There had been clues along the way.
The prolonged hugging in the morning, before Fred left for school. “I love you too much,” he said, as he rested his cheek against my belly. I responded in kind and wrapped my arms loosely around him. He repeated himself one more time, “I love you too much,” before he finally let go to head for the car. But midway he stopped and ran back to hug me again. “Okay, go, go!” I said. “Get in the car!”
Yesterday, when he seemed to overreact when his afternoon playmate had to go home for dinner. “WHY does he have to go?” Fred had shouted in tears. “HOW do you know he is eating dinner NOW?” Max and I had already started arguing in the next room by that time. I later realized that Fred was dreading to let go of his friend, afraid to be left alone in the house while his parents were fighting.
Where there is love, there is conflict. Where there is intimacy, there is hurt. We fight because we feel and because we care. As the saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. As long as we engage in conflict, we are showing that we care enough to engage.
I know this. At least, after 10 years of marriage, I know this. I know that lack of sleep or misunderstandings can trigger some of our meltdowns. I know that within 24 hours things will blow over. I know that, despite the hostility we feel at those moments, our love cannot be so easily destroyed.
But at 7, Fred doesn’t know this.
I remember the first time I heard my parents fight. I was in bed, and all I could remember hearing were my father’s shouting and my mother’s muffled crying. At the crack of dawn, I woke up to study my mother’s face and body, making sure she was still breathing and that she would soon wake up. I had believed, then, that you could die from someone’s anger.
I was 7, the same age Fred is now.
The night after our fight, while Fred and I were reading at bedtime, we came across the word “courage” in his story book. I asked Fred if he knew what the word meant. He asked, “Is that like me not crying last night?”
I realized we had not talked about the fight. I told him to feel okay about telling Mommy and Daddy how our arguing makes him feel. I told him that sometimes as adults we forget; we are so emotional and we forget how our anger impacts our children. Fred, who had been stoic this whole time, suddenly started blinking back tears until they overpowered him. I realized, then, how much he has grown, how much of a complete person he has become, and how vigilant we have to be now in his presence.
Long before I became a mother I had a goal to spare my future children the stress of a war zone at home.
A number of things have defined the person I’ve become, but none more than the experience of witnessing and living with my parents’ fighting. The feelings of powerlessness had led to depression, the fears to anxiety, the anger to a sometimes overly strong need for independence from any man. But how easy it has become to prioritize getting all our emotions out over making a serious effort to consider the impact on our children. More than once I found myself saying something to Fred that echoed too painfully what my mother used to say to me, something that used to give me zero comfort: “Your father is not angry at you; he is angry at me. This has nothing to do with you.”
A fight between Mommy and Daddy is the cracking fault line in a child’s world. Our fighting has everything to do with them.
After a day of not speaking, I finally reached out to Max when I saw the notes in Fred’s school folder. Fred had been acting out that day. He did not listen to his teachers. He was angry. They made him write a letter of apology to be signed by us. Without explanation, we both knew the cause of his behavior and what we needed to do to restore normalcy to Fred’s – and our – life. Like a powerful glue, it was our child that put us back together again. Our children have everything to do with us.
How do you handle your marital conflicts when it comes to your children? Are you able to fight behind closed doors? How do your children react to conflict?