A United Front: Parenting as a Couple in the Midst of Kid Chaos
My wife and I recently decided on a shared epitaph for our gravestone. The summation of our accomplishments in life would be expressed thusly: “They accomplished morning sex in spite of three children running around the house”.
In the therapy world, we talk about an idea called “range of affect”. Range of affect means that a person is able to experience a wide range of emotions appropriate to different situations. This is actually a positive indicator of mental health. Therapists are not generally looking for our clients to be happy all the time, what we want is for a person to be able to experience many different emotions in a healthy way. In fact, while sadness is one of the experiences of depression, one of the primary markers for the diagnosis of a depressive disorder is "flat affect" (meaning not showing much emotion at all).
This range of affect idea applies to other areas as well - including our roles in life. Maintaining some diversity in roles allows us to more fully inhabit those roles and function more effectively in them. Therefore, Ari Hoffman is not only a psychotherapist but is also a father, a husband, a wilderness guide, an aspiring pilot, a friend, a son, and a musician. Doing well in one role often makes it so that I can do well in another role. A good example of this is that when I spend time with my hobbies, I am a better father because I am not depending on reading board books about trucks to fill my curious mind.
The Talmud says that if one dreams of a river, a kettle, and a bird, that this is a sign of a good marital relationship. There is a fascinating book on marriage by Rabbi Aharon Feldman titled, “The River, The Kettle, and the Bird” (Feldheim, 1987). Rabbi Feldman explains that these seemingly unrelated symbols are actually descriptors of 3 different types of relationship dynamics:
The River is the lowest level of a peaceful relationship. In ages past (and even now), the river was a way to facilitate trade between two different locations. The relationship dynamic represented by the river is two separate people living separate lives but maintaining function by collaborating in a limited way.
The Kettle is a higher level of peaceful relationship. The kettle facilitates a functional product from two opposite elements being very close together – fire and water. If you put the fire and the water directly together it would spell disaster for at least one of those elements but with the kettle as an intermediary, the water and fire can come close together and create a very useful product like hot water (a necessity for hot and sour soup which just happens to be my favorite, if anyone was asking.)
The final level is the Bird. “A bird has two disparate talents: the ability to survive on earth and the ability to fly in the air. These talents are not independent skills that are unrelated to each other. Rather, they work together in a single organism that lives in these two realms. A bird embodies a peace where two natures and two entities have merged into one unit.” (Feldman, 1987 as quoted by http://dafyomi.co.il/berachos /insites/br-dt-056.htm)
In my studies for my Masters degree in couples and family counseling, we were told that sometimes marriages fall apart after the children leave the proverbial roost. This purportedly occurs because the part of their relationship where they actually interact with each other has broken down completely but they didn’t realize it because their marriage was held together by the glue of collaborating on raising the children.
A personal interjection here is important to me as I want to explain to you, dear reader, I am not living in the high tower of perfect relationships preaching to the masses that you must attain my level of awesomeness and only then will you not get divorced after your last child leaves to pursue dreams of firefighting or the fantasy of making a living with a liberal arts degree. In my relationship, there are river times, kettle times, and bird times. My wife and I are working on having more bird times but so far we have not achieved the marital nirvana symbolized by always being in bird times.
When a couple connects in activities besides parenting, it increases their “range of coupleness” which increases their level of interaction and engagement which increases their level of peace which comes around full circle and makes them better parents together.
Children are like the cream top on full-fat yogurt, so susceptible to impression. I don’t say this to increase the already substantial parent guilt that afflicts so many parents I know (occasionally including the one I see in the mirror). I say it because there are a couple of concrete things you can work on to take advantage of this:
First, present a united front. I am fond of comparing children to incarcerated criminals partly because they can be loud, obnoxious, steal, and throw cream of wheat at the wall; additionally they spend their whole day looking for ways to manipulate the system. When parents are not on the same page, children will easily play one off the other to their benefit. When parents are generally on the same page, this not only maintains a more consistent and stable environment, but also models for children how adults work together.
Second, ignore your children for each other. Sometimes my children come to the kitchen ready to ask for a clementine, a play date, guitar lessons, or the excommunication of one of the other children and they see my wife and I hugging or talking and we ignore them or ask them to wait. And sometimes we lock the bedroom door and one of the kids knocks on the door (usually for the same reasons I listed above) and one of us calls, “we’ll be out in a few minutes”. My hope is that we are increasing their “range of relationship” where they get the message that my wife and I are important to each other. I further hope that each of my children will grow to have relationships that have lots of “bird level” time where they don’t only exist to accomplish mutual goals, but are truly living together.
I bless you and me and our children present and future that we connect with our partners in many different ways and that we have relationships that enhance our lives in a plethora of dimensions.
Ari Hoffman does a lot of things and aspires to do even more.
Ari is a licensed psychotherapist and graduate of CU-Denver. Ari is also the owner and operator of Ari Hoffman Psychotherapy working with families, couples, and kids (ages 10 and up). www.arihoffmantherapy.com
Ari is the director of the Integrated Care Institute furthering the study and application of the connections between physical and mental health in part by facilitating relationships between medical practices and mental health providers.
Ari is the owner and head guide of Avanim Adventures, a wilderness outfitter dedicated to getting Jews into the wilderness.
Ari is a husband to his beautiful wife, Miriam, and father to 3 lovely children (except at 3 in the morning when they lose a lot of their loveliness).
Ari aspires to fly airplanes, be a bartender, play in a band, and Ari really likes salad with good salad dressing and hot & sour soup (separately, not together).
Ari can be reached at 303-803-4832 or firstname.lastname@example.org.