My Husband Doesn't Come Before My Child
Photo by Anna Shvets
I consume a lot of relationship content: podcasts, YouTube videos, television series, books. On the surface, I’m a lover of love. But just below that is the fact that I’m nosey. And even deeper, is my desire to know if the way I conceptualize and behave in romantic relationships is normal. The question, no matter how futile, is rooted in the human desire to belong. More often than not, I realize I do indeed fall within the range of normal. (The range is wide.) But if there is a time when I feel vastly different from other Black women speaking about their relationships, it’s when they discuss the hierarchy in their family structures.
You’ve likely heard the notion that in families, the hierarchy of prioritization goes: God, spouse, child. For me, I first learned of this structure from the church. So the relationships they’re referring to are cis-gendered and heterosexual. The message is designed to apply to both men and women but for some reason I hear women touting this ideology more than anyone else and I have an inkling that it has to do with patriarchy.
People will tell you that this structure is dictated by the Bible. But that’s not true. When they say it’s biblical, they’ll reference Paul, the apostle who never married and never had children. His mandate is that “wives submit to their husbands as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22). The idea that a spouse comes before a child is an inference, not direct scripture. People argue that if a woman submits to her husband, after God, then he is your primary concern.
I have an inkling that it has to do with patriarchy.
Interestingly, there’s no reference to self-love in this structure. And maybe that’s why women are more likely to subscribe to the notion. Men don’t speak about this hierarchy as often because so few of them actively parent to the level of their female partners. They don’t receive the same messages and pressures to be selfless in their relationships. Men are encouraged to advocate for themselves and pursue their interests, often at the expense of everyone else. Selflessness, historically and socially, is women’s work.
That selflessness can manifest in nearly every facet of our lives. But you can see it crystal clear in raising children. Children, particularly, in the first years of their lives, require so much mental, emotional, and physical energy. As the mother of a newly minted toddler, I can attest to the fact that trying to meet a child’s needs can be and often is all-consuming, and excessively more demanding than maintaining any other type of relationship, especially a romantic one.
Men know this. I’ve been appalled at the number of times I’ve heard men openly and proudly admit to being jealous of and even resenting their own children and the attention they receive from their female partners. These men recognize that their children are relying on both of their parents– but particularly the mother–for survival, a need but they’re still unashamedly advocating for their wants.
Men openly and proudly admit to being jealous of and even resenting their own children.
Humans–like most species– are biologically designed to care for our children. The idea that a man, even your husband, should come before your child, goes against nature’s design. Interestingly, society will applaud a woman for sacrificing herself for her child but when a man is on the chopping block, there’s an issue.
How does a self sufficient adult take precedence over a child?
It smells like patriarchy.
Ideally, your male partner should have already been nurtured and raised by his own mother. But I’m afraid that that is not often the case. Having missed out on something during childhood, too many men enter into romantic relationships and marriages looking for their wives to be their second mothers. But there has to be a delineation between your mother and your wife, otherwise a romantic relationship borders on incestuous. If a man didn’t receive what he needed from his mother, that’s an issue that must be addressed internally and individually or with that parent.
But more commonly, instead of requiring partnership from our husbands, partners and fathers of our children, we gladly take on this role of attempting to raise grown men in addition to our actual children. And it’s too much. A man who has already been raised and nurtured can understand that there are no hard-fast rules in who gets someone’s attention, energy and prioritization in the household at any given moment.
Many men enter into romantic relationships and marriages looking for their wives to be their second mothers.
When a man doesn’t understand that, the results can be disturbing. In the past five years, there have been stories of women who admitted to breastfeeding a child while they were having sex with their male partner because they didn’t (or couldn’t) tell the man to stop and wait. When single mothers choose the love and affection of a man over the wellbeing of their children, the community collectively shames them without asking ourselves where women might have received these messages about male prioritization in the first place.
I know these are extreme examples. But there are people who operate in these extremes. I’ve literally seen discussions where people, men and women alike, discuss saving their adult partner over their children. A woman argued that her husband comes first and she can always make another kid. I watched a video where a wife, with actual children of her own, said her husband would choose her, citing the “biblical” hierarchy. The church got people acting strange and calling it sanctified.
In all seriousness, if my husband saved me and let our baby die, I’d want nothing to do with him…and he might turn up missing as well.
I understand that people say spouse over children because they value children growing up in two-parent households where both parents love each other. I grew up in a two-parent household. My parents loved and still do love each other. And I knew without a shadow of a doubt that they prioritized us, their children, over each other–when we were growing up.
The church got people acting strange and calling it sanctified.
People often argue that your children will grow up and leave you. It’s true. Most children don’t live with their parents forever. The job of raising them waxes and wanes in its intensity. And I think the same is true of the familial hierarchy. It is fluid. It varies from day to day, moment to moment. There are times when your children will come before your partner. As they age and become more self-sufficient, the opportunity to prioritize your partner emerges again. And women especially need to train ourselves to consider the ways in which we can prioritize ourselves so that we can show up whole for our children and spouses.
I’m so fascinated by relationships because I know that love is the reason for it all. It’s why we’re here. Still, I’m often taken aback by our consistent exalting of romance as the pinnacle of love.
God is the greatest example of love and we know that our relationship to God is platonic. It’s friend to friend, sibling to sibling, parent to child, self to self. So why do our romantic partnerships take precedent over everyone else?