Common wisdom holds that parents should maintain a united front when making decisions, disciplining, and setting expectations with their children. Kids shouldn’t be given the opportunity to play one parent against the other, or feel insecure about who is really in charge. I’ve heard some divorced parents talk about how this is (or, sadly, more often isn’t) a sustainable practice, but I’ve heard less about how parents who are together also struggle with this.
Nature abhors a vacuum and all, so! Allow me to fill that void with vexations and frustrations from my own experience.
I’ve always been pretty thin-skinned. My husband can make comments like “It would be better with more cilantro” or “Is that what you’re wearing?” or “I see you didn’t balance the checkbook” and I take it as a personal affront. His comments or observations vary on the scale of actual offensiveness (from not-at-all to WTF) but I perceive them pretty much universally as criticisms. Of me. Of how I am lacking in awesomeness, or even adequacy. Most of the time he feels he is just making a comment, and even if I point out that it technically was a judgement or if even the tone of this observation was snarky or mean, he reassures me that it wasn’t his intention to make me feel bad. After more than twelve years together, I feel kind of like an old tree covered in ivy; it’s hard to tell what is supporting me from what is tearing me down.
My dad was pretty critical and disapproving when I was a kid, too (yes, Dr. Freud, I did marry my father, thank you for noticing). He had a cold stare that could stop my heart from across the room. I just knew when I’d disappointed him, the way you just know when you’ve been impaled on a pointy, sharp sword. (I mean, I imagine you’d know that pretty well, if it happened.) By the time I reached my mid teens, I could hardly talk to him. I felt misunderstood, belittled, and unloved. It took a not small amount of therapy to untangle all that, and a lot of time. Today my dad is my confidant and my champion, but I remember what it felt like back then, the immeasurable divide between us, the bottomless hurt.
And, as it turns out, my daughter is temperamentally very much like me. Emotional, earnest, and very, very sensitive. Most of the time we’ve all muddled through, resolving misunderstandings and hurt feelings quickly and easily. In the last few months though — perhaps not uncoincidentally as she enters her tweenhood – things have changed. She hurts more deeply, and for longer, and withdraws into sarcasm or silence instead. She reacts to my husband’s every comment with sullen eye rolls or wounded sighs. He snarks back, and she storms and stomps, and like a wildfire in the wind suddenly they are both in aflame, burning each other with disappointment and despair.
I hear her sobbing upstairs, and go to sit with her. I don’t want to take sides, I don’t want to unbalance the perception of parental unity. But I think he has been an utter ass, and I ache for her. What can I say? How can I comfort? “Why does he hate me?” she cries, snot bubbling out of her nose in tiny, sad pearls. I am stricken. I know he loves her, yet I know how it feels to feel unloved. I’m in an impossible middle ground: I must defend the indefensible, find the grace in the grimness, speak the truth in the midst of hypocrisy.
Yes. I know he hurt you. I also know he loves you. It doesn’t make sense; it seems like two opposite things. But they are both true. This is a paradox. Hang on. You will be able to understand both truths one day. For now, trust me, there is love. There really is, I promise.
You might wonder why I tolerate this. Typed out it sounds awful. It is awful. But it is how he grew up, it is what he knows: he was never good enough. And now, he is trying so hard to undo his knotted history, to smooth his own scars and be a different kind of parent than his own were. I respect the hell out of his effort, and how far he has come. He has done much more and much harder work than I have. For me, this is enough: he loves me, he is trying to be better, he wants us to have a happy and healthy relationship.
But for my daughter? Is this enough? Is it fair to ask her to be patient, to try to understand? To believe the love is there, even when she can’t see it?
I wish I knew.