On a cold, dreary December morning in 1999, my life was drastically and irrevocably changed. I was blessed with not one, but two children within a span of 60 seconds. It wasn’t just the sleepless nights, nasty diapers, and mountain of new responsibilities that turned my life upside-down, though. My heart changed. It was restructured. Everything that mattered to me before took an immediate back seat to the two bologna loafs wrapped burrito-style in bleach-white hospital blankets.
My marriage, as every marriage does, had more than it’s share of challenges. One of those challenges, unfortunately, was the fact that I had children from a previous marriage.
When we first began dating, my wife and I simply did not see each other during my allotted time with the twins. That was a rule from which I simply would not deviate. I did not want them to know that I was dating someone. I did not want them to know that I had moved on from their mother. I did not wish to dash their wounds with salt. I did not want to introduce them to some woman I was still getting to know. I did not want to bring a woman into our lives whose time might be short-lived.
After about five months I felt reasonably sure I had a long-term relationship on my hands, so decided I wanted to introduce my future wife to my past, present, and future children. But first I had a discussion with them. I asked them how they’d feel if I loved a woman besides their mother. Their first response, naturally, was they wanted me to love their mother and to come back home. That was most definitely not going to happen, and I told them so. I then asked again if it was okay for me to love another woman. They thought about it, then decided unanimously that it was. Then they immediately demanded to meet her. My sweet, seven-year-old boys always could make me laugh.
My wife and I had many disagreements over the years about my children. My staunch refusal to attend any sort of social activity on nights that my boys were with me were often moments of frustration to her. I am truly sorry for that, but when I have only 50/50 custody of my children I’m not going to find a babysitter for them just to go out with friends. Especially when I’d rather spend that time with my boys. My wife would also become upset over the fact that she had no say-so in their upbringing. She felt that since she was helping to raise them that she should get to share in that responsibility. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. I appreciate, truly appreciate, everything my wife did for my children, but ultimately they are not her children. They have a mother, whether I like her or not, and it is up to their mother and I to make decisions regarding their upbringing. That’s just one of many pitfalls being a step-parent can bring. I was a step-parent for nine years, and I know it’s not easy, but that’s how it goes.
I recently read an article about modern American parenting and its profound affect on American divorce rates. In this article the author suggests that it’s okay to love your spouse more than your children. (The author encourages it, even.) That it’s okay if you’re children don’t always come first. That putting your children above all others, including your spouse, is detrimental to your relationships and, yes, your marriages.
Sometime between when we were children and when we had children of our own, parenthood became a religion in America. As with many religions, complete unthinking devotion is required from its practitioners. Nothing in life is allowed to be more important than our children, and we must never speak a disloyal word about our relationships with our offspring. Children always come first. We accept this premise so reflexively today that we forget that it was not always so.
Obviously I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you with utmost certainty why I feel the way I do about my children, and why they come before any one.
The answer, quite simply, is divorce.
When my parents got divorced I feel like my brothers and I kind of got lost in a cataclysmic emotional supernova. Having been divorced I know how emotionally devastating it can be. The problem, for me, came when my parents began to move on from each other. When they began dating their respective significant others I felt left behind. Neglected. Devalued. Of course both parents had the right to move on. They both had the right to be happy. But as a teenage boy who saw his time with his parents dwindle, and whose opinion was dismissed the moment it was voiced, my heart was bruised.
That feeling has been nestled in a forgotten chamber of my heart since I was 14 years old. So, yes, when I was going to bring a woman into my children’s lives who wasn’t their mother, I asked for their permission. It didn’t matter that they were 7, I wanted them to be okay with it.
Every decision I’ve made since becoming a father has had, at its core, the well-being of my children in mind. I consulted them before marrying my second wife. I consulted them before dating her again after we got divorced. I consulted them before I leased my new car because it would tighten our monthly budget. I may not always make the best, or even a good, decisions, but when I do anything I have fully considered how it will affect them before I act and, most of the time, consider their input beforehand.
So, yes, my children and what I deem best for them comes first. It isn’t some misguided devotion to a phantom “parental religion” or because of some bizarre expectations of society, as the author of the referenced piece above suggests, but because I don’t ever want my children to experience the feeling of knowing that someone else is more important to their father than they are, because it’s entirely impossible. No one means more to me than my children. No one. The love I have for my children is as indestructible as Superman, sans his weakness to Kryptonite. My children mean more to me than any other thing or being on this planet. When my children were born they literally shoved almost everything in my heart out so they could have it all to themselves. (#OccupyDadsHeart) Loving my children more than anyone or anything wasn’t a conscious decision I made. It just happened.
Perhaps the author is correct about one thing. Perhaps putting my children first was detrimental to my marriage. You know what, though? I don’t even give a fuck. I’d rather lose my marriage than make my children feel neglected. If your children feel neglected or unimportant, you’ve lost them.
If/when I decide to bring a new woman into my life it will not be before I’ve had a discussion with all three of my children. You might think it’s idiotic that my children have a say-so in who I do or don’t see. I disagree. My decision to bring a woman into my life will affect them as much as it affects me. If I bring a woman into my life I’m bringing a woman into their lives, and if I do so without even discussing it with them I have devalued their opinions without even hearing them. And that is unacceptable to me.
Frankly, I think all parents should put their children first. To me, that’s part of what being a parent is. When you bring another human being into this world you have a responsibility to care for, love, and mold that human being into a functioning member of society and I just don’t believe you can properly accomplish that if you’re not putting their needs first. And just to be clear, putting your children first doesn’t mean always giving them their way. It doesn’t mean pampering them. It means ensuring what you do has their best interests at heart. It means ensuring they know how much you love them. That they are valued. That what they say matters. It means they know that you’re there for them no matter what challenges they face.
At least, that’s what it means to me.
The hat I wear as a father is more important to me than any other hat I wear. It’s the hat I wear most often and most proudly. I’ve been married to two different women who were both affronted upon learning that my love for my children mattered more to me than my love for them, and I’ve never understood that indignity. I assumed every parent felt the same way. I guess I was wrong.