Couples often disagree about how to raise their children. You may perceive your wife to be too indulgent, too lax. She may, just as firmly, believe you to be unrealistically demanding or too stem with your son or daughter. You may believe she coddles your children, spoils them. Your wife, because of past feelings of deprivation, may see in you the father who withheld his love from her when she was a child. Old resentments may be displaced onto you if she perceives you to be repeating the same pattern with your children.
So you leave the field to her in order to avoid another argument. And you rationalize your withdrawal from child rearing by saying to yourself that you want to keep a somewhat shaky marriage from becoming even more unsatisfying and, perhaps, ultimately untenable.
If the prospect of marital conflict interferes with your desire to be with your children, you must resolve that conflict, instead of withdrawing from family life. Begin by talking with your wife about the kinds of parenting which each of you received. How did you feel in your relationships with your parents? What were your perceptions of your parents as you were growing up? How did your relationships with your parents affect your subsequent romantic relationships and the kinds of partners you chose? Successfully defusing the tension between you and your wife may require some professional assistance in unraveling old childhood hurts which affect the way each of you now approaches your children and your mate.
Ultimately, of course, the development of better communication skills in your marriage and greater empathy for one another will serve you in good stead in developing a more communicative and empathic relationship with your children.
All husbands and wives who I see in my practice have had both their marriage and their parenting styles affected by the mother and father who reared them. In their own ways, Ben and Barbara reflect many of the issues which I have discussed in this chapter.
Ben, a 38-year-old accountant, and Barbara, a 36-year-old teacher, had been married for seven years before they appeared at my office because of marital difficulties which had been simmering for years. (No one seeks psychotherapy or counseling after experiencing a problem for only a short period of time.) There were the usual complaints. From Ben: Barbara didn't seem to have much time for him anymore. Barbara was overly involved with the children. Barbara had put on weight and didn't care about her appearance. Barbara wasn't interested in sex. From Barbara: Ben was uninvolved in family life. Ben seemed to care more about his work than about her or the children. Ben always excused himself as being too stressed or too tired. Ben wasn't affectionate anymore. Ben didn't seem to care about having an emotionally close relationship anymore.
Both Ben and Barbara grew up in very modest circumstances. Their parents occupied traditional roles. Ben's father worked seven days a week as a tailor in Boston. Barbara's father worked overtime in his steel mill whenever it was available. Ben's mother and Barbara's mother were housewives. Ben's father, an immigrant, was from "the old school." "Be happy for what you have," "Life is tough," "You don't need very much," "Money doesn't grow on trees," were some of the lessons he imparted to Ben. Barbara's father, abandoned by his parents at an early age, was a bitter, cold man. He was uninterested in his children. Barbara remembers her frustration at repeatedly attempting to gain his attention or a word of approval. He virtually ignored Barbara and her brothers.
Ben learned his lessons well. Both as a child and as an adult, Ben has led a life of self-denial. Although his financial circumstances are significantly different from his father's, unfortunately Ben feels as though and acts as though he is living under the same constraints. And he expects the same of his children. "My children always seem to be whining or complaining about this or that. And their mother spoils them rotten. What kind of character will they grow up with? Shouldn't there be limits?" Ben rhetorically asked.
Barbara was more aware of her previous hurt and anger toward her father than Ben was of his feelings of deprivation. She was determined to provide for her children what she never received. She admitted, "It's difficult for me not to give my children what they want. But, unlike Ben, I don't see my children as being so demanding or unreasonable." And Barbara acknowledged that, in many ways, particularly when there is an issue of giving, she sees her father when she observes her husband. Every time Ben says "No" to his children (or to her), Barbara hears that voice from her childhood denying her once again.
In any couple I see in therapy, both parties are absolutely convinced of the correctness of their point of view. Each is dumbfounded that the other doesn't see "the obvious." But the issue, of course, is not who is right or who is acting most appropriately. In Ben and Barbara's case, one of the first steps in their treatment was for them to understand how the parenting which they received has affected their feelings and expectations toward their own children. Only then can they respond most helpfully to the needs of their children, as opposed to acting on the sanctions of their own childhood.
Reprinted with permission from The Gift of Fatherhood: How Men's Lives are Transformed by Their Children, Fireside, 1994
Copyright © 1994 by Aaron Hass, PhD