Fight Lessons from My Son
Reading about marital conflict is easy; judging and suggesting solutions, even easier – when it is happening to someone else. But this column is about me and my parenting journey – unkind words, arguments and all. And talking about conflict in my marriage, in my life, is scary to me. It didn’t help that my deadline was on a particularly ‘conflict-y’ day; as I write this, my husband and I have now had four days of stormy fights, and this morning, I left the house teary-eyed, vowing “to just get the hell out of this lousy relationship.”
There are many things we argue about, the root of which is all the same: We just don’t like doing things the same way and we’ve been married a long while now. My husband’s idiosyncratic behaviour, which I once found adventurous and innovative, now seems rash and irresponsible. It is probably the same from his point of view, too.
We have a son, who has just turned 2, and sometimes the only time we talk to each other the whole evening is to discuss him – how he plays, learns, laughs. We’re both devoted parents, just … not devoted to each other, anymore. This is a rather ordinary state of affairs; most couples fight. But the trouble starts when your dislike for your significant other finds an outlet in loud and prolonged fighting in front of your child.
I promised myself my son would never be put through the torment of seeing his parents fight.
I grew up in a conflict-riddled home, and it resulted in all sorts of problems. As a child, I was troubled and did badly in school. As an adult, I have difficulty recalling happy family memories; I search through a sea of scenes in which my parents yell at each other. At times, I heard my parents fighting as I stood an entire road away, while autorickshaw drivers stared at our house and pointed at my sister and me. As a teenager, I became partly schizophrenic (clinically), inventing fancy family holidays with detailed stories of love and gifting in order to deal with my parents’ dysfunctional marriage and the conflict in their relationship. These lasted until the onset of a serious medical condition in my father, which turned my mother, sister and me into 24/7 caregivers for many years, until he died. His illness, paradoxically, brought out the love, kindness and tenderness I had always sought in my family.
I learned many things from these experiences. At the top of the list of lessons was to take seriously the impact of parental conflict on children. So, I promised myself that my son would never be put through the torment of seeing his parents fight. Of course, this is one of the things one hopes to achieve and then doesn’t. I tried to minimize conflict – and failed. Many things my partner says and does rankle and, like festering wounds, they ache. We are different people and we disagree. And yet, we both agree that parents fighting in front of a toddler — our toddler — is wrong.
I can’t speak for my partner, but my turning point happened when my son started to talk and told me, in so many words, that he “hurts” when we fight. Before that, it was easy for my husband and me to dismiss his tears as hunger, fatigue or discomfort, and not recognize our tense postures, ice-cutting tones or angry frowns as the cause.
It came at the end of a monstrous fight, when my husband was in our study and I was sitting in the living room; neither of us was talking. My son climbed onto my lap, took my face in his hands and said, “Mummy, mummy, suno.” (Listen.) I looked at him, saw tears in his eyes. “Mummy chalo,” he said. “Papa paas.” (Mom, come. Go to Dad.) I said no. “Mummy, suno,” he tried again. “Babu love tut gaya. No gussa.” (Mom, listen. My heart is broken. Don’t be angry.)
I stared. What child was this? Barely 2 years old and telling me not to fight. In that moment, I understood: I had been so focused on not wanting conflict that I hadn’t thought about how to handle marital conflict it when it (inevitably) arose. In trying to create a conflict-free marriage and home for my son, I had forgotten to create my plan B: an action plan for resolving family conflict and restoring sanity.
I had become a parent exactly like my own.
There are many reasons why fighting in front of your child isn’t a good idea. It establishes fighting as the norm in your family and teaches that shouting is OK; neither is a useful lesson in life. But when fighting and shouting already are the norm in a home, it’s not easy to fix. Changing partners or ourselves is not always possible and, in many cases, not even desirable. Changing how we disagree is generally the better option, though it’s not necessarily the easiest.
Here is what my husband and I do now: We disagree, but we disagree quietly. We don’t raise our voices, or, if we do, we go to a different room. And we shortened our disagreements; one of us usually takes the initiative to shut up, having already set ground rules that silence doesn’t mean agreement or giving in. And we look at our son; most of the time, this is enough to convince us to stop yelling. But here’s the biggest change we’ve made: We say we’re sorry. We say sorry explicitly, loudly; we say it to each other in front of our son. We laugh loudly, we kiss and we make up. In hindsight, it wasn’t so much my parents’ fighting that scarred me. It was that they didn’t try hard enough to demonstrate that love remains, in spite of their marital conflict.
So that is what we do, my husband and I: We love all the time – and fight just some of the time.