Kids and Marriage, Kids and Marriage…

I never thought it would be this way. My husband and I have a good marriage – a good relationship, built on love, mutual interests and trust. We’ve been together seven years and we love each other deeply, so I never thought anything would come between us. Then we had kids.

At first, we were overjoyed. I got pregnant a month after we got married, so our first year of marriage was spent dealing with pregnancy or a newborn. When Rose was born, we were ecstatic. Her little pink face, those scrunchy eyes, the way she cooed and held our fingers in hers, it was all so new and wonderful. She slept through the night at three months, and so did we. As she grew, I looked forward to each stage with equal anticipation, and I was tickled with everything she learned and did. Matt and I doted on her, and she returned the love.

We’d gotten to the Terrible Twos by the time we got pregnant with our second child. We wanted him, but we didn’t expect him. We had tried for a baby for a year, and then the fertility doctor said I was old and drying up. We really wanted another child, so we started to research adoption. All through it, I thought, Man, if I could just get pregnant this would be so much easier. And then boom! It happened.

The first time I saw Christian on the sonogram I figured he was a boy. He was lying down, knees crossed, and he put his arms behind his head and stretched, arching his back, and I thought, That’s a kid who could watch football all day. We had wanted another girl and so did Rose, but now we were looking at a whole new adventure. I passed by a T-ball game one day when I was pregnant, looking at the boys in their tiny uniforms and thought, That’s going to be him someday. I couldn’t wait.

By the time Christian was born, Rose was two-and-three-quarters, and gearing up for the Theatrical Threes. Her tantrums had grown longer and more dramatic and she grew more defiant every day. She still had a sweet side. On the day her brother was born, she came to the hospital, looked at him in his plastic crib, and said, “I will protect you!” We thought it was incredibly sweet. We didn’t know how she’d react to her brother but so far, so good.
Once we got him home, it was a different story. I was holding newborn Christian one day and Rose shouted, “SHE’S MY MOMMY, NOT YOUR MOMMY!” So we had to tell her that things in her little world had changed. She was still the Alpha dog, but she had to “move it on over” because a new dog was moving in.

Things pretty much went downhill from there. Rose would kick, push and punch her brother, while we tried to protect him. She’d clamor for attention every time we fed him or played with him. She’d yell and scream while he slept, just to wake him up. And now she steals his pacifier in the middle of the night, waking everyone up.

Speaking of waking everybody up, more often than not, Christian wakes in the middle of the night. Matt gets up with him, sometimes for an hour or two. Mornings after nights like that are no fun.

And speaking of sleep, getting both kids down at night is impossible. Christian stays up until 9:30 and Rose insists that Matt sit with her while she falls asleep, so we don’t get any couple time.

All through this so far, I thought Matt and I were on the same team, and for the most part, we were. But now that we’ve been through a year of toddler violence, tantrums and defiance, I think it’s torn us apart. Our parenting philosophy is still the same, but we differ on execution.

When I tell Rose to, say, stop playing with the sink in the bathroom, it goes something like this. I’ll say, “That’s enough water. Turn it off.” I still hear the water running. I wait a minute to give her some time to follow (something I learned from parenting experts) then I say, a little louder, “I said no more water. Turn it off!” The water still runs, then I get up, go into the bathroom, turn it off, and say, louder this time, “I SAID no more water!” at which point Rose gets all mad and starts screaming “Nooooo!” And I say angrily, “That’s it, go to your room!” and she either runs to her room screaming or she continues to protest and I say, loudly, “Are you choosing a time out?” (something I learned from her preschool teacher) and she yells “NO!” and runs to her room.

When Matt tells Rose to stop playing with the sink in the bathroom, it goes something like this. He’ll say, “Rose, turn the water off.” The water keeps running for a few seconds. He’ll say, a little louder “Rose, I said turn the water OFF!” The water keeps running. He’ll yell “TURN THE WATER OFF AND GET OUT HERE!” The water keeps running. Ten seconds later, he goes into the bathroom and yells “ROSE! I TOLD YOU TO TURN THE WATER OFF! GO TO YOUR ROOM!” She says, “You’re a damn daddy! Dammit! Dammit! (something we have to work on)” and runs to her room.

It would appear we are on the same team, but the offensive coordinator has dropped the ball. We both want the same thing, but we’re not using the same playbook. We do have some things in common. We both get mad. We both let her push our buttons. But Matt’s defense is a lot more aggressive than mine. I want to yell, and I do, a lot, but I really try not to.

I have this thing about yelling. My parents were best described as a cross between the Bunkers and the Costanzas, so I grew up with a lot of yelling. I hate hearing violence in a voice. When someone yells around me, doesn’t even have to be at me, all of those childhood feelings come back – I’m scared, I’m mad, I want to fight back. When I yell, I feel ashamed – well, as soon as I calm down. When Matt does it, I want to comfort Rose when it’s all over. When I comfort Rose, I undermine Matt. And that’s what’s tearing us apart.

Whenever we have a clash in discipline, Matt and I wind up angry at each other. I’m mad because he yelled and he’s mad because I took Rose’s side. It takes us a few hours to talk about it and work it out, and sometimes we don’t talk it out at all. We just let it eat at our relationship for a few days until it either happens again or we have a compelling reason to band together. So we wind up in this band together/break apart, band together/break apart cycle and it’s killing us.

We thought that kids would bring us closer together. We imagined an idyllic family life, free of the conflict we had in our families of origin. We’d gaze at our kids, smile, and gaze lovingly at each other. We’d be a family and we’d be so full of love we couldn’t stand it. Sometimes we do feel that way. But most of the time, no.

The thing is, we’ve got to stop the kids from coming between us. This week we had a talk about Rose and how to deal with her. We agreed to watch a DVD that will teach us to derail tantrums. We finally got some alone time — that doesn’t happen unless both kids nap at the same time. We got to talk not only about the kids, but we were able to laugh together, and talk about grownup things too. We haven’t worked out all the kinks but it’s a start. We agreed to be more open to parenting advice. Most of the time, that comes from me, because in researching a parenting article, I’ve discovered an “opportunity for improvement.”

The advice comes from parenting experts – sometimes pretty heavy hitters – but it seems like it comes from me because it comes out of my mouth. That makes Matt feel like I’m criticizing him. But I can’t help it. I get these little nuggets of parenting gold and I can’t keep them to myself – not if I think they can help us.

We’ve gotten to the point where we’re open to anything. That’s good because we’re using anything and everything to help us. We’re taking every opportunity to be together as a couple. Matt’s started working at home more, so we can take breaks together, and we’re going to schedule some more babysitting so we can have dates. A few weeks ago, the kids’ surrogate grandparents stayed with them so we could have a weekend away. It was amazing how easy our companionship and intimacy was during that weekend. I didn’t have to rush to tell him everything within the five adult minutes we usually have. Neither one of us was stressed out or pulled in other directions. We were able to focus all of our attention on each other.

It’s not a new concept. Parents have to prioritize and make couple time if they want to survive. We’ve got to learn it over and over again. I don’t think we’re alone in that. I think that part of being a parent is focusing so much on our kids that we neglect ourselves. Our family consists of our kids AND us, so we have to learn to include ourselves when we think of taking care of our family.