"My husband and I have clashed over parenting ever since our daughter, Ashley, was born four years ago," said Jill, 40, a marketing executive who has been married for six years. "Ron calls me overprotective, but he's way too lax.
"I had a normal pregnancy, but for some reason Ashley was born six weeks premature. She's fine, but I can't shake my fear that something bad might happen — that she'll get sick or have an accident. I've made it my job to protect her, and Ron has a problem with that. For example, Ashley didn't sleep well as an infant, so if I was on the phone I'd whisper so she wouldn't wake up. Ron said she had to learn to sleep through noise. At 14 months Ashley could toddle around the room, but I walked one step behind her to make sure she didn't fall. Ron would scoff and say, 'If she never falls, how will she learn balance?' I'm also a stickler for hygiene, so I make Ashley wash her hands after eating or touching things in public places.
"And I like toys to stay in the playroom. My life as a working mom is hectic enough without having a messy house to straighten up every night. Ron calls me 'ridiculous' and does what he pleases. Often I arrive home from work — Ron's a teacher and gets off before I do — to find toys all over the living room and Ashley jumping off the sofa or the stone hearth of our fireplace. I don't care if Ron is close by; these activities are unsafe.
"Worst of all, he mimics me in front of Ashley, yelling 'watch out!' in a mocking tone. And he constantly undermines my authority. If I tell her to wear a jacket, he'll say, 'It's warm out.' If I ask her to finish her milk, he'll say, 'She's had enough.'
"Our arguments have gotten so bad that we now go our separate ways at home. We haven't had sex in ages, mostly because I'm too angry. And of course Ron gripes about that, as well as the fact that we never go out alone anymore. Well, I'd rather use my precious time off for family activities. There'll be plenty of opportunities to go on dates again when Ashley's older — if we manage to stay married, that is.
"I can't believe I'm even saying those words! Ron and I are both children of divorce — it's one of the things we bonded over when we started dating — and we vowed never to let it happen to us. My parents, who fought constantly, divorced when I was in kindergarten and my mom became my best friend. Even now we talk every day, just to check in with each other. For years I had nightmares that she'd die and I'd have to live with my dad, who ignored me except to insult my appearance. When I was 8 he got a job out of state and basically disappeared from my life. I can't say I was sorry.
"I met Ron at a friend's party when I was 31 and fell in love almost instantly. For a long time we were really happy and had a terrific sex life. But once we became parents everything went south. Now I'm worried we're screwing Ashley up, too. She's even started saying she's 'worried' — as in, 'I'm worried no one will like me.' She'll flip out when her yogurt spills, sob uncontrollably because she's misplaced her stuffed panda, and be too scared to get in the pool at a classmate's birthday party, even though she's had swimming lessons. 'Ashley is a nervous wreck because of you,' Ron says.
"I hate to think that's true or that our marital problems are causing her anxiety. I'm worn out from our endless battles and afraid that if Ron and I split up Ashley will suffer even more. I want to fix our marriage for her sake as well as ours."
"I don't know what's gotten into my wife," said Ron, 42, a high school history teacher. "She used to be so much fun, but motherhood has turned her into a stressed-out control freak. Every five seconds it seems Jill's checking on Ashley to make sure she's okay, and Jill never gives Ashley a chance to handle everyday challenges on her own. Maybe if Jill would lighten up Ashley wouldn't be so timid and afraid of life.
"Here's the problem: I want Ashley to be rough-and-tumble, the kind of kid who, if she falls down and scrapes her knee, gets right back up and tries again. Jill wants to keep her in a bubble. And our differences have driven a wedge between us. It's true, I do mock Jill's warnings, ignore her rules, and disagree with her in front of Ashley. I'm not proud of this behavior. It sets a terrible example for our daughter, but I'm going nuts.
"As Jill said, the early years of our marriage were great. She's beautiful, intelligent, and energetic, and from the moment she caught my eye at that party I wanted to be with her. When she got pregnant I was really looking forward to being a dad, but I'm totally shut out by her overprotectiveness. Okay, I understand why she'd be nervous at first because Ashley was premature. But she's always been healthy, so why is Jill such a worrywart? Plus she talks about her worries to anyone who's listening — and a lot of the time that's Ashley. You'll never convince me that Ashley dreamed up all these fears on her own. It's Jill who complains about keeping the house clean, who obsesses out loud about Ashley making friends, who carries on about a child who drowned in a nearby pool. Of course the kid's anxious!
