Last weekend I went to New Hampshire to visit my sister and meet her new son. My brother was there, too, and spouses, (but not Caroline, who was home with the boys and her mom in Ann Arbor), and on Saturday night, after-dinner brownie sundaes spilled into a freewheeling conversation that lasted late into the night.
We started off topical but eventually grew more personal. Around midnight we arrived at marriage and kids, and their places in a good and fulfilling life. We talked about our parents’ divorces, and how divorce in general affects how kids grow up. I said that when it comes down to it, I expect my success in life to hinge less on how well I do as a father, and more on how I do as a husband.
Caroline and I love each other very much. Our priorities and values are well-aligned, we enjoy the day-to-day work of building a family, and we have fun in the moments when we are alone together. All of this is true, but none of it is meant to say that our marriage happens automatically, or that even the very strongest parts of it can be taken for granted.
So I expect my happiness in life to hinge more on how well I fare as a husband than how I fare as father. And I say that because I think marriage is both more consequential to long-term happiness than parenthood, and because it’s the harder relationship to do well in.
Raising kids is tiring and consuming but it’s a relatively simple relationship: Provide for Jay and Wally materially, teach them what I know about what’s important in life, love them unconditionally. And it’s this last part that’s the easiest. My love for Jay and Wally flows freely and abundantly and there’s nothing they can do to turn it off; when you have that, the other parts of a relationship fall into place.
Caroline and I love each other fully, but the kind of love we share is different from the kind of love that we have for our kids. Caroline and I need to work for our love. We need to earn it and renew it and cultivate it, and on the days and weeks when we don’t do quite as good a job at that, the rest of our relationship doesn’t work as well.
There are moments, too, where the differences between parental love and spousal love really come through. Just this morning at breakfast, Wally was sitting on my lap, eating eggs, and Caroline was sitting across the table, staring at him. We both find our kids magnetic; we can’t look away. But those kinds of moments don’t come as automatically between a husband and a wife; it’s easy to go days without looking at each other with the same intensity that we look at Jay and Wally all the time. But when Caroline and I do have those moments together, they’re uniquely fulfilling- in the way that anything you have to really earn, is fulfilling.
There’s also a greater margin of error as a parent than as a spouse. Raising kids is a blunt endeavor: Jay and Wally can absorb a lot of mistakes. For that reason, and because of what I just wrote about love, I’m not worried that I’ll fail to deliver Jay and Wally into adulthood with a fighting chance at happiness.
But marriage is a much more complex and precise relationship; success there is less assured. Moods matter. Gestures matter. Even the things you think but don’t say, matter. And marriages can turn out so many different ways: They can disastrous; they can be functional but unfulfilling; they can be the richest relationship you ever have. There’s also more subtlety and nuance to a marriage compared to a relationship with children. It might be fair to say, following Tolstoy, that we all love our kids in kind of the same way, but that each marriage is unique. And I think this nuance demands a fuller commitment of attention, and more consistent, sustained effort in order for a marriage to thrive.
I could imagine coming to the end of my life, knowing I’ve been a good father, but still feeling like I have not lived well. And while I don’t think failure in marriage means failure in life, I do think the opposite is true: If I have loved well as a husband, it’s very likely I will also conclude that I have lived well in life.