We've all had those nights. Somewhere in the small hours, a crack of light at the door, then the pitter-patter of tiny feet on the floor - as one child (or more) comes creeping into your bedroom. In one stealth move, they’ve inserted themselves right at the heart of your marital bed. More often than not, one parent seeks sanctuary in the spare bedroom, while the little one snuggles up to the other for the rest of the night. So far, so familiar. But what if this family scene isn’t just one more sleepless night in a catalogue of parental sleep deprivation - but a metaphor for your relationship instead?
Andrew G Marshall believes it is. In his book, I Love You But You Always Put Me Last: How To Childproof Your Marriage he identifies the two reasons people fall out of love as ignoring their partner or not taking their feelings seriously – often because they are putting their children first. “We think parenting is for life and partners come and go,” he says. “Whereas I think a relationship is for life and the children are just passing through.”
Wall Street Journal writer and family therapist, David Code takes Marshall’s argument even further. In his book To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First he argues: “We parents today are too quick to sacrifice our lives and our marriage for our kids. But as we break our backs for our kids, our marriage and our self-fulfilment go out of the window.”
Statistics seem to back them up - research from the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle found that two-thirds of relationships experienced a decline in quality within three years of having a baby, with 13% going on to end in divorce within five years. And while nobody enters into a divorce lightly, and in some cases, ending a dysfunctional or destructive relationship is better for everyone involved, there is evidence to suggest that the children of divorce are more likely to experience psychological problems and less likely to go onto higher education than those whose parents stay together.
'We need to stop the romantic entanglements with our children'
But to many parents, the idea of putting their marriages before their children is anathema. American writer Ayelet Waldman is still recovering from the international fury she sparked in 2005 when she wrote that she loved her husband more than her children. Although stunned by the response, Waldman, who, in a single day, received over 1,000 emails, spitting venom at her audacity in admitting she could “imagine no joy” in parenting without her husband, stood by her statement over a decade later.
“If you focus all of your emotional passion on your children and you neglect the relationship that brought the family into existence, things can go really, really wrong,” she said, appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show. “So many women today have become so focused on their children, they’ve developed these romantic entanglements with their children’s lives and the husbands are secondary – they’re left out.”
How UAE parents feel
Ayelet Waldman's view is not a popular one. Closer to home, many Dubai-based mothers that I spoke to expressed disbelief at the idea of loving their husband over their children.
“If you put it in simple terms and I and my husband and my children were all stuck on a boat that was sinking, obviously I’d save my children first – and I wouldn’t want to be with any man who didn’t do the same,” says Anna, 32 and a mother-of-two.
Others spoke of how the rush of love they felt at the birth of child dwarfed the passion they’d felt for their husbands, taking them by surprise and turning their parenting experiences into one they weren’t expecting.
“When I was growing up, my parents never did anything without me and my brothers. We were the centre of their lives and I always vowed I’d do things a bit differently as it definitely took its toll on their relationship,” says Emily, 35, a mother of one, with her second baby due in the new year. “Fast forward 30-something years and I find myself in exactly the same position. We love doing things as a family. But it does mean we don’t focus enough on the romantic side of our relationship. Our daughter is now the love of my life and I know my husband feels the same.”
While the views of the mothers I spoke to uniformly echo that of British Daily Mail journalist Lucy Cavendish, who claimed - “Every woman I know puts her children before her husband. She may not tell him that, but she does,” – some did worry about having enough love to go around and expressed concerns about the impact their priorities were having on their marriage.
“I’m not sure what the solution is long-term in getting the balance right,” Emily confides. “Whatever choice you make; it’s never easy and requires constant juggling. My husband and I have only spent one night away from our daughter in two years. I hope it gets easier as the children get older.”
“After spending all day doting on my six-month old, I’ve nothing left to give my husband at the end of the day,” confesses Holly, 36. “Before we had children, we were madly in love, but my husband works long hours and by the time he’s home, my son has taken all my energy and attention. I do feel guilty about it.”
Lockdown's magnifying glass on UAE marriages
For expats living the usually fast-paced UAE lifestyle, there can be increased pressure on a marriage, with parents raising their children away from the support of grandparents or a wider family network.
