Honoring God’s Pattern for Family
By LESLIE LUDY
When I was pregnant with our first child, Eric and I attended a childbirth education class — an experience I definitely would not want to repeat. While I am sure some childbirth classes are beneficial, for me the experience only served two purposes: first, to make me terrified of having a baby, and second, to try to convince me that my new baby should be the center of my universe. Neither of these notions was at all helpful for my transition into motherhood, but since the class was hosted at our home, Eric and I felt we had no choice but to participate for the full six weeks.
There were about six other couples in the class. About seven months after everyone’s babies were born, we all got back together for a “childbirth class reunion” to meet the new babies, swap birth stories (what, may I ask, is the point of that?), and see how everyone was doing in their role as new parents.
After the stories of the births had all been shared (and I was quite glad when that part was over), the question came up as to how everyone was adjusting to the newness of parenthood. In addition to the normal issues such as babies crying at night, teething, and having acid reflux, most of the couples admitted that the most difficult part of becoming parents was never having any alone time with their spouse anymore. Several said they had not so much as had a meal alone together or slept in a bed without baby for the past seven months.
When Eric and I mentioned that we had started doing weekly “date nights” right after our son was born, the other couples seemed shocked. “How can you possibly leave your baby with someone else for two whole hours to go out to dinner with your husband?” one of the women asked me reproachfully.
The belief system among these new parents was simple: baby comes first, and marriage falls into a distant second-place. But as Eric and I studied Scripture on this point, we saw clearly that a strong family could only flow out of a strong marriage. Even though we were called to invest much of our time, energy, and resources into our child, we were not to disregard our marriage under the banner of “good parenting.” We knew that making our child the center of our family would only breed disaster and breakdown in our home.
This required us to make some difficult choices from the very beginning of our parenting journey. While other new parents were co-sleeping with their baby, we were laboring to train our child to fall asleep in his own crib, in order to protect our intimacy. This meant more crying to endure, and more discipline and diligence on our part. While other parents were catering to their child’s every whim in order to avoid tears, we were teaching our child to adapt to the rhythm of our home, rather than set his own rhythm. This meant less spontaneity and more structure. While other parents had the security of always having their baby physically attached to them or lying in bed next to them, we had to trust others to care for our child while we took time to cultivate our relationship and spend time alone together.
At times, we were tempted to follow the parenting trends of the culture and let our child become the center of our attention, while pushing our marriage to the back burner. From magazines to websites to parenting conversations, it was implied that unless we ignored our marriage and built our lives around the whims of our child, we were not truly being good parents. But as our son began to grow and develop into his toddler years, we began to see the amazing benefits of keeping our marriage in its rightful place. Becoming parents had actually strengthened our marriage rather than putting a strain on it. Our son began to thrive in the healthy family environment that he was growing up in. Instead of feeling like he was “in charge,” he had the security of knowing that two people who loved him and knew what was best for him were calling the shots. And he was an extremely happy, secure little boy as a result.
On the flip side, several young parents we knew began to confide in us that their marriages were falling apart, their communication was strained, and their intimacy was nonexistent since having a child. Many said that their health was suffering because they could never get a decent night’s sleep from having to feed their child whenever he cried during the night, even when he was two or three years old. Some told us that their sweet baby had grown into a nightmare two-year-old, always screaming and demanding things, creating a chaotic and strained home environment.
More and more, we began to see tangible evidence that keeping marriage a higher priority than children brings order, peace, and stability to a family — while putting children first leads to chaos and stress.
Hebrews 13:4 says, “Marriage should be honored by all” (NIV), and Titus 2:4 tells wives to love their husbands first, even before their children. During the child-raising years, it’s all too easy to overlook these Scriptural principles, thinking, “I’ll get back to honoring my marriage when my kids are older.” But all too many couples who have chosen this path learn the hard way that when they finally get around to focusing on their marriage again, they don’t have much of a relationship left to cultivate. Meanwhile, when a child is led to believe that he is center of the family, he begins to expect everyone to cater to his desires, leading to a strained and stressful home environment.
Keeping marriage at the top of our priority list is easier said than done. We live in a culture that applauds child-centered parenting and doesn’t think much of honoring marriage. And unless we are firmly rooted in God’s pattern, it’s easy to buy into the lies that swirl around us and accept the faulty idea that unless we put our children first and our marriage a distant second, we are not being good parents. I’d like to share some practical ways that have helped Eric and I remember to keep our marriage in its rightful place — as the cornerstone of our family instead of as an afterthought.
1. Let your children join the family, not control it
When our two new toddlers arrived from Haiti last year, Eric and I had to grapple with this principle in a whole new way. Bringing not one, but two energetic two-year-olds home through adoption was an experience that stretched us tremendously. In our eagerness to bond with our new children, there were many moments when we were tempted to become lax in areas like structure and discipline — and simply cater to their whims in order to stave off conflict and make them temporarily happy. But we knew that it would not be healthy for either the children or our marriage to let them take charge.
With each child God has given us, we have labored to help them become part of our family, rather than the center of it. With Rees and Lily, it was no different. We began to teach them that our family atmosphere and structure was firmly set in place, and that they needed to submit to it.
This approach did not hinder their ability to bond with us; rather, it strengthened it. Young children love knowing what is expected of them and what comes next. They thrive when they have clear boundaries and clear parameters in their daily lives. They love predictability and firm guidelines. It gives them a tremendous sense of security to know they are not in charge, but that someone older and wiser is guiding them through their day.
As we taught our new children how to become part of our family instead of controlling it, they began to thrive. Their behavior and attitudes are stable, and their affection for their Mommy, Daddy, and siblings is off the charts. Instead of spending countless hours trying all sorts of “bonding techniques” with our new children, we have simply helped them become part of our family and the bonding happened automatically. Not only that, but our marriage has remained strong even through the challenges of having six children and being in fulltime ministry.
Keep marriage in its rightful position by helping your kids become part of a family structure that you—not they—define.
2. Give your spouse your best, not just your leftovers
One of the biggest challenges for most couples with young children is the amount of time and energy involved in raising their kids and managing daily logistics, along with all the stresses and pressures of work and other responsibilities. Eric and I have found that if we are not purposeful about reserving time and energy for each other, we are too distracted and exhausted to cultivate our relationship by the time we actually have a chance to be alone together. There are a few simple things that have helped us give our best energy — rather than our leftovers — to our marriage.
Taking ten or fifteen minutes in the morning to talk about the day and pray together helps us get on the same page before we are bombarded by our exuberant kids. Having the kids play quietly on their own for a while at the end of the day as Eric and I get a chance to debrief together is a tremendous way to remain connected to each other as we transition into our evening. Spending time in prayer together every night, rather than just doing mindless activities together, is a wonderful way to cultivate unity and become spiritually and emotionally refreshed while spending time together. And making time for a weekly “date night” has proven to be invaluable in giving us a long period of time where we can have purposeful, uninterrupted conversation.
Of course there are seasons when these activities are not always possible, like right after the birth of a new baby or during a transition like a move or time of traveling. Every family is unique with different dynamics, so ask God to show you specific ways that will help you put time, energy, and purpose into your relationship with your spouse, rather than always waiting until you’ve poured out all your energy on others. Remember that God cares even more about your marriage than you do, and He will be faithful to guide you as you put your marriage first.
Photos by Hannah Elise Photography