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Why My Love for My Husband Trumps My Love for My Children

Romantic love requires more attention, and I'm ok with that.

Photo Credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock.com

I try not to use my marriage as an example for what is right and wrong for marriage in general. My husband and I fell in love relatively young, got engaged rather quickly, and immediately found ourselves thrust into situations most couples don't consider until decades of life together have passed, if at all.

The day after we got engaged, my future husband was rushed to the hospital. He was diagnosed with stage four, inoperable brain cancer and given about a year and a half to live. We got married nine months into that time. 

For us, the choices we make have all stemmed from the moment his doctor told me not to expect him to live. We talked about the benefits and drawbacks of ever having children, let alone right away, and decided we wanted to have the longest window of time to be a whole family before we lost the chance. So less than a year into our marriage we were pregnant with twins, and as he beat his prognosis in grand fashion, we became pregnant again.

Now, with three children in our family, I can say I love my children more than I ever imagined I would have the capacity to love. But as strong as that love is, it is quite different, and perhaps weaker, than the love I have for my husband.

Ten years ago, Ayelet Waldman wrote in the New York Times about just this issue. She argued that she loved her husband more than she did her children, and it began a battle of the Mommy Wars that has yet to fully end. For 10 years now, some mothers have been asking themselves the unanswerable question, "Who do I like best?" and dividing into camps that defend their conclusions.

For me, having children was always an expression of love for my husband. I always wanted kids, but I wanted them with him, and more than that I wanted them for him. I wanted him to experience the joy of fatherhood. I wanted him to have that part of life he always knew he wanted. Having children was not only how I created three of the people I love best on the earth, it was also my gift to him.

And more selfishly, they were a gift to myself. I hoped when we got pregnant that we would have a child who would take after him, physically and intellectually, and for the rest of my life, even without him in it, I would have physical reminders of him, and the comfort of knowing that the best of him lived on in the world.

I think of this near the 10-year anniversary of Waldman's controversial essay, wherein she described her feelings for her husband as beyond “love” —labeling the emotion instead as "infatuated devotion." Less of a choice, in her view, and more of a compulsion.

I wonder about this description. I wonder if my love for my own husband, which I always considered a choice, is anywhere near as compulsive as Waldman's sounds. In order to survive those early months, and even years after his diagnosis, I told myself and him that we chose to fight for a life together. That we chose to work toward survival together, to make a family, to build a future.

I told myself I could, realistically, have chosen to abandon him to his parents and his fate, given back the proverbial ring, and walked away. But in truth I know I couldn't have made that choice. And if I couldn't have made it, was it a choice at all?

The crux of Waldman's essay is that she loves her husband more than she does her children, and her language frankly makes me uncomfortable. I cannot say I love my own husband more, precisely, but I can agree that I love him in a way that is in many aspects better. My love for him is more consuming, more distracting and more conscientious. My love for my children exists unequivocally, it is absolute and unconditional, and for that reason it can be ignored. I constantly plan ways to show my love to my husband. For my children, we all accept that it is there, whether or not anybody is acting on it at the moment.

So in that sense, Waldman and I do have something in common. Yet we part ways when it comes to the "God forbid" scenarios Waldman admits to setting up in her head—mind games she describes playing with herself, in which she must somehow choose if she would rather lose her husband or her children. She wrote:

"I imagine what it would feel like to lose one or even all of [my children]. I imagine myself consumed, destroyed by the pain. And yet, in these imaginings, there is always a future beyond the child's death. Because if I were to lose one of my children, God forbid, even if I lost all my children, God forbid, I would still have him, my husband. But my imagination simply fails me when I try to picture a future beyond my husband's death. Of course I would have to live. I have four children, a mortgage, work to do. But I can imagine no joy without my husband."

In 100 percent of these scenarios, I would choose my children. Given these impossible choices, I would always choose to let my husband go.

Perhaps it is because it had been my expectation that my husband would die, at least relatively young, and that I would be put in the role of a single mother and widow, that I have made peace with this idea. Or perhaps it has to do with a parable my father liked to tell me when I was young:

"A holy man is wandering through the country, and a farmer lets him into the house to spend the night. He feeds the holy man, and in the morning gives him food and sends him on his way. Before he leaves, the farmer asks for a blessing. The holy man thinks for a moment and says, 'Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.' When the farmer is outraged, the holy man adds, 'Would you prefer it any other way?'"

Still, there is much Waldman and I agree on. The love we have for our children is in many ways unconditional, and this can make feeling and showing that love easy. The awe and pride that are our company in parenthood are so constant we take them for granted. Romantic love, on the other hand, requires our attention. It requires us to prioritize our spouses over our children, when simple instinct puts our offspring first.

Like Waldman, given the choice, I would rather spend a night out enjoying the company of my husband, than a night home with my children, arguing through bath time and crying over pajamas. My love for my husband demands higher priority than my love for my children, because there are conditions on our love that simply aren’t a factor in the parent-child relationship.

I expect honesty of my husband, whereas I expect my children to lie daily, from, "Yes I washed my hands" to "I don't know who painted with nail polish on the couch."

I expect compassion and sympathy from him, whereas I have no expectation that my children will notice if I'm tired or hungry or unwashed.

I expect engaged conversations from my husband. I expect my children to routinely tune me out or withhold information about their days.

I don't expect my children to care about me the way he does ever, and I don't want them to. I want adult relationships with them when they're adults. But not romantic ones. Not the sort of intimate relationship that becomes a calm codependence.

So yes, there is something special and more pressing about the way I love my husband. It is true that I spend more time wishing I was with him than with my kids, more time finding particular ways to show him affection. In many ways, the flavor of love I have with my husband is something I prefer to the unconditional love my children and I exchange, though each have their power and their moments of magic.

Waldman’s mistake is in framing this reality as a binary choice. I do not love my husband more than I love my children. I simply love him differently. And part of that love for him is knowing that, as the holy man said, he should die before they do, and that is the best outcome in life. 

Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.

I would not want it any other way.

Lea Grover is a writer living on Chicago's South Side. Find more of her work at Becoming SuperMommy.

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