Meanwhile lockdown and the pandemic have both excerbated and exposed the weaknesses at the heart of many UAE parents' marriages. Even if couples were able to carve out some quality time for each other pre-pandemic, with home learning, working from home and reduced options for socializing for both parents and children, there have been virtually no kid-free zones left in many parents’ lives.
The intensity has been too much for many says Dr Marta Ra, CEO of therapy centre Paracelsus Recovery. She says she has seen a 300% surge in requests for counselling from UAE husbands and wives, while Dubai-based family lawyer Haidy Essam of Nasser Malalla Advocates and Legal Consultants says she saw a 1000% increase in divorce enquiries in Dubai following lockdown.
Without the distraction of non-stop events, travel and play dates, many parents suddenly found themselves confronted with a spouse they suddenly realised they no longer knew, says Dr Ra. “The Covid-19 crisis has brought a lot of existential questions with it,” she says. “Many people are now thinking about loss, mortality, and the meaning of their lives in a different way. As a result, many have found themselves with a new ‘life is short; it's now-or-never’ outlook.”
However, this can function as both a positive or a negative turning point for a marriage: “For some, this has led to a rejuvenation of their relationship. For others, it has increased feelings of loneliness, conflict, and led to some tough decisions.”
Love is not a competition
Luckily, according to the experts, love doesn’t have to be a competition. “Love means so many different things to different people,” reassures Dr Rose Logan, a clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia. “Some people describe a deep love for their partner and in the same way, some parents describe a fierce, unconditional love for their children.”
And what if finding the balance between your spouse and your child isn’t so much about who’s getting the most love, but about who’s getting the most attention – something that will change as the years go by?
“I’ve definitely started to love my husband more, again, as our boys have gotten older,” says Sandi, 34 and a mother of two sons, 4 and 3. “That intense period when they were very young, it wasn’t just about love, it was about how much they needed me, not just emotionally, but physically and practically too. Now there’s less pressure on the whole. I think marital love definitely ebbs and flows as you navigate different stages of life.
“I also think the love you have for your child is a bit egocentric,” she laughs. “It’s easier to love something you you’ve made than a human being completely separate from you. Plus our children’s flaws tend to be our flaws and I think we automatically blame ourselves for their bad behaviour and forgive them accordingly – whereas it’s much easier to stay angry at your husband.”
Guilt-free Mummy and Daddy time
Staying angry is one thing family psychologist and positive parenting expert, Dr Sarah Rasmi, cautions against:
“[While] what works well for one couple might not be a good fit for another, the important thing is to develop and maintain an open line of communication with your partner and ask for support when you need it,” she says. “Many of us are lucky enough to have childcare support in Dubai that we wouldn’t otherwise have in our home countries. If having that support enables you to nurture your relationship with your partner, enjoy it. A date night doesn’t need to be an extravagant night out.”
“It’s the small things that count,” agrees Dr Logan. “As soon as we take any relationship for granted, it doesn’t matter how much love there is, it can become strained. Many of us are guilty of putting the children to bed and then collapsing to catch up on Facebook or Netflix. Putting aside a couple of nights a week to eat together or go for a walk says ‘you matter to me’.”
And a true balance isn’t just about prioritizing your husband’s needs, it’s also thinking about yourself. “Self care is a must,” says Dr Lanalle Dunn, founder of the Chiron Clinic. “How can you embody basic human values [to your children] and be a truly kind person if you aren’t kind to yourself?”
“Making sure you find time to engage in activities that allow you to connect with yourself is paramount,” continues Dr Logan. “And I would question if a child needs to be made to feel like a priority. Not because I don’t believe they require love, attuned and engaged parents and a sense of safety but because if they always comes first, it creates an expectation that might foster entitlement and a lack of awareness.”
“Children model their own relationships on what they saw growing up,” Dr Rasmi adds. “It’s important for them to see us treat each other with mutual respect, kindness and love. We should save our disagreements for when they are asleep or out of earshot. Another thing we can do is show them we prioritize our relationship. This means scheduling some ‘mummy and daddy’ time – and being unapologetic about it.”