"It's little wonder, as parents get over-involved in their children's lives, that marriages implode" … Jacinta Tynan. Photo: Damian Bennett
If it came to the crunch, I would die for my children. I couldn't say the same for their father. It's not that I don't love him, but I don't love him the same way.
Like millions of parents before me, from the second I met my babies I was awash with a love like no other, unconditional, that I knew would never end. "I will love you forever," I whispered to them, all teary in the birthing suite. And I will.
I sit comfortably in the much-maligned parenting culture of our age, the cult of intensive parenting, where our children come first and our lives revolve around them. Not in a baking muffins, rolling play dough, helicoptering kind of way – not for me anyway – but in an unconscious shifting of priorities that positions my babies at the centre of my world. Mums like me don't necessarily choose this, but are compelled by a primal drive to look out for the most vulnerable, funnelling our love to where we think it is most required.
I can't help myself. Still, there's a mild apprehension that comes with giving our children the best of us: the fear that it may not pay off, that they'll up and leave anyway, and that they (and us) may be no better for it. And in the process we jeopardise our relationships. It's little wonder, as parents get over-involved in their offspring, that marriages implode. Can good mothers also be good wives?
I tell myself it's only short term, while the children are little. They need us more than we need each other, so I willingly give them the bulk of my attention and affection. There's not much left in the tank by the time they go to bed, when all I want to do is watch The Voice.
I don't want to short-change them. Or me. I don't want to miss out on a second by having my back turned. Where our mums raised us with a benevolent indifference and a hot meal for Dad when he got home, we are buying the line that we are responsible for our children's emotional well-being. Should they feel neglected, they might carry it with them for life. And so we must stay on it.
It doesn't have to be one or the other, of course, but once we become parents it usually is. Without even thinking about it, and often against our own volition, we slot into one of two camps: relationship-centric or child-centric. I see those relationship-centric parents and I see the sense in their choice: weekends away to "reconnect"; dropping the kids at Nanna's to have the house to themselves; deferring to each other for their happiness and sense of belonging. It is sound practice. They are making a long-term investment, nurturing the one who will still be there when the children leave home.
It's the ideal model for the kids too. Relationship experts say children benefit from witnessing their parents loved-up, providing security and a healthy relationship blueprint. As David Code, a US therapist and author of To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First, says, "The greatest gift you can give your children is to have a fulfilling marriage yourself."
Great in theory. But it takes a brave man to admit to doing it. Like Keith Urban. "I know the order of my love. It's my wife and then my daughters," he says. "I just think it's really important for the kids." It makes us uneasy to hear it; spouse before kids is still a great taboo. Not for the French, who work hard to avoid le baby clash. In French Children Don't Throw Food, American author Pamela Druckerman says French parents are sticklers for "adult time", "not as an occasional, hard-won privilege but as a basic human need".
I want to be like that. But it doesn't come naturally. It requires focus and discipline to fight an all-consuming maternal desire to be with my children all the time. The only solution is to make "couple time". But it's easy to skimp on date nights with babysitting at $20 an hour. As one friend says, "We know we should put the relationship first but, really, who has the time?" And if we outsource parenting, the children miss out.
It's yet another field for mums to feel remiss about, the niggling sense that by skimping on our men in favour of our kids we have got it all wrong. Research shows that children who are put first are no better off, anyway.
But perhaps their parents are. New research vindicating over-scheduled mums and dads shows that the more child-centric you are, the happier you'll be. The University of British Columbia study of 300 parents found they are "programmed to feel good when they dedicate resources to their children". Child-centrism is associated with more positive experiences and "greater meaning in life".
Obviously there are extremes: when being child-focused tips over into martyrdom and resentment, or parents relying on their children for emotional fulfilment and calling each other "Mummy and Daddy". But the researchers found parents who genuinely derive purpose from prioritising their children's needs will be more content.
Which may not in itself save a marriage. But it offers faith that child-centric couples may have just as much chance at happiness – and of staying together – than those on weekly date nights. At the very least they don't have to feel bad about it.
Jacinta Tynan is an author and a presenter with Sky News. She's also on Twitter.
This article first appeared in Sunday Life.