When things are bad in a marriage, and even when things are good, there are a million casus belli. Every act is a provocation. Every disagreement is the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Is it gonna be French or Italian? Will there be a dog or a gerbil? How could you watch Homeland without me? The Americans v. Designated Survivor? Denver v. New York? But when children are at the heart of the argument — how to raise them, what to let them do, how to discipline them — bring out the MOAB. It’s total war.
One reason for the conflict is simply that raising children together — I would say co-parenting but for some reason that implies divorced or separated couples — is simply a high contact sport with frequent opportunities for a foul. “Raising kids,” says Lori Gottlieb, an author, therapist in Los Angeles and columnist for New York magazine’s What Your Therapist Really Thinks, “offers a thousand decision points within a week over which to argue. There are differences you didn’t even know you had come out.”
You don’t need a therapist to tell you how to resolve conflict (Hint: it rhymes with shmompromise), but since all threats to children feel like existential threats to parents, concessions are hard to extract. Childcare disagreements are like Taiwan and parents are like the United States and China. At best, there can be an awkward diplomatic discussion. More likely, when focus shifts that way a geopolitical incident is in the offing.
Say, for instance, the Shins are playing at Prospect Park and it’s free but it starts at 8 p.m. A father might think this is exactly why he pays through the teeth to live in New York, that children deserve pleasure and, furthermore, that neglecting to bring children to a free outdoor concert augurs poorly for the future of both them and his own continued happiness. Also, the world is for living in! Not going to the concert, therefore, becomes tantamount to an official position change on life (it shouldn’t be fun). Meanwhile, a totally hypothetical wife might argue that 8PM is well past their bedtime and that it is bad for kids to be up past their bedtime and, fuck it, the Shins stopped being good after Chutes Too Narrow.
This spirals up into a tornado until what the mother and father are arguing about is now how he is selfish and she is controlling, how he’s fucked up because his dad is fucked up and she’s fucked up because her dad is fucked up, etc etc. It never ends. Or rather, it frequently ends in one of those seismic battles of which every marriage has a finite limit.
All arguments can be caught up in the bitter wind of long-held resentment, of course, but arguments over how to raise children are particularly strong candidates. First of all, parenting touches us at our very core. As a father, so much of my self-worth is tied to how I parent that saying I am a crummy dad, cuts to the quick. Frequently in these arguments, one’s own childhood is weaponized. This is the “You yell because your father yelled!” line of argumentation. Sadly, though invoking one’s spouse’s parents is pretty fucking nasty, there is, says Gottlieb, a grain of truth to it. “Of course, we bring our own experiences of our own childhood to how we parent,” she explains, “We call it the ghost in the nursery.” According to Dr. Fran Walfish, psychotherapist of Beverly Hills, “When parenting under stress, you will automatically repeat unwanted parenting strategies.” Sometimes that is yelling. Sometimes that is clamming up and growing distant. Sometimes it’s simply wanting the kids to be out late sometimes.
Let’s be honest. As long as there are children there will be fighting. But how does one fight fair with a minimal amount of damage to the children and to the relationship? What are, in other words, the Geneva Conventions for Fighting About Kids? There are two things that I’ve found vastly helpful. The first comes from Gottlieb. Basically, her advice is to surrender the notion of a united front altogether. Allies need not be identical to have common cause. [Lie back and think of Yalta.] In fact, says Gottlieb, it’s better for the kid if there are palpable differences between his or her parent. “In general, It’s really good for your kids, to see that you are different people,” she says “They can used to different personality styles and understand there are lots of ways to be loved.” One parent can be the riler-upper and the quick-shouter; the other the calm-beseecher and compliant-plaintiff. Instead of fighting to find absolute unity, realize instead by being different you’re turning your kids into adept readers of human beings in their many and manifold variants.
The second piece of advice came from Valerie Tate, a psychotherapist in San Francisco. She couched it more in therapeutic terms but essentially her advice can be boiled down to… Fuck it, it really doesn’t matter that much. Her argument isn’t nihilistic but simply chillistic, which is a portmanteau of chill and realistic. “Some things are really worth fighting for and some things fall into the category of “that’s mom” and “that’s dad,'” she says. Naturally, Tate namechecks Maslow’s Hierarchy of need, in which the base level is physiological followed by safety, loving, esteem and, finally, self-actualization. In a parenting dust-up, she said, “Ask yourself whether this is really a crisis. Is the first line of safety being met? And if it is, what are we really looking at?”
Basically, what you’re left with is two people on their own trip, arguing their positions like opposing counsel. The only problem, of course, is you can’t have a court system with no judge and in a marriage — unaided by therapy — there is rarely a judge. Instead, says Tate, “drop the court case. The only way to win is to let go of words like winning or losing.” Or as James Mercer of The Shins might put it: “It’s a luscious mix of words and tricks / that let us bet when we know we should fold.”