Finances, sex and parenting are the Big Three subjects that challenge a marriage. Other touchy topics include in-laws, chores and religion, but the Big Three are the most common and detrimental to marital happiness. I am observing a trend-testing relationships in the parenting curriculum: Homework is threatening to flunk some marriages.
It is not uncommon for a middle or high school child to have two or more hours of homework each night preceded by or squeezed in around an extracurricular activity. Extracurriculars are rarely considered optional fun. These commitments are graded as part of the college resume. It has become a form of homework in disguise. Success in all areas is crucial. This nightly routine of four hours of homework and activities does not include commute, transition, nor prep time. In order to accomplish the task, parents must pre-plan meals, equipment and transportation; most often there is more than one child exponentially increasing the difficulty.
Aside from driving, paying and feeding, parents have begun task managing every subject their child studies. As a result of historic parental pressure for their student to succeed, schools provide a deluge of emails, conferences and communications flooding parents' information management systems. Grades can be checked almost daily. Homework is routinely reviewed and signed.
Scheduling, preparing and task managing are simply the basics of the parent's challenge. Add a tired, anxious or resistant child into the mix and the stress really begins. Parents must now manage their child's emotion as well as their own. Managing emotions is difficult considering parents are often worn out from work, relationships and personal issues. Parents' mental, physical and emotional resources are tapped.
I believe underlying all this drive for achievement is a cultural subconscious panic that the child may "fail" in life. Mastery of each moment is crucial or the path to success will close forever. The supreme goal of winning this game or learning this chapter intensifies. Parents are driven by the fear that their child will not add sports success to their college resume, not move on to the Advanced Placement History class, not do well on their standardized test, not make it into a good school, and not be successful in life. All this effort and opportunity will be wasted. Do not forget the cost at risk. School and extracurriculars are expensive in time, money, and personal investment. Repeat this anxiety process for approximately 300 days each year for more than 18 years. The pressure to achieve and keep it all together is immense
Stress and conflict are obvious fallout from too much homework in a marriage, but the more sabotaging symptoms manifest themselves in different ways. Detrimental symptoms of a homework afflicted marriage look like escaping, avoiding and attacking and mutual suffering. These symptoms are endured in support of the child's success. The marriage is at risk.
When one parent is escaping, the other is taking primary responsibility for the child's success. The escaping parent agrees success is important but is unable to effectively participate. The escaping parent may feel barred from participating, overwhelmed with the negativity or simply incapable of working with the child. In one example of escaping, a mother and child fought so much over homework and academic achievement that the home environment was constant acrimony. The yelling, nagging, and fighting were daily routine. Overtime, the father began to withdraw and sought an affair to soothe the stress from home and work. He did not want to leave the marriage, he loved his wife and child. The affair was an erroneous and desperate attempt at coping.
When parents are avoiding and attacking, they have fallen into a tag team pattern of managing homework. Avoiding and attacking is between the parents, not the children. Avoiding occurs for similar reasons to escaping, but an avoiding parent will routinely try to re-engage. Attacking occurs when one parent is unsatisfied with the efforts of the other. In one such case a mother and child battled so intensely over assignments that the father would avoid and linger in another room. When the mom was at the end of her rope, she would welcome the father stepping in. The father, often already emotionally elevated from the arguing, handled the situation as best he could. His handling of the situation only earned him the attacking grade of unsatisfactory, or worse, jerk, but the homework was done. This is a familiar dynamic I have seen replicated in another couple where the parents were sharing the homework managing responsibilities. As things escalated with one parent and child, the other parent would avoid intervention as long as they could intending support by not contradicting in the homework management process. This avoiding ultimately ended in either never coming in to assist or in imperfect intervention; both actions resulted in attacking anger from the other parent.
Mutual suffering is a subversive symptom that happens to couples who may appear to work smoothly together in coordinating their children's workloads. Managing the children has become the central focus of their lives. The parental team is effective, but one parent begins to resent the other for not contributing in areas such as scheduling, thinking ahead, and preparing. This parent becomes tired, negative, and non-affirming or worse, critical. The other parent begins to feel unwelcome, neglected, or under-appreciated despite the great amount of work, love, and patience they provide in supporting the homework process. Both individuals are right. Distance builds and energy dwindles. Intimacy suffers, happiness is gone and mutual nurturing is near non-existent. Intermittent blow-ups occur. The marriage is nearly extinguished.
These parents whose marriages are suffering began with the same noble goal in mind. They are a unified front, agreeing by default that no matter what, their child must get to the head of the class. Parents are pushing themselves, their child, and each other past their mental, physical and emotional resources to achieve. Families and the marriages that ground them are on the brink. When couples arrive in my office not a one of them feels the problems in their marriage are worth the grade. Couples need and want peaceful, nurturing, and loving relationships for a successful life. Perhaps we are using the wrong grading scale.
Certainly the couples in the examples here could have made other choices in managing their stress levels, but the common denominator, homework overload, remains. I have found Calmer, Easier, Happier parenting to be an excellent strategy for managing and limiting homework stress while maximizing potential. The immense challenge to the marriage goes deeper than partner communication and prioritization of tasks associated with achievement. The fundamental dilemma is to assess what is being sacrificed at what cost. Hard choices must be made.
Before your marriage ends up in my counseling office or worse, divorce court, take stock of how much time, energy, emotion, and money your child's homework consumes. It is a classic litmus test of priority and hierarchy. If you are displacing adult needs from the top and elevating the children's, you are at risk. Perhaps you are influenced by an erroneous cultural message or misplaced value. Launching your child is your responsibility, but you are most likely exceeding a reasonable expectation if your primary resources are consumed by homework and activities. Look for the signs of homework overload: stress and fighting over this topic. Identify any symptoms of escaping, avoiding & attacking, or mutual suffering in your relationship. Work with your partner to alleviate the cause of these symptoms by realigning your goals, efforts, and investments. A succeeding child and failing marriage is no formula for success.