What Couples Therapy Taught Me About Parenting
Imagine a world where every person had a therapist. A really good therapist. Would such a thing eventually render the therapist obsolete? We’d all be walking around so well-adjusted and self-aware that the idea of someone obtaining the knowledge and training to help us become well-adjusted and self-aware would seem silly. Ah, yes, a therapy-enthusiast can dream, can’t she? Until that utopia is achieved, I say this: Get thee to thine therapist, and do it with your significant other. Especially if you have kids.
My husband and I have seen two different therapists, both for the same instigating reason. The first one was terrific and helpful and then we moved out of Brooklyn so it was time to find someone new. Our current therapist is a genius. We’ve been meeting with her on a weekly basis for a few months and the positive effects have been far-reaching. In general, I can say that setting aside time each week for the sole purpose of working on your relationship, or on a specific problem you’re facing as a couple, can be truly life-changing.
One of the areas that stands to benefit the most from your efforts in therapy is how the two of you function as parents. Even if parenting is not the focus of your hour on the couch, the permeating effect of the work you’re doing will no doubt reach the very core of who you are to your little ones and how you treat them.
With this in mind, here are the top three lessons that my husband and I have found to be the most immediate, useful and universal so far:
Words matter. Who better to prove this than my three-year-old daughter, who bristled when I jokingly told my husband he was being “a bad friend” for not sending a timely RSVP for a friend’s wedding. “But he’s a not a bad friend,” she said. “He’s my daddy and he’s a good guy.” I felt like such a jerk, and in that moment was instantly saddened for the thousands of children whose parents speak badly about one another but are not joking.
Through the process of therapy you learn how to speak to and about one another in a way that is constructive, loving and honest. You realize that even a flippant comment said in jest or out of frustration can carry long-lasting consequences. Messages are delivered and quickly take root, so be sure that you mean exactly what you’re saying. Modeling such a thoughtful approach for your children can be one of those gifts that lasts a lifetime.
Your happiness is everything. This one seems particularly important for moms to hear and internalize. Though we’ve come a long way, as they say, women still tend to postpone their own happiness for that of others – especially our children. But guess what? Your kids are not happy if you are not happy. Neglecting yourself and your needs is a well-trod path to an unhappy household.
It’s okay that you need a break and it’s imperative that you take it. Plan a girls’ night, a date night or just a night off. Do something that recharges your soul so that you can be truly present when you’re with your children. They will feel your distance more acutely if you are absent-mindedly sitting right next to them than they do when you leave their side to take yourself out to lunch.
Your kids will feel about things the way you feel about them. We parents spend a lot of time wondering how certain events will impact our children in the long-term. Instead of trying to predict the future, devote your energy to more consciously deciding how you react to those events now.
My husband travels a bunch for his job as a touring musician. I miss him when he’s gone and it’s not easy being the only parent at home for days or weeks at a time. But I have a choice to make. I can wallow in my loneliness and harbor resentment towards my husband and the requirements of his career. Or, I can keep in mind that I’m lucky to be married to a wonderfully creative man who loves what he does and has the freedom to spend a lot of time at home when he’s not on the road.
By choosing to focus on the joyful aspects of my husband’s frequent departures, I’m able to share, in words and energy, a positive message with our children. When our daughter says she misses her Dada, I remind her that he’s away because he’s making people happy by playing music for them. I assure her that he misses her a bunch, too, and that he’ll be soooo happy to hug her when he comes home. I know this message reaches the very important layers of her heart and mind when, each morning until he comes home, she wakes up and says, “Dada will be soooo happy to hug me when he comes home!”