that the children will leave and the home will once more consist solely of husband and wife. It may seem so far off in the future as to be inconceivable, but this is the normal course of marriage and family life. With this end in mind, it makes sense to maintain and strengthen the marriage relationship, the friendship between husband and wife. Retrospectively, all those sacrifices embraced in the midst of parenting will make more sense; they were helping all along to help husband and wife to grow in the generous gift of self.

It can be frustrating, and even discouraging to try to love and attend to a spouse and children at the same time. And yet, it is a wonderful opportunity to realize our limits and weaknesses, to embrace the challenge as a mortification, and to beg God's grace to help us to do the best we can to love him and serve him in this situation.

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