Once the kids arrive, mom and dad may want to be more careful about where, when and how often they allow themselves to argue in the presence of their children. This is the focus of Ilene Rosenzweig's "Anger Management," which is featured in "Cookie" magazine and anthologized in “Blindsided by a Diaper," edited by Dana Bedford Hilmer.
Here's her essay:
My husband and I used to fight a lot. Big fights over nothing. Not speaking for hours over things as petty as tone of voice — a complaint so common we could simply hiss “Tone!” to egg the other person on. Some couples fight over legitimate issues: “I hate your friends!” or “You lied to me!” But when Rick and I were still single and living together, we could conjure a full screaming, temple-throbbing blowout from the smallest complaint, say, leaving a bag of garbage in the back of the car for too long before going to the dump. He says he’s taking out the garbage and doesn’t need to be criticized for how he does it. I ask, why is my position a criticism? It’s just logic. “Garbage in the car could attract bugs ... You just hate being told what to do!” And onward and upward the sparks would fly.
That’s not to say we’d fight over everything. We never fought about traditional things. Like when I found boxes of slides of him and his ex-girlfriend on a romantic weekend in Nova Scotia chilling in our freezer, I didn’t clobber him with a frying pan. That I handled with cool ironic detachment, smoothly proffering the slide box and asking if that’s what broke the defrost.
In general, Rick and I tend to get along well because we share a sense of humor and agree about big issues. Perceived slights and insults on minor issues are the things that get our Mr. and Mrs. Roper dynamic flaring. And we were fine with that. We accepted this about our relationship. Until I got pregnant. The pregnancy was only partially planned. Rick goaded me into “trying” because, based on his calculations of how many months of ovulation therapy and sperm spinning our friends had undergone, it would take years for us to conceive. Then we walked into the bedroom and moments later I walked out pregnant. I don’t think we even had sex.
We weren’t ready.
Another reason Rick and I get along so well is that as a couple we share certain maturity handicaps — and were equally panicked about the prospect of becoming parents. Among the myriad fears — losing our identity, becoming a cliché, being bad at the job — most of all I was afraid of becoming like my parents and fighting in front of the kids.
My parents never should have been married, and if it weren’t for me they wouldn’t have been. The only things they had in common were bowling and two little girls. Oh, and passionate tempers. Their union was mined by a lethal combo of short fuses and bad behaviors. I remember when I was a kid, going to the Long Island Rail Road station with my mom to pick up Daddy, and everyone else’s daddy coming off the train but mine. He was playing poker. My mom had her secret pastimes, too — guitar lessons that required afternoon shuttles to Boston. Such deceptions led to marriage-ending blowouts. By the time I was five, my mom “split,” went the hippie route, got into modeling and Black Sabbath; my dad retreated to a Manhattan Upper West Side playboy pad. This was in the seventies, before enlightened divorce protocol about behaving for the kids’ sake existed, and exes could be friends like in “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”This was more a “Kramer vs. Kramer,”full-throttle custody battle that dragged on for what seemed like forever. And the rancor worsened.
My parents’ fights were opera, and words from their bellowed librettos still reverberate in my memory:
Cornea: My father grabbing a phone from my mother’s hand and his ring scratching her cornea, and her going to the hospital.
Private detective: My mother discovering my father had hired a private detective in his quest to track her affairs and prove her an unfit parent.
Alimony: Them both screaming through the screen door after my father had made the ninety-minute drive from the city to our house and my mother refused to let us out for the visit, claiming he wasn’t up-to-date with the alimony check.
Rick’s white picket fence upbringing in Toronto was far tamer than the psychological safari going on in my Long Island home. But his parents bickered — over money. His superfrugal dad complained that his only-slightly-less-budget-minded mom wasted money by putting too much water in the teakettle.
We didn’t want to become the Bickersons. We wanted to be trustworthy steady parents, models of decorum and cuss-free living, whose kids would grow up in a relaxed environment where they could enjoy their childhood. We vowed not to fight. And to that end, I invented “heart to heart,” a concept to stave off an escalating argument. A time-out for adults wherein either party could call “heart to heart,” and the other person would be compelled to come in for a hug close enough to feel the other’s heart beating.
It didn’t work.
As hormones and preparental anxiety mounted, so did the tenor of our rows. A memorable one, as usual, sprang from nowhere. This one before the day even started. It was about who had to take the early boxing session with our trainer that morning — some disagreement about who had scheduled it. And neither of us wanted to wake up for the 8:30 bout. (Clearly we were not prepared for the rigors of baby rearing ahead.) But we did rally for a Rocky-level quarrel that ended with Rick, in a fit of frustration, punching a hole in our bathroom wall. A few weeks later, another beauty climaxed with Rick hurling his glasses on the floor, shattering the lenses, and me crawling on the ground to gather up the shards, sobbing at the violence, “We’re going to be miserable parents!”
