04/18/2015 01:06 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2015

Who Comes First? (Not That Way)


The recent posting by Amber Doty asserting that her marriage would always come before her children raised quite a few eyebrows -- and quite a few laptop screens. There were plenty of electronic fist-bumps, but lots of comments, too, along the lines of Bell Cay's, "Anyone who puts their spouse before their children is an unfit parent."

This is a post-psycholyptic era, during which my Boomer friends and I have spent years locating the specific moments when our parents screwed us up. It seems we've gone out of our way to avoid giving our own children grist for the therapist's mill. God forbid that there would ever be an unanswered question, an unmet need, an unfilled silence.

Doty's assertion is that allowing her marriage to come before parenthood means a couple can:

a) model an excellent relationship for their children;

b) lower the risk of a marital fracture, with its attendant scars; and

c) avoid falling into the "excuse-me-who-are-you?" chasm that results all too often from an empty nest.

These ideas are so retro -- kind of like kids having manners, say, or doing chores -- that they seem to have riffled the blogosphere. But they're hardly new. Back in 1936, a psychologist named David Levy did a detailed study of the competing relationships between mothers and their children and husbands. Ironically, Levy's research focused more on the damage too much attention could do children, rather than to marriages, but the implications were similar. In his book, Maternal Overprotection, he wrote:

A wife devoted to her husband cannot be exclusively a mother. In a more fundamental sense, the release of libido through satisfactory sexual relationship shunts off energy that must otherwise flow in other directions. One might theoretically infer that a woman sexually well-adjusted could not become overprotective to an extreme degree.

Levy found that children who'd gotten excessive attention were unusually aggressive, rebellious, and demanding, and sometimes just socially inept. He postulated that some of these problems might be mitigated if mothers gave less to their children -- and got more from their husbands. Doty makes the same point, though in this era, both the parental and the sexual responsibilities can be shared.

Which reminds me of a story.

When my husband's and my kids were still toddlers, our internist gave us some marvelous advice: Keep your bedroom door closed at night.

This was sheer genius. That closed door, like any door, would keep stuff in, and would keep stuff out. What would be kept in would be the three great intimacies of any marriage, namely sex, nudity and fighting. These are the three things you don't ever want your children to see, let alone imagine. And what would be kept out would be all the kid detritus -- all the pressing, essential questions that are rarely as pressing and essential as they seem.

As I say, our doctor's advice was genius, but, of course, we weren't smart enough to follow it. We always seemed to have a good reason. First, the toddler years of night frights, bad dreams, and, with one kid, truly assertove sleepwalking. Then there were monsters in one of the closets. Then a new apartment, new sounds. And then-poof!-they were old enough to guess -- ew, gross -- what we might be doing behind a closed door. And that was the ballgame.

We are three months away from our own empty nest now. I'm happy to say I haven't forgotten who my husband is. I'm pretty sure he's the guy I married. As for our children, they did grow up understanding that the love we had for them was both more basic and less optional than the love we had for each other. A spouse (not counting adoption) is the only family member you get to choose. That's what makes the love so regal, and so worth protecting. If I had to do over again, of course I'd keep it behind a door.

And yet... It might be lovely to think of your children as visitors passing through two lovers' lives. But I've yet to meet a parent who has sustained that state of mind through the usual 18 years of that "visit." Life in a family is constant triage; need always dictates priority. You promise to help make your daughter's costume; your husband breaks his thumb. You want to take a walk with your husband; your son loses his first tooth. Even a closed door is porous. Children and their things and their needs osmose around the corners. Sounds come through: a burst of laughter, a slammed door, maybe a faucet left on. You shouldn't have to choose where your heart goes. You don't have to choose.