“The children born to them – and here is the challenge – should consolidate that covenant, enriching and deepening the conjugal communion of the father and mother.” – Pope John Paul II, Letter to Families
After I read those words a few months ago I was simultaneously relieved and convicted. It can be a challenge indeed (and thank you to the great saint for recognizing that!) to remember that our children are the fruit and sign of our love not, as the culture, pop psychology, and sometimes even ourselves believe, a threat to it.
We know this, of course, during the beautiful moments, those moments when life is happy and seems to make sense. It’s a littler harder to believe when the sick toddler cancels the date night…when the cry of the baby again interrupts the intimate moment…when the daily grind of family life makes us extra prone to snapping at our spouse…when our cup feels empty and we’re desperately thirsty for a refill. It’s those times when it becomes more challenging and all the more necessary to believe with our thoughts and our actions that at the root of family life, it is not us against them. Our children are not the enemy. We certainly do have one but it’s not them.
A mother caring for her baby’s natural needs is not taking attention away from her husband. A father showing love to his children is not somehow depriving his wife her due. It’s not meant to be a competition. It’s what mature life-giving love is all about. How dysfunctional it can be to assume that our children are somehow out to get us or come between a husband and wife! But how often we read headlines and hear advice, disturbingly common in even Christian circles, that the natural needs of children or the children themselves are somehow an impediment to a healthy and thriving marriage.
Are there times when finding the balance among so many needs (including our own) as well as the time and energy to meet them can be incredibly difficult? Oh my goodness, yes. Story of my life lately.
Are there unhealthy situations where a spouse gives a disordered amount of attention or love to the children over their spouse? Sure.
Are there times when a couple may need to refocus on their marriage and spend some time and effort ensuring that their marriage is healthy for their sakes and the sake of their children? Of course. I do believe that it’s true that the best gift parents can give their children is a healthy loving marriage.
But to act like the children themselves – and those children acting in accord with the nature of being children — are somehow a threat to marriage? That mindset is intrinsically flawed. In its fundamental design, marriage begets children and our God — the one who created the universe and marriage itself — designed it that way. He designed that these very real needy, exhausting, messy, real-life babies, toddlers, tweens, and teens are the natural result of marriage. He did it. And He knows what He’s doing. These people we are given are not the frustrating intrusion into married love. They are the very real and exhausting fruit of it. The conception of life is a sign that the marital act worked well and did what it was supposed to, not a regrettable side effect dampening our couple time. In family life, we are all meant to be on the same side, fighting the same battle. It’s not meant to be us against them.
Raising children is hard, incredibly so. For many of us, it requires a gift of self that we likely haven’t made until that point. And that’s okay. It’s part of the path of love designed for this vocation, the one that He planned to use to bring us to heaven. We need to be so very careful that we don’t allow the fact that it is so difficult to turn us against the very ones that our love invited into the world. It can be so very very tempting to grow in resentment or bitterness towards our own children when things get hard. There’s a whisper that can work its way into our souls: It’s their fault. As a married woman, I am called to grow in holiness with my husband. That happens for us together through our parenthood, not in spite of it. As Christians we are called to witness to the world that life is good, that marriage is meant to be open to life, and that the littlest among us gifted to our marriage are worthy of the deepest respect. One of the ways we can do that is through the way we together and separately talk about, think about, and treat these little ones we’ve been given. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
If these children are the embodiment of our love, the physical result of two becoming really, truly one, then one very real way that I can love my husband is through how I love my children and one way he can love me is through how he loves them. What a gift it is to a wife when she sees her husband devoted to loving her children and she his. In this great mystery of family, love is not divided, it’s multiplied. Family love isn’t meant to be grasped at or jealously guarded among its members. Children, he says, are meant to consolidate, enrich, and deepen our love. They, as the living breathing sign of our love, are meant to make my marriage better than it was before. This means that my answering the 3 a.m. cry with love is a chance to truly strengthen my marriage. His sacrifice of down time to instead build legos with the eight year old makes him a better husband. This is not only because our active real love for our children is a sign of love and respect for our spouse but also because those little sacrifices and moments of selflessness train us in virtue, helping us to become better people. Selfless people make the best spouses.
There are enemies of your marriage, to be sure. There is one out there that would love to see them destroyed and delights in us believing that our children are out to get us. He feeds grudges, sows jealousy, waters selfishness, and salts wounds, all the while pointing his finger at the innocent children as culprit. Evil works by twisting what is good, true, and beautiful and delights in casting suspicion onto the most blameless. What a beautiful thing it is indeed when our families focus on crushing the real enemy and become the community of life and love that we are meant to be. We can choose to answer that same saint’s call more faithfully each day: “Family, become what you are.”(Familiaris Consortio, 17).