It’s OK To Put Your Relationship First And Children Second

Lynn Beisner discusses E! TV host Giuliana Rancic’s recent controversial comment about putting her marriage before her child.

Last weekend, the conversation among my friends was about the controversy ignited by Giuliana Rancic when she said in an interview that she and her husband “put our marriage first and our child second.” She backed up that statement by going on a vacation with her husband without their son. Some of my friends agreed with Rancic’s critics who saw this declaration as heresy against the sacred code of mothering. Others defended her assertions that a healthy marriage is one of the best gifts parents can give their children. 

What I found telling was that the entire conversation, including Rancic’s justification and her responses to criticism, was framed around what is good for children. Her first explanation came straight out of the rhetoric of the Family Values crowd. She said that “the best thing we can do for him is have a strong marriage.” As the criticism escalated, she issued a follow-up statement from her network. In it she claimed that prioritizing her relationship with her husband benefited her son in another way. “Your relationship is the first example your child learns from, and we will do everything we can to show our child how much we love, respect, and are devoted to one another.” 

Another revealing thing about this argument is that the criticism centered on Rancic, not her husband, Bill. No one speculated if he showed an unhealthy detachment from his son or if he was a narcissist, both accusations which were leveled at her. It seems that we expect men to prioritize things over their children and vacation without them. But criticism flows when a woman does it, like when Sarah, Duchess of York left her six-week-old daughter to spend a few days with her naval husband. No one was critical of Andrew’s decision to continue his career in the Royal Navy after becoming a father, even though as a royal such a commitment was entirely voluntary.

It is unfortunate that Rancic articulated her argument using language that made her sound like a 1950s housewife, and excluded single parents and almost all alternative family structures. The ensuing debate has, therefore, focused around heterosexual marriages and if that institution should be granted automatic priority over children.

If we strip away the role-locked language, there are two issues at the heart of this kerfuffle: what parents’ relationship with a significant other should look like, and what parenting should be like. Both the people who are attacking Rancic and those defending her are using a language of universals—what all parenting and relationships should look like, and what priorities should be universal to all parents.

I believe that Rancic is getting some things wrong, but other things very right.

She is wrong in setting up a false dichotomy, as if parenting and being a loving partner are mutually exclusive acts. Parenting can be a more cooperative program, both working toward a common goal in a way that enhances the relationship as well as benefiting children. In addition, I have real problems with the unstated assumptions behind her reasons for prioritizing marriage over children: First, she assumes that children need parents who are happily married in order to become productive members of society. This ignores the contributions made by countless people raised by single parents. Her second argument is predicated on the belief that children will emulate their parent’s relationships—that children whose parents are happily married will become happily married themselves.

But I think that she is right in challenging our society’s doctrine that the business of parenting must be the universal priority of all parents at all times. We believe that children should not just be the primary, but also the dominant focus of every parent’s life.

Universal rules about priorities may be great in theory, but they fail when applied to all of our life-choices while we are parents. This is clear just from a practical standpoint. If you make the blanket rule that parenting is more important than work, how do you deal with the fact that many of us cannot afford to take time off of work to chaperone a field-trip? 

On an ideological level, the idea of a universal priority is even more problematic. Having a universal priority means that we adopt one master identity, one role to rule them all, as it were. Groan with me if you remember the Dr. Laura motto that was plastered on everything from t-shirts to bumper stickers: “I am my kid’s mom.” And its corollary “I am my kid’s father.” 

Dr. Laura was nothing more than the first soprano in an entire choir of voices telling us that the role of parent was our entire identity. Our roles as worker, friend, partner, daughter, sister, or spiritual devotee must all be subject to our master role as parent. If there is any conflict with these roles, there should be no debate: The role of parent must always win. 

And here is where Rancic has something: There are roles so key to who we are that they cannot and should not be obliterated or utterly subsumed by parenting. Artists need to continue making art, writers need to keep writing, and relationships that keep us centered and sane should be maintained. Parents need to be able to step outside of that role and regularly get in touch with their center of sanity. For some people, like Rancic, that touchstone is a relationship.

And that is where we need to debunk the second assumption: That parent’s relationships should look a single way. Here on Role/Reboot, we posted an article a few weeks ago about a couple that lives in separate houses, and people seemed remarkably accepting. But I have yet to see that acceptance extended in a way that allows us to give up the ideal that we still seem to hold for what parents’ relationships should look like. Not all parents need to aspire to a relationship that is the picture of domestic bliss. We can get our needs for adult relationships met in hundreds of perfectly healthy ways.

Rancic hit a nerve for many of us, our fear that we will be judged for having human needs while parenting and for valuing relationships in addition to those we have with our children. But the truth is that we do not stop being humans when we become parents. We continue to need those things which are our sanity touchstones, be they dancing, yoga, writing, or a relationship. And we need the kind of love and support that comes from adult relationships. Acknowledging and honoring our needs sets an even more powerful example for our children. It teaches them that we can all be limited and laden, but still be loving and loved.

Lynn Beisner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, and a feminist living somewhere East of the Mississippi. She is a regular contributor to Role/Reboot. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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