Enter Dr. Caroline Perla, couples therapist. We managed to commute to her office for only half a dozen visits. But in those meetings, Dr. Perla made a most notable diagnosis: We were fighting as a substitute for sex.
Certainly, six months into “our” pregnancy, as it is now politic to say, our sex life wasn’t a thrill a minute, more of an accomplishment. And when you stop to think about it, fights could be construed as a turn-on. The adrenaline flows, you get flushed and light-headed. And they’re often a sign of passion. Think of Ava and Frank, Liz and Burt, Jessica and Nick. (In fact, when I think back on some of the romantic comedies of my life, the fight scenes measure as exciting as the love scenes. Like the time my college boyfriend kicked down a street sign in a jealous fit over a lacrosse player, or the boyfriend who locked me in the bathroom just to get a word in edgewise.)
Of course, none of those famous couples ever spawned. The conflation of passion and anger loses its glamour as a parent, as we learned a few months after our son was born. The halcyon bliss subsided and we were no longer obsessing over the wobbly neck and soft spot and had the confidence to act more like ourselves. That’s when we had our first fight. Somewhere between squabble and quibble — a squibble really, a mere three on our personal Richter scale. But it was carried out from the living room to the kitchen and across the little person in the high chair in between. His startled face collapsed into sad clown and started to bawl, red, panting, and spraying tears. Our son had no words yet, but he looked so nervous and sad that it broke our hearts.
We were living out exactly the scenario we had both wanted to avoid. Seeing in our son’s face what had previously been abstract — how damaging parents’ acrimony and bitterness can be — we had the motivation we lacked before to rein it in. We learned to exhibit control, to postpone a disagreement until we were alone. And by then, who can remember? With the built-in cooling-off period, the friction lessened. We both tended to say “I’m sorry” more. For a time, peace seemed more valuable than being right. But then we had another one, baby that is. Just weeks after he was born we moved to Los Angeles and changed careers .... And while we pulled together like good life partners should, the tension took its toll. One morning we were driving our two-year-old to his new school and Rick and I were cross. In his haste, he’d forgotten to strap the car seat into the car. We weren’t half a block by the time the quarrel warranted a pull over. The tremors of the Richter scale were rising when I abruptly stopped it, indignantly refusing to argue in front of the baby. Self-righteously I stopped speaking, and we drove to the Sunshine Shack in muteness. But I learned that day that kids can hear a fight even when it’s silent. From the backseat a little voice cracked, “Aww, nee luh.” Huh? Then again, “Aw nee luh.” I choked up when I realized he was singing the Beatles song he’d learned at camp that summer, “All You Need Is Love.”
Babies make it plain that it’s not enough to not fight in front of them. Bottling up and shelving hostility wasn’t the answer either — I’d end up turning our family into “Ordinary People.” An emotionally shrink-wrapped Mary Tyler Moore wasn’t the mom I wanted to be. I wanted to show my sons how to manage stress with humor. How to be forgiving. How to love someone even for their faults. And while I’d started out trying to better my behavior for the sake of the kids, it turned out to have a residual effect on my marriage, since the same skill set that you acquire to be a good mommy can be applied to being a good spouse. I learned the importance of appearing good-natured, being able to discuss irritating behavior rather than criticize character, to attempt to understand the source of brattiness — tired, hungry, out of gas? —rather than react to it. To think of your commitment to your spouse as as permanent as your commitment to your child. To take a long view of your relationship so you don’t take slights personally. And of course, to schedule play dates.
Rick and I planned a much-needed one. A naughty spa getaway in Laguna Niguel to get our groove back. We left the babies with my aunt and sped out of town — just the two of us. In the Pacific inlet with neo-Mediterranean views reminiscent of the Italian seaside town where we were married, Rick and I nipped around the tennis court, noodled out during double massages, nuzzled over a romantic dinner, and then afterward repaired to our ocean-view room. And with no kids around to intrude, indulged in some very naughty behavior we could never have dared with little ears in the next room — a fight. A big one. A wing chair briefly took flight. It was hot.
For more information on this topic or the anthology “Blindsided by a Diaper: Over 30 Men and Women Reveal How Parenthood Changes a Relationship," visit this Web site: blindsidedbyadiaper.com/