The childhood memory of my dad walking through the door after being on-call all night is a happy one. We’d hear the garage door open, wait for the car engine to silence, and then hear his long strides coming toward us into the kitchen. I would wait with anticipation for the smell of his “hospital musk” to envelope me as my brothers and I ran to meet him. He would smile down at us and tussle our hair. We knew where he was headed. Mom came first. Mom’s kiss was always first, and then came the kisses and bear hugs for the rest of us. There was a clear and defined pecking order in our house, and as kids, we were second. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
That rule was made clear early in our childhood—not because we were told, but because it was displayed to us. Mom was first; we were next. He loves us unconditionally—that has never been in question. However, the love he has for my mom is out of this world.
It’s an eye-rolling love (as they continue to gross us out at any given chance). They always managed to embarrass us with their public displays of affection and stories about their married life before we kids came along. As a teenager, it was an annoying love, as it often abruptly ended arguments we instigated by trying to play them against one another. I knew that even when they didn’t agree, we weren’t about to see that upfront. They saved disagreements on child-rearing for when we were out of earshot: an incredibly healthy habit that, until I was a parent, I didn’t fully appreciate. Repeatedly, we would hear “your father and I are a team.” It was a comforting love. We always felt safe in a house that was filled with laughter and playfulness between our parents. And lastly, it was also a love that I found myself searching for in a partner. We weren’t chosen over her. We weren’t sided with over her. They were a team, and they shared a love that spoiled me rotten.
So, now we move forward two decades later, and I’m happy to report that I work hard to have that marriage. I have that love and continue to be amazed with what it contributes to my life on a daily basis, although I’ve realized it isn’t a marriage just waiting to be found. My husband and I work our butts off. And yet, I realize, at the foundation of it all: my man loves me first. He loves me most. I love him most, too. And it’s the best thing I can think to do for my kids.
Here’s why: when I am loved unconditionally and authentically by my spouse, not only do I feel satisfied and happier, but I display to my kids what it looks like to be those things. Art in motion, if you will. I get to show them what it looks like to be appreciated and adored. I get to show them what it means to be a team and a priority in someone’s life.
This doesn’t mean they hurt for love. On the contrary, I can see that it makes them they actually feel secure in their place in our family. On any given weekday night you can actually hear my daughter say, “I know…Mommy first,” when my husband walks through the door. That doesn’t stop her from leg-hugging him all the way to the next room, but it definitely lights up my heart. Sometimes we find ourselves in a giant family welcome hug, with two kiddos wedging themselves between our legs. But, I get the first kiss. It’s not required; it’s desired. Big difference in a marriage. Huge.
The same goes for my husband. And this is where it gets a bit more challenging at times. I’m a SAHM, which by definition means by the time he walks in the door, I’m spent. I’m busy attempting to make dinner, cleaning up the latest disaster, or simply exhausted and not paying attention. This, my friends, is where the marriage takes work. Some days, I have to be intentional about making him feel as adored as he truly is by me. Pay attention, Erin, I often think. Stop stirring and make eye contact. Walk your butt to the door and meet him there! Make him feel like he makes you feel. It’s always a team effort, and sometimes it’s an actual pep talk—not because I don’t feel it, but because, well, children are expert energy-suckers and also easily blamable.
But the truth is, I adore the ground he walks on. He deserves to know that every single day, even on my off days. We both believe that about each other, and it’s that fundamental belief that makes all the relational work worth it. And really, it’s those days that I find when I put in some extra effort to put our marriage first, we reap the biggest emotional rewards. Sure, we have demanding children. Sure, I’m tired and pregnant and slightly dramatic at times. But our marriage can’t be put on hold at each obstacle we face. That’s a recipe for disaster. We make time for each other, for ourselves, and for our kids. Yep, for our kids. Here’s where they come in.
At the end of the day, I realize as a parent I can’t make my kids happy and I’m not responsible for their day-to-day emotional state. (Mommy secret: Some days I forget that.) I won’t be able to create for them the love I have in my marriage. Heck, I can’t even seem to provide the appropriate yogurt flavor at lunch. But, what I can do is model and teach them about putting a marriage first. After that, well, I just pray with all my might that they pay attention at some point in the next 18 years.
So, to my children, know that no one loves your daddy more than I do, and no one loves me more than your daddy. Also remember that no one loves you all more than we do, but I hope that one day you feel passion and unconditional security and safety in a relationship that we hope we are exhibiting to you now.
Because remember, my babies: if you have kids of your own one day, there is truly nothing sweeter than being a parent. But, your kiddos will need to fly, and good parenting will give your kids strong, confident wings. However, good parenting is only as good as the foundation from which it was created. Once your babies fly, you will be sent right back into the relationship with your partner that you have been, intentionally or unintentionally, creating all the years prior to your babies’ departure. And in that moment, my dears, my wish for you is that you will be able to turn to look at your partner and feel secure in the life you have built together. Put that love first, my darlings. Invest in yourself by putting your marriage first.