Making deals to stay together

For some years now, I have worked as a mediator with parents whose love for one another has become hate. Character traits in the other that once seemed charming now seem dangerous. Addicted to the brief but intense pleasures of hatred, they lack serious interest in reforming their relationship. The focus of their war is most often their children, with money running a close second, and their preferred tactic is to show that their former partner is dangerously irresponsible.

Given the strains of new parenthood, the shift is easy to understand.

No one can make you feel as alone and helpless as a baby can.

Regardless of how flexible and inventive you are, or how many hours of babysitting you did when you were 13, or how well you can operate on too little sleep, the sense of having been given a job you are unready for hits hard. New intellectual, emotional and physical demands crowd you, and all of your most important relationships, including the one with the other parent, become more complex and puzzling.

Here are three couples I worked with whose children triggered and amplified a sense that they were strangers. They made deals to reach around their differences. Two of them, building on a string of small successes, developed long-term hope and trust.

One couple did not.

Sandy and Tom

Sandy and Tom had three children in four years, Tina, Louise and Jon. The three children fought for toys and attention, but outsiders often remarked how well they played together.

When Jon was 5, Louise 7, and Tina 8, Tom began to take Jon off to do “guy things.” At first Sandy thought it was cute. When, however, she asked him to have special times with each of their girls, he told her they should form their own club. She began to call him “a male chauvinist pig,” a term she had previously thought belonged exclusively to her mother’s generation, and he decided she had “a jealous streak.”

Leila and Hank

Before Sarah came home, Leila and Hank were proud of being a unique couple. He was a non-union construction worker, working occasional jobs. She was an attorney with an established law firm, highly valued and well paid. But she managed to carve out long weekends. Hank, who knew a million places to go, became their “official weekend planner.”

With Sarah’s arrival, Hank became a stay-at-home dad. It was hard on Leila. On Sarah’s first birthday, Leila imposed on herself an “always home by 6” rule. Even then, Hank could persuade Sarah to eat when Leila couldn’t-except for Gerber peaches, which he didn’t always remember to buy.

Sometimes, Sarah seemed not to recognize her mother when she walked through the door. Hank had always called her “my career woman.” Now he said it more often and in a tone of voice she hated. She started to call him, with an edge, “Sarah’s stay-at-home mommy.”

Lloyd and Adele

For Lloyd and Adele, it started the first night Oliver was home. He fell asleep at Adele’s breast before he was full, and then woke up 15 minutes later crying so hard he couldn’t get his breath. It was a nightmare. Lloyd claimed to know all about “born screamers.” According to his mother, he had been one, too. She had “broken” him of the habit in two weeks by making it a rule never to pick him up after the 10 p.m. news or before 6 a.m. Adele was not willing to do that. By their second week home, Lloyd was blaming her for letting Oliver become “a screaming machine.” She said Lloyd was being “too tough a tough guy.” In her heart, she sometimes thought him cruel. He told her she was “too soft.” In fact, he believed she was ready to ruin his son’s character so she could play the saint.

The deals

Except for occasional fleeting memories of an idealized past, none of these six people regretted having children. They were daily and nightly amazed at them, gazed into their eyes and loved the way they fell asleep on their shoulders. Looking after their needs, they found themselves easily doing things they never could have imagined, like wolfing down the food their kids left in their bowls and liking it.

But their children didn’t blind them to their real differences. Each one saw the other clearly and, by and large, fairly. Hank did have a lazy streak, and Leila was a snob about her profession. Tom did want to be known as a guy’s guy, and Sandy was jealous. Lloyd did idolize his past, and Adele did enjoy the moral edge she felt getting out of bed in the dark for the fifth time to nurse Oliver.

From time to time, each of them thought their work as parents would be easier if they could just do it on their own.

Sandy’s Band-Aid for Tom’s “Boys Club” was to get a book of heraldic crests out of the library and suggest that the three children sit at the table together and design one of their own. When it was done, she bought a frame and put it on the living room wall. Of course Tom knew what her scheme was, but he had coached the design team and was proud of what they made.

In spite of many short-term deals, Hank and Leila distrusted one another too deeply to stay together. She had thought from the start that he was determined to win their daughter away from her, and he thought she wanted to “turn Sarah into a snobby kid.” There were social-class and work differences, too, but perhaps the most powerful driver of all was that they both enjoyed revenge too much.

Simple, well-timed confessions, especially if they contain some truth, almost always disarm your opponents. At Oliver’s baptismal party, with Oliver asleep in her mother-in-law’s arms and Lloyd at her side, Adele said to his mother, “Your son thinks I don’t have your magic touch, and anybody can see he’s right.”

In one stroke, she took a step back, gave her husband credit, and gave her mother-in-law a chance to be sweet in front of an audience. After the cleanup, while she was nursing Oliver again, she and Lloyd made a deal. Until his next checkup, she would nurse him whenever she felt the need, night or day, but they would write out a “Crying Schedule,” 10 minutes in month four, 15 in month five, and so on, to run by their pediatrician for her approval.

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