Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Putting marriage first (with children in mind)

So my husband and I are going to celebrate ten years of marriage this June. 

And you're supposed to ask "where has the time gone?", but I don't really have to, because I already kind of know.  We have seven children.  Four of them are adopted.  Three of them are biological.  I was also  pregnant two other times, but lost those precious babies to miscarriage.

It has been an action-packed almost-ten-years, to be sure.

Except for our first year of marriage when my husband took a job that moved us to beautiful Santa Barbara, meaning that I took a year off of school and settled in to our small apartment to be a wife.  I worked part time at a couple of different jobs, but mostly I was just home.

I laugh now when I look back on how I spent my time then

I read.  A lot.  I laid out by the pool.  A  lot.  I went downtown and shopped.  A lot.

We ate out, went to movies, travelled to SLO to see friends on the weekends, slept in, and were just kind of all-around bums.  For reals. 

Then on our one-year wedding anniversary, I took a pregnancy test and discovered that our first baby was on the way.

And nine months later she was born.  Things changed.

There was now a very-small-person living in our home, who required a lot of care and love.  I didn't get a full night's sleep anymore, we lived in our own home where there was no pool (and no landlord to come and fix the stuff that went wrong), and my husband was now commuting over two hours each day.  We'd still eat out on occasion, but a margarita just isn't the same when there's a screaming baby in your arms.  And movies?  Yeah, our Friday nights at the theater were over.  Even though we had never lived an extravagant lifestyle, our days of doing what we pleased when we pleased more or less vanished.  Many, many people regularly lament this transition.  They say it's the most difficult, to go from zero to one child.  We received a lot of advice and warnings all throughout my pregnancy.

Your life is going to change. 

And I can still remember one sunny Sunday afternoon when the baby was nearly due.  Kevin and I took a picnic lunch to the park, and I told him that with all the doomsday predictions, I was feeling really nervous about this whole parenting gig.  Would our relationship really fizzle out?  Would we cease to be us?  Did some magic spell fall upon married couples the moment the doctor delivered the baby that would result in 18 years of misery and I-wish-we-could-just-go-back-to-the-way-it-was-before?  I knew I loved that little baby inside me from the instant that second line showed up on the pregnancy test, so what was all the fuss about?

My calm, ever-steady (and Catholic-before-he-knew-it) husband assured me that day in the park that no, things were not going to be horrible...because this was God's idea for marriage and therefore shouldn't it be an ultimate good?

The guy was right.  (And he usually is, but don't tell him I said that.)

Because after six hours of labor Anna Elisabeth came into the world, and heck yeah she changed our lives.  We had to become less selfish.  More giving.  Less vain.  More loving.  There was less time to argue, to count faults against one another, to dwell on the past and on the future.  Our relationship overall actually improved.  And it was good before.  But it got better.

Now nearly ten years in, we have seven children.  Each of them a tremendous blessing, but I'm not gonna lie:  this has been a hard phase for me.  I have three kids in diapers.  One doesn't walk or really talk.  Two of them are two-year-olds.  One doesn't speak much English.  We've faced three heart surgeries in the past few months.  Our oldest is only eight.  My first-graders are still learning to read.  I homeschool. 

While I don't want you to get me wrong, because honestly my life is really, really full and sweet, it's also been hard since we brought our daughters home in September.  Because we're not saints or superheroes or really patient, special people--we're just us, and not so different from you.  We're human.

And so being where we're at in life, we don't get out for date nights often.  We don't take fancy trips by ourselves or do much by ourselves, period.  From the outside looking in we're probably kind of, um, boring.  There's a lot of talk out there about putting your marriage first, and that's good because the marriage relationship is really the number one most important component of being a good parent.

But what does it really mean to put your husband or wife first?  It can't be an apples-to-apples time thing because my husband's at work all day (we need to eat and all that), and I'm with the kids, and then he comes home and we're both somewhat busy with the kids until they go to bed.  And because we believe that God created marriages to be fruitful and to bring forth life, certainly the answer is not to take the kids out of the equation altogether.

My personal opinion is that anything that makes us more holy, more selfless, more loving and more kind has the potential to make our marriage better.  Not worse. 

And when I'm tempted to feel discouraged or dream about what life must be like for people who don't have two two-year-olds, I try to remind myself that my brief existence on this earth is not supposed to be all about pleasure, leisure, and the easy road.  My sanctity, my holiness, my becoming like Jesus and one day joining Him in Heaven is this life's pursuit.  And yes I read a lot of CS Lewis out by the pool in 2002, but changing mountains of diapers and caring for sick little ones has taught me far more than a book ever could about service and sacrifice.

I think about this too when my mind drifts to the future.  Because I have two children with Down syndrome who may very well live with us as adults.  I really don't know.  But there's definitely the chance that our nest will never technically be empty.  A stranger recently asked if that "scared" me (awkward questions much?) and I told her that no, it does not.  No I don't know how it will look or play out, but I'm not particularly afraid.  True, Kevin and I may never be the retirees who travel the world in a small, fancy car, but should we really be aspiring to that anyway?  We'll have each other, we'll have our children, we'll have our life that God has given us.  And I love my daughters so why would I be devastated if they lived with me?  Plus, hopefully after that many years together, my husband and I will have an even deeper, more Christ-centered and joy-filled relationship than we do now.

So can I put my husband and marriage first with seven kids underfoot?  Or with two adult children living at home?  Or with whatever situation is currently presenting itself?  I say, you bet.  It's not an either/or, but a balancing act, a daily grind of life and give and take and self-sacrifice and charity.  It's connection and attention to one another and that pesky self-giving.  Occasional date nights are good, but the marriage must ultimately be sustained in the day-to-day.  That's not always easy, but it's not supposed to be.

This is why, when I remember those early days of being married, I actually laugh.  The solitude, the quiet, the hours of uninterrupted reading, the evenings playing tennis together or seeing the latest movies...it was really kind of fun!  If I could go back and live it for a day, I totally would.  But I would not go back for good.    In part because I love my kids, but also because in spite of having all the time in the world, I really wasn't very good at putting my husband and marriage first.  It often takes having children--and being forced to change and make sacrifices and face the reality of life--for that.  God made it that way.  And that's why when I hear people speak of how darn hard it is to put your marriage first when you have small children, and speak of these children as if they are the enemy, I want to shout "NO!  I mean it is hard, YES, but our kids are not the problem.  Our sin and love of self, that is the problem.  But this marriage thing and the children that result?  All of that is a really good thing and part of our vocation, the path that God will use to produce love and holiness and faith in our lives."

And this is why nearly ten years in, in spite of our houseful of noisy kids, I still believe our marriage can come first.  And if there's a problem, it's because we need to regain our footing and better practice virtue...or sometimes just be patient, if it simply happens to be a difficult season in our relationship.  There will surely be trials, but that's just life--and even if your kids disappeared today that stuff would still be hard.  Plus then you wouldn't be united in purpose by these precious souls given to you by God, who created marriage with children in mind. 


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