Whether you're putting the husband or the kids first, you're doing it wrong

Jun 6, 2016 at 7:29 p.m. ET
Image: Esthermm/Getty Images

After my son's fourth birthday party, I sat in my breakfast nook with my son's gymnastics coach (and good friend of mine), my mother in-law and her second husband. They all concluded putting your husband first is the right way to run the family.

I listened and said nothing for two reasons: I disagreed entirely. And second, because somewhere inside I felt guilty, maybe even like a bad wife, for not just disagreeing, but for believing something entirely different.

I love my husband and I love my kids. But, I love myself the most.

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This topic isn't a new one. It became the forefront of controversy after Ayelet Waldman published an essay titled "Truly, Madly, Guiltily" in The New York Times back in 2005. By putting the husband first, Waldman contended that children will learn, in some way, what true love is all about.

And she's not alone. When SheKnows took stock of the United States of Mom in 2005, we found 6 percent unabashedly put their husband first:

modern moms
Image: SheKnows

Forget a diamond; a husband is forever (an idea I might subscribe to if I didn't know anyone on their second or third or fourth marriage). The argument is also about keeping the fires of passion burning bright and looking out for your husband's confidence as a man (because men are such sensitive yet virile creatures). Even if something tragic were to happen to her kids, Waldman wrote, she could start over. You can always have more children with your husband.

When I was a baby, my mom had those same exact words said to her.

Days after I was born, my paternal grandmother, Pauline, was fearful of the condition I was diagnosed with: Diastrophic Dysplasia, a rare form of dwarfism that would only allow me to reach the height of 36". In the '80s not much was known about it, and she worried the family couldn't provide the care I needed (I'm assuming that's partially the reason). So, she pressured my dad to give the ultimate ultimatum: Give her up for adoption or divorce.

You can always have more children, Pauline said.

It didn't take long for my mom to serve papers. Had she believed in putting my dad's wants before her own, who knows where I would be now? What kind of woman would I have become? Would I have the same strength and determination to move past my handicap? Or would I have succumbed to feeling badly for myself? The thought terrifies me.

For me, the theory also falls apart in my position as a military wife. Before my husband left on deployment, I received notification to attend a pre-deployment class with other spouses. We went over a proverbial checklist: how to pay bills, where to keep important contact information readily available, how to take care of the family vehicle, even how to prepare for a natural disaster. We were changed from being (as the military calls us) "dependents" to independents.

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To buy a lawn mower or hire a landscaper, which school to enroll my kids into, which doctor is right, are we going to the waterpark or not — being a military mom and wife is about making decisions without first asking how our spouse feels.

And then there are the kids.

Before my parents eventually reconciled, my mom became the epitome of self-sufficiency. She worked two jobs to afford a house, went to night school to get her degree as an RN, and stood by my side during every surgery to correct my bowing bones (just one of the battles I faced growing up). My mom barely afforded the fee at the laundromat, so she'd wash my clothes first and hopefully had enough for her own later. She made sure I ate first, from a fridge filled with fruits and vegetables, while she lived off of instant mashed potatoes and canned corn.

To my mom, it's what she was supposed to do. If you made the choice to bring kids into the world, you had better be prepared to sacrifice yourself in order to give them all you have so they can prosper, she says. But here's the kicker: I don't agree with that 100 percent, either.

As a military wife, the hardest thing to do is accept the reality our husband may not come home at all. If this were to happen, I also run the risk of being left with someone I have lost touch with over the years — myself. I want my children to know their mom and to understand what defines me as a person. I can't show them what makes me happy, sad, disappointed, amused, afraid or anything like that if I lose touch with my own needs. Not to mention, how can I do what's best for my children while my husband is away if I'm burnt out and unhappy?

That night of the birthday party, I was supposed to Skype with my husband. But I canceled. I was too tired. The dishes took longer. So, too, did the cleaning of the floors and tucking of our sweet little boys into bed. By 9 p.m., all I could think about was a hot shower, a glass of wine and defragmenting over a pointless reality show. If I was going to provide a happy day for our family starting at 6 a.m., I needed to unwind. And it felt good.

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"Don't worry, my love," I read in his email the next day. "I understand entirely. I love you. We'll catch up later." My husband's words erased my guilt and truly, madly made me love him so much more. As a Marine, he doesn't need a wife. He doesn't need to be placed first. What he does need, though, is certainty his wife can hold down the fort while he's fulfilling his dream job serving our country. And in some ways, I suppose, that is putting his needs first before others — except, of course, myself.