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Are the Kids Pulling You Apart?

How to choose marriage when minors want all of you

I pulled into the parking lot and checked my watch. I had 3.5 minutes to get the cupcakes to Room 204 for my son Cody's homeroom party.

I reached into the backseat and lifted the foil to make sure none of my creations had been smushed, smashed, or smudged (and yes, there's a difference). And there they were—27 flawless cupcakes.

I concluded it was well worth the drive to three different stores to find the "super sprinkles" and the extra trip to the grocery store to pick up the bright blue foil wrappers instead of settling for the lifeless pastel-colored paper wrappers.

As I looked at the cupcakes, I thought, Move over, Martha Stewart. I'm Mother of the Year material! In fact, I felt I'd entered the distinctive domain of SuperMom! I could picture Cody and his classmates ooohing and ahhhing as I unwrapped each of my priceless creations. They'd praise me with, "Oh, Mrs. Borsellino. You're the best mom in the world! Cody's soooo lucky. These are the coolest cupcakes we've ever seen."

I yawned as I hopped out of the car, picked up the cupcakes, and headed down the school corridor. Staying up until midnight to work on the cupcakes had left me tired, but my payoff was just around the corner. This had been one of those weeks. I'd been running nonstop all week long: football practice, gymnastics, basketball, piano, soccer. On top of that, homework, science projects, and spelling words needed my attention. Not to mention friends after school, a sleepover on Friday, and a birthday party over the weekend. Just to finish me off, my daughter Courtney had nothing to wear—so off to the mall we went!

Yes, it was exhausting, but I love my children and would do anything for them. After all, that's what parenting is about, I reasoned.

I arrived at Room 204 and as I set down the cupcakes on the classroom table and the children gathered around, I was overwhelmed—not by gratitude, but by grief!

In a matter of seconds, 54 grubby little paws were grabbing in unison for my perfect cupcakes. Not one of them took the time to recognize the works of art I'd created. Instead, like a crowd of famished bear cubs, they grabbed my beautifully decorated marvels and gobbled them down faster than I could say, "Hi, kids." It was a feeding frenzy! I watched in horror as the children devoured their cupcakes without one bit of gratitude—not even a simple, "Thanks."

My cupcakes were a hit, but my feelings were hurt.

What about the super sprinkles that required the extra trip? What about the blue foil wrappers that said "I've gone the extra mile for you?"

Why did I feel so empty? All I could think about was calling my husband, Chuck. I wanted him to hold me and tell me how proud he was and that, even if the kids didn't recognize it, he thought I was SuperMom and he appreciated the effort I'd put into those glittering gourmet cupcakes. Then, at that moment, as I walked out of Room 204, I woke up—and realized my priorities had been misdirected.

While God's first place in my life, somehow, I'd allowed my children to inch up to second place—and my spouse had dropped like a rock to a distant third. I wondered, When was the last time I spent this much time making something special for Chuck?

I began mentally to relive the past few days. Last Friday, Chuck had invited some friends over for the evening. They wanted to fix pan-fried home-cooked favorites; I ordered a pizza. On Saturday, he'd planned for us to have a date-night with dinner and a movie; I'd offered him a rain check so I could take our daughter Brittany and her friends to the mall. On Sunday afternoon, Chuck had wanted to go for a walk, but I'd thought it best to start Cody's "Atoms in the Universe" project. One by one I remembered my decisions over the past few days, and although many of them might have qualified me for SuperMom status, not one of them would suggest I was interested in holding the title of SuperSpouse.

I had to ask myself some difficult questions: What kind of role model was I being for my daughters? Is this how I wanted them to treat their husbands? Did they notice when I pushed their dad aside? Did Chuck feel I'd be there for him—after the kids graduated and moved on?

Needless to say, that day my priorities began to change. I adore my kids. I love parenthood. But I realized being a good parent is more than taxi-driving and cupcake-making. Children are designed to enrich a marriage. Not replace it. Not divide it.

That night I asked a neighbor to take the kids to their practices. And when Chuck arrived home, he and I sat at the dinner table and talked—just the two of us. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed him—my husband, my lover, my best friend.


The Dysfunction Junction

Recently, our pastor was preparing to speak about parenthood and conducted his research at one of the most renowned parental pit stops: Starbucks. While he was there he overheard one young toddler-toting mom say to another, "You know, I think I'm a great mom. I just don't think I'm a good wife." Unfortunately, many of us would have to admit we've been great parents but poor partners.

That's where Larry and Beth found themselves. They'd been married for four years when a beautiful baby boy arrived. Mom was delighted. Dad was delirious. Soon Dad had accumulated a garage full of sports equipment for his son: bikes, baseballs, in-line skates, hockey sticks, golf clubs. Beth felt neglected, ignored, and replaced.

