David and Linda Masson’s days are planned like a military operation: Two kids and parents out the door before 8 a.m., drop kids at grandparents’ before school, work a full day, touch base via email on logistics, back to grandparents to pick up kids, home, homework, supper, activities — hockey, choir, piano, art, swimming — then bedtime.
By the end of the day, the pair have about two hours to talk and to remind themselves about being a couple. If they don’t, and too much time goes by, kid chaos takes over and the Massons have learned that can’t happen. At any cost.
“The kids are going to go, but Dave and I are going to stay together,” Linda said in an interview. “We’ve always taught our kids that there’s a hierarchy in our family. . . There’s a pecking order.”
The Toronto couple, both 40, credit giving their relationship priority as the foundation for their strong marriage and family, but David Code, author of To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First has seen too many couples who either couldn’t or wouldn’t do the same.
The Saskatchewan-born, Ivy League-educated, Anglican minister who counsels families in State College, Pa., said he was prompted to write the book after seeing so many couples in crisis — marriages unravelling as children took centre stage, becoming stressed out and sick in the process.
Code is on a bit of a tear after his book was published last fall. Television stations in the U.S. and Canada have had him on and interest has been particularly high in Great Britain.
He thinks it’s because parents are looking for some balance after more than a generation of trying to make childhood perfect. Too many parents have pushed their own needs and issues aside in favour of that goal, Code says.
“More than anything, they have thrown themselves into parenting their children,” he says in a telephone interview.
“They will sacrifice all of their time, all of their money, even their own career aspirations, friendships, relationships, time for themselves, all for the children in the belief that it’s worth it.”
In effect, some spouses end up “marrying” their children, Code argues.
Doug Saunders, a professor at the University of Toronto specializing in parenting and relationship stress, says the trend among some parents to immerse themselves in their children’s schedules can mean marital quicksand if couples aren’t paying attention.
“One of the things that counsellors talk about at times is the ability of couples to be able to, in a sense, maintain a certain boundary around their relationship that’s independent from their children,” Saunders says.
“When families become a mess, part of the issue is that the parents themselves don’t have a strong, independent connection.”
Meg Hubert is acutely aware of that.
She and her husband have been married 11 years and had their first child last year. Hubert now stays home with her daughter and says it often feels like whatever she needs to do isn’t as important as whatever her daughter’s schedule is.
“You just kind of morph into a playmate,” says Hubert from her home in Penticton, B.C.
She says she watches other parents who are deeply involved with their kids and wonders if she’s doing the best for her daughter.
“It’s put a lot of stress on the marriage,” Hubert says matter-of-factly. “If you want your relationship to work, you have to really make a conscious choice to do things that will give you the opportunity to spend time alone together.
“I think a lot of people just kind of put it by the wayside and then it ends up kicking them in the butt later on.”
Blake Woodside, a psychiatrist, therapist and professor in Toronto, says there’s a “trajectory” to a typical marriage with children. Inevitably, children become the shared joint project of couples and that takes up to 25 years.
“Marital satisfaction tends to decrease very sharply with the first child and it takes over 20 years to get back to original base line,” he says.
If the marriage isn’t strong, the couple breaks apart.
The trend toward over-parenting is also helped along by the fact that people are having fewer children now than they used to, Woodside notes. That means the attention once focused on several children is now routinely beamed on only one or two.
“It’s not that when you have six you love them less or are less interested in them. But six kids is a lot to be distracted by,” says Woodside.
Not only can the overparenting be lethal to a marriage, it can also lead to a variety of illnesses for the children involved.
They know when mom and dad aren’t getting along, says Woodside, and living with the effects of constant, even subtle fractiousness can lead to anxiety disorders, anorexia, and depression, among other problems.
The Massons used to ensure they had meaningful, adult conversations even in their children’s presence, long before they reached eight and seven years old.
It was easier in the early years to keep those conversations going.
“It’s becoming more and more challenging, we’ve discovered, because of the age they’re at,” says David. “They can now listen and understand what we’re talking about. We either have to find somewhere to go or save it until later or speak in code.”
“But they’ve cracked the code now.”
The couple routinely take their children and the dog out for walks, allowing the kids to charge ahead while David and Linda share details of the day strolling along behind them.
The Huberts happen to live close to both sets of parents. That allows them to get out on a date night once in a while.
Code also prescribes sex — regular and committed.
“I suggest the couple should make a weekly, unbreakable appointment for sex. It’s the ultimate bonding act. It really can heal a lot of ill.”
Woodside says when couples come to him haggard and hurting from too much chaos, he sympathizes. After raising a family, the process of reclaiming the relationship that existed before the children is slow and gradual and can take many, many years.
“It’s an overwhelming task to raise two or three children, especially if both parents are working,” says Woodside.
“There’s not a lot that you can do to mitigate that except be nice to each other.”