Settling the “Kids First” vs “Marriage First” Debate

Just kidding. We all know there’s no way to “settle” a debate this heated. And frankly, I see no reason to. People are allowed to have their own convictions. They should lead their families the way they see fit, and I think we should give each other the benefit of the doubt that we all love our people and are doing the very best for them.

What I do wish to settle today is that this doesn’t need to be an argument in the first place.

I see this as a red herring — a distraction that gets a lot of us really riled up for no good reason. The question isn’t “who comes first, the kids or the marriage?” That question in itself is absurd. A better question is, “how do we manage our time and priorities so that everyone feels first?”

It’s a false dichotomy to say that we have to choose between putting our kids or our marriage first. Because the truth is that our children and our marriages shouldn’t be in competition with each other. There is no need for it.

Of course, we all have limited time. We have jobs and responsibilities, relationships to maintain, obligations to fulfill. Of course we have to make the best out of what limited time and energy we have. But that shouldn’t mean that we have to adopt a mindset of putting our marriage first before our children, or the other way around.

After my husband and I ended our separation and moved back in together, we had countless conversations about how our mismanagement of time and priorities had made our marriage harder than it needed to be. At no time in our marriage had we ever said out loud that the kids came first, but it was clear to us, in retrospect after almost losing each other, that we had been operating that way. Functionally, the kids did come first. We both were so lost in all the chaos and overwhelm of having two very small children, both close in age and very dependent on us, that we forgot to make time for each other.

Deciding to have a healthy marriage that would last meant reevaluating our priorities. We had to agree that sacrificing ourselves and our marriage for the children didn’t benefit anyone in the family. But we also had to acknowledge how easy it would be to enter into a new “honeymoon” stage now that we had rebooted our marriage, and to accidentally lean too far into our need for connection and alone time.

We realized that it would have to be about balance.

When you stop tormenting yourself with questions of who comes first, you free your mind to think creatively about ways to put everyone first.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. It shouldn’t be overwhelming or stressful. For us, putting a few simple routines in place has created a household in which everyone’s needs are met, everyone gets to feel first.

My husband and I have two weekly date nights. One is a night at home, always on Wednesday. After the kids are in bed, we do a restorative yoga session together, then eat dinner by ourselves! Most nights we eat together as a family, but we decided that one weeknight a week we should reconnect over dinner without the children. On Wednesdays, the kids get to pick their own dinners (which they love) and we eat our dinner after they’ve gone to bed. After dinner, we pour some wine, pop some popcorn, and cozy up in bed to watch a few episodes of our favorite shows.

Our second weekly date night is on Saturday, and for that, as long as it is financially accessible to do so, we hire a babysitter and go out for a romantic dinner together. These are small moments that almost always happen after the children are in bed, but they mean so much to us.

As for the kids, we also have scheduled routines with them. Every Wednesday after school, I take them to either their favorite restaurant or to an ice cream shop. We eat together and then go to the pet store to pick up insects for our lizards to eat. The kids always enjoy roaming the aisles and checking out all the animals while we’re there. Tuesday nights in our house are Taco Tuesday, and Friday nights are pizza nights. It’s something we all look forward to and that unites us as a family around little “traditions.”

Playtime with the kids can get tricky because they both want time with my husband and I, and usually, they want time alone with just one of us. We’ve started setting timers for individual play, where each kid gets 20 minutes of 100% undivided time and attention from one or both of us. It’s truly astonishing how just 20 minutes of truly concentrated time with us can really fill a child’s emotional tank.

We have found that with a little creativity, we can create structure in our family that makes everyone feel like they come first. And isn’t that the point? I just don’t quite understand why we even argue over who should come first in families. Let’s stop creating debates over things like this.

Parenting is hard enough. We should spend our time tackling the truly difficult topics, not arguing over things that have simple and intuitive solutions.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.


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