The concept of putting your spouse’s needs and wants ahead of those of your children is a throwback to the fixed thinking of the first half of the 20th century. An elderly neighbour recounted how, as a school principal, it was his job to terminate the employment of female teachers when they got married. The thinking behind that was that once married they served a different master – their husband. Male teachers, on the other hand, got to keep their jobs.
From that patriarchal way of thinking came the articles that littered the women’s magazines of the 1950’s: make sure the house is tidy and the ready for bed when your husband gets home; have a hot-cooked meal ready; dress nicely and put on your makeup; and last but most importantly, listen to him talk about his day but don’t burden him by complaining about yours.
It’s my opinion that the remnants of this attitude resurface in today’s commonly spouted advice that one should always put one’s spouse ahead of one’s children. People who advocate this often support their view by saying that children will grow up and leave and you’ll be back to just the two of you, so you have to keep that love burning strongly by always putting your partner ahead of your children.
But is this good advice? In the animal kingdom, no other animal that I know of will put their offspring second to their mate. The role of the mother in most species is to protect and provide for her babies to the exclusion of all else until they are independent. Of course, humans are different. For one thing we have a much longer time investment in raising children, usually a couple of decades. But perhaps we still have that imperative programmed in our genes and telling people to not put their children first goes against our very DNA.
Putting that aside, there are definitely circumstances in which you should put your children first:
1. Your spouse has a personality disorder or substance abuse problems. This on its own can make them needy and their actions and demands on you can destroy the fabric of any marriage. Where children are involved, it is the responsibility of the other spouse to protect them and help them understand that it is not the job of anyone else in the family to "fix" a damaged individual. Their welfare should always come first.
2. Your spouse is self-obsessed and demanding. They might not have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but they do have an unhealthy dose of narcissism. Their desire to be the centre of attention makes them a competitor to their own children, who go through narcissistic phases of their own while growing up. If the self-absorbed parent won’t or can’t amend their behaviours, the other parent needs to step in and make sure the needs of the children are being met, not ignored or, even worse, denied.
3. Your child is at a high-demand developmental stage. I think we can all agree that an eleven-year-old can be left with friends or relatives while you and your spouse go off for a dirty weekend, but a baby in its first year is not ready for that. Another age group where parental involvement becomes more demanding is in the teenage years. Parents need to be strategic allies more than lovers to get through these difficult years.
4. You are not getting the support you need from your spouse when it comes to parenting, but you are at the receiving end of the blame. If your spouse is accusing you of constantly putting your children ahead of them, and sulking over it, maybe you are married to an emotional child instead of an adult. No amount of catering to them and putting them first is going to satisfy them. And while you are putting all your emotional resources into trying to save a bad relationship, your children are sidelined.
5. It’s not flowing in both directions. You are putting your spouse, and your kids, and maybe your job and other commitments ahead of your own health and well-being. And your spouse is not. If your spouse is shirking their share of housework and childcare, it’s unreasonable that you should be doing the lion’s share and also arranging romantic weekends to keep the love alive when what you probably need is a quiet Sunday morning alone soaking in the bath while he takes the kids to the park.
Note to self and everyone else: It’s not 1955.
6. Putting your kids ahead of your spouse when they really need you does not mean you are spoiling them. There are some black and white thinkers who confuse the two things. If you are spending a lot of time with your kids, are you spoiling them? Probably not. If you are buying them everything they want and letting them think they are the centre of the universe, are you spoiling them? Perhaps.
One of my sadder memories of my own childhood is that my parents never had time to do things with me. If I had a dollar for every time my mother had told me she was too busy to talk to me, I would have had enough when I graduated high school to pay for my university fees. Seriously, though, making time to show interest in your children, to show up at school events and do things they want to do has nothing at all to do with putting them above your spouse. You're just being a good parent. If you and your spouse had a solid marriage before the kids arrived, chances are you will carry this relationship forward into your new lives as partners-who-parent and come out the other end intact.
There’s no rule that you have to put your spouse above your children. There’s also no explanation of what that really means. Does a fifteen-minute walk on the weekend, alone with your spouse, equate to 3 hours of focusing on your kids? There’s no fixed formula. Every marriage needs to adjust to the arrival of children and being told that you are too focused on your kids is just going to add to the unnecessary burden of guilt that busy parents already carry.
Perhaps better advice would be to pick someone to marry who shares the same values as you and ideas about parenting and to talk about parenting styles before you take that dip in the gene pool. Making a solid marriage with someone who shares your values and is supportive when you need them has a much better chance of survival than a 1950’s version of marriage, where a wife has the kids bathed, fed and in bed by the time daddy gets home from work so she can be his attentive servant.