She used to enjoy long walks and naps snuggled close with Larry. But now he was busy with other things. If it wasn't work, it was playtime with his prodigy. A marital crack developed. When Beth shared her feelings with Larry, he minimized and rationalized them. He said it was only temporary. But she wasn't convinced.

Soon Beth found a solution—a baby girl. Beth took great delight in shopping for frilly dresses and fancy bedroom furniture. Dad responded by going to a hockey game with his four-year-old son. The gap grew wider. Unknowingly, both of these parents traded marriage for parenthood. They offered their kids every opportunity to succeed in school, in sports, and in extracurricular activities. They didn't want their kids to miss out, to miss the activities they never experienced.

To be truthful, placing their focus on their kids also provided an opportunity for Larry and Beth to avoid each other. Their conversation centered on "the kids"—their schedules, their supplies, and their selections for next season. While all appeared okay on the surface, below the surface the problem was evident: Parents focused primarily on their children are parents focused minimally on their marriage.

Most of us saw Larry and Beth to be warm, caring, and attentive parents—and they were. However, attention to their kids gradually replaced attention to each other. It began with Larry, then spilled over to Beth. Eventually, the kids became the glue in this couple's relationship. When their kids finished high school and left for college, Larry and Beth's relationship left too.


Spouse-Centered Families

While we love our kids, love for kids was never designed to replace love for spouse. The heart of a marriage is centered on love, and the hub of parenting is centered on leadership. Neither of these will succeed if your children's unrestricted schedules and unlimited desires drive parental decision-making—and take the place of your relationship with your spouse.

Here are some ways to choose "couplehood" over parenthood.


1. Practice "parent time" daily.

There are two methods of "parent time" you can incorporate into your family schedule every day, one before dinner and one after. The first occurs when Mom and Dad arrive home. After a brief time with each child, where kisses and hugs are offered in abundance, parents meet and talk about their day together. For us, this is usually a kitchen thing, and we tell the kids, "Mom and Dad are going to spend the next 15 to 20 minutes together to talk, so go play for a few minutes and don't come back in the kitchen—unless there's bloodshed."

Another "parent time" option is feasible if you have kids over the age of 10. Because Mom and Dad spent their time and resources purchasing and preparing supper, the kids are responsible to contribute to family life by cleaning up after the meal. Parents can make good use of this time by going for a walk or sitting on the deck together, demonstrating that marriage really matters to Mom and Dad.


2. Lock your bedroom door.

Step 1: Purchase—and install—a lock for your bedroom door. Step 2: Use it! Sure, there are exceptions—such as when your kids are ill—but it's hard to "get in the mood" when you're afraid a child might burst through the door at any moment wanting a glass of water. Bedrooms establish boundaries. Parents need time together. If an emergency occurs, the kids can knock on the door and explain their emergency. Thirst is not an emergency!


3. Put the kids to bed early.

The latest research from the National Institutes of Health suggests that most toddlers need at least 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night, and adolescents need at least 9 to 9 and a half hours in order to meet the physical, emotional, and cognitive demands of their day. Chuck and I sent our kids to their bedrooms before bedtime (to read, play, slow down) for their benefit, as well as ours.

Ask yourself, How much time do my spouse and I need together at the end of the day? Now do the math. This may mean that the kids head to their bedrooms at 10, 9, or even 8:30 p.m. It's a practice that will prove to be healthy for them—and wholesome for you.


4. Children have their own beds. Use them!

Chuck and I don't believe in the concept of "group bed." There are exceptions, of course. For example, when small babies are in a bassinet or when kids are ill or scared because of a traumatic incident or nightmare. But generally speaking, children need to sleep in their own beds. Marriage isn't a threesome, a foursome, or a group thing. Family is a group thing, which is why we eat together in the kitchen and play together in the family room, but bedtime isn't a family thing. Teaching the importance of your relationship to your kids begins when you communicate to them that Mommy and Daddy have a special relationship and sleeping together is one of those things that makes it special.


5. Limit extracurricular activities.

Kids' recreation options are limitless, and many parents fear if they don't get their kids involved in every activity—with the best coach in town, at the earliest possible age—the window of opportunity will slam shut. Here's the rule of thumb Chuck and I suggest: one activity per child, per season—period. There may be exceptions—you may have a multitasking teen who can juggle school and a full plate of extracurricular activities easily—but we've seen many worn-out parents with burned-out kids who have fragile relationships.

We aren't suggesting you neglect your kids. But if you really want to raise healthy, wholesome children, establish boundaries and put your marriage first. And your family will turn out fine.

Adapted from How to Raise Totally Awesome Kids. 2002 by Chuck and Jenni Borsellino. Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of Multnomah Publishers, Inc.


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