"My wife paints me as the bad guy who encourages dangerous behavior. That's not true! I spot Ashley when she's playing, staying close enough to make sure she won't get hurt. But I also give her some room to figure things out for herself. In Jill's view, anything short of holding Ashley's hand and reminding her to watch out is being inattentive. As for cleanliness, Jill's over the top. I wish she'd chill out and let Ashley enjoy playing instead of nagging her to wash her hands or pick up her toys.
"Jill treats me as an afterthought, but don't I get a say in our daughter's upbringing? I want to be an involved dad, unlike hers or mine. My folks split up when I was 6. My dad simply moved out one Sunday when the rest of us were at church, and he and I never got close. I'm determined to be a hands-on father and I refuse to give in to Jill. Our daughter needs a dad who'll defend her right to be a kid — a kid who's free to play, get dirty, and make mistakes.
"And I need a wife who enjoys being with her husband once in a while. I like family time, too, but I miss going out alone with Jill, and I really miss our sex life. I love her but if things don't change our marriage is doomed."
The Counselor's Turn
Different approaches to child rearing can test the strongest marriages," the counselor said. "I understood why Jill's hovering would annoy her more easygoing husband. And I could see why Ron's laissez-faire parenting style would upset his wife. 'You both have Ashley's best interests at heart,' I said. 'But you each represent an extreme — too cautious versus too relaxed. The trick is to find a balance.'
"First we explored how Jill's childhood had fostered her anxiety. Like many children of divorce, she became alienated from one parent and emotionally enmeshed with the other to the point where she worried constantly that her mother (who was, and is, perfectly healthy) might die. Jill characterized her mother as a 'lovable micromanager.' Indeed, to this day she calls Jill with reminders to carry an umbrella or to make a doctor's appointment. So to Jill hovering felt natural. Nor was it surprising that Jill would transfer her worries about her mother's health and safety to her daughter.
"I validated her impulse to worry about Ashley — serious illness and accidents do happen — but explained that backing off would help Ashley develop self-confidence. Otherwise Jill would reinforce the behaviors that she and Ron found alarming in their daughter. 'Good parents let their children take some risks,' I said. 'It sounds counterintuitive, but overprotected kids often engage in risky activities when they're older because they crave freedom.'
"Next we turned to Ron's upbringing. His father had been remote, and Ron was set on playing a large role in his own child's life, even if it meant belittling his wife. 'When you mock Jill you show contempt for her,' I told Ron. 'This must stop.' He needed to be a calming influence and acknowledge Jill's fears. As I told him, 'The more you assure Jill that you understand her concerns and that you'll protect Ashley, the more she'll loosen up.'
"I recommended concrete steps that would improve their communication and reduce Ashley's anxiety. For starters Jill needed to relax about cleaning house. She was so focused on tidiness that she didn't let Ashley play freely. I also advised Jill to stop expressing her own anxieties about the world at large. 'Children pick up on their parents' fears,' I warned, 'and make them their own.'
"Meanwhile, Ron had to accept that children need structure and discipline. 'Ashley shouldn't play on the stone hearth of the fireplace even if its rough edges have been childproofed with a padded bumper,' I told him. 'And you should encourage good hygiene.'
"In time Ron learned to bite his tongue and stop undercutting Jill. 'It's not easy,' he admitted, 'but counseling made me realize the damage I'll cause if I don't.'
"Gradually the tension between them eased and their emotional intimacy was rekindled. They began scheduling Saturday nights out twice a month. At first Jill was nervous about leaving Ashley with a babysitter, but relented when her mom offered to watch Ashley one Saturday a month and a good friend's babysitter signed on for the other. 'Our dates have been great for our marriage,' she said. 'I feel closer to Ron and that's made me interested in sex again.'
"Ron is equally pleased. 'I no longer feel like I'm last on Jill's list,' he said.
"Once Jill relaxed, Ashley stopped using the word 'worry' and grew more adventurous. After attending a birthday party at a karate studio, she asked for lessons. Karate has taught her some valuable life skills, including discipline and perseverance, and improved her coordination and confidence.
"'I'm a better mother because I'm happier and calmer,' Jill said in one of their final sessions. 'We're back on track as a couple and Ashley is thriving.'
"'I'm proud of our progress,' Ron said, 'and thrilled at the positive changes in our daughter.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2009.