There is a joke about a kid who, not liking the ‘No’ he got from one parent, asked the other, in order to get a ‘Yes.’ “Never come between your mother and I,” the father says, “we sleep in the same bed together.”
And it is true. We have to back our spouses or it turns our homes into chaos. If one parent says No to TV, the other can’t say Yes just because they don’t want to be bothered. As frustrated as you might be with your spouse or co-parent, healthy boundaries dictate that our children are not appropriate places for us to vent those feelings. Your child doesn’t need to take the brunt of your displeasure with your spouse because you guys disagree on how late he can have ice cream.
Yet…it also can’t be ride or die. Your united front can’t become an impenetrable wall…or worse, a smokescreen. “I’m with your father/mother on this, right or wrong” is a preposterous and lazy stance. The two of you need to get it right, together. We talked recently about Adam Hoschild’s beautiful and haunting memoir about his father, Half The Way Home. His father, a powerful businessman, was withdrawn and strict, overbearing and often critical. Adam’s father meant well, and deeply loved his son, but was very hard on him. But what made this burden unbearable was actually not so much his father, but the role his more caring mother played in it.
“As always,” he writes, “she never disagreed with him. And I started to realize now, that pattern had added greatly to my self-doubt, to my childhood sense that I was in fact guilty of whatever Father accused me of. Why did she, someone who loved me so much in every other way, whose love was always so supportive, so unconditional, not stand by me here? Why didn’t she stop him? Why? Beneath her deep love for him, I began to think, maybe she too was afraid of Father’s disapproval.”
We back our spouses, but we have to let our children know we back them too. None of us are perfect as parents, and to somehow pretend that we are–or that our spouse is–is deeply disorienting to children. It doesn’t undermine anything to have discussions, to occasionally step in and play peacemaker, to work out compromises, or to sneak in some extra affection after an argument. And if our spouse or co-parent really is wrong, or their own issues are weighing heavily on our kids, we need to work with them to fix this…or else we are complicit in the error and flaw ourselves.