One of the things I wasn’t entirely prepared for when my twins were born was just how all-consuming parenthood would be. I think about my kids’ wellbeing all day long, and I’m always trying to be the best mom I can possibly be for them. I try to give them enough attention so that they feel loved and validated, and I want them to know that they can always count on me when they need someone in their corner. But now that the majority of my energy goes towards my kids, I seem to have a lot less energy for the other important person in my life: my husband. These days, it feels like we don’t have a lot of time to actively love on one another, even though we always manage to find the time for our children. But lately I've been starting to wonder what would happen if I were to try to make him just as much as a priority. What if I were to praise my husband like I praise my kids on a regular basis?
It doesn’t actually make a ton of sense that we’ve let our marriage become less important now that we’re parents. We love each other and want to keep it that way, and yet, when things get stressful (which, let’s face it, they often are these days), our relationship is the first thing to go. We don’t seem to have much trouble putting our kids needs ahead of our own, making sure they’re well taken care of and have everything they need. And yet, it rarely occurs to either of us that our relationship needs just as much attention.
Recently, I challenged myself to change the way I praised my kids, switching from vague statements like “good job!” and “you’re so smart!” to specific, meaningful praise, like “I’m impressed with how hard you worked!” or “you’ve been practicing and you’re getting better!” According to Stanford University professor Dr. Carol Dweck, an expert in mindset, motivation and self-regulation behavior, making the switch not only teaches children that they have control over their achievement (learning that it’s effort and practice, not arbitrary talent, that makes you good at something), but it also makes them feel truly seen and appreciated for something specific that they’ve done — or, in other words, they feel more loved. I could see first-hand how this affected my children positively even in such a short time, and I realized it was totally something I could easily implement in our lives. And if my children could end up feeling more loved by me praising them differently, chances are my husband could too.
One of the things I learned from changing the way I praised my kids was how deliberate I had to be, and how much more attention I actually had to give them. In order to compliment them in a specific way, I had to think about what it was I wanted to say — which means I had to be plugged into what they were doing. It made me realize how often I really wasn’t paying attention to my kids — and if I’m not paying as much attention to my kids as I thought I was, then I am definitely not paying enough attention to my husband!
Having a strong marriage is important to me, and I certainly don’t want to take it for granted, so I decided I’d praise my partner like I praise my kids, making a conscious effort to pay just as much attention to him as I do to them for seven days. Instead of saying the vague things I normally say, like, uh, “I love you” (something that’s probably lost all meaning anyway at this point!), I would focus on really paying attention, and finding meaningful ways of complimenting him. Even though I wasn’t trying to affect his motivation or thought processes like I was with my kids, my hope was that praising my husband like I praise my kids would help keep me from taking our marriage for granted.
Acing Dad Duty
According to our kids, Matt is basically a rock star. He’s gone a lot for work, and the twins miss him like crazy, and when he’s home, I’m pretty much chopped liver. I don’t mind it that much because I want them to have a strong relationship with their father, but I’ll admit that sometimes I get a little jealous. Add to that that we have slightly different parenting styles which can lead to disagreements about the best way to handle a situation, and it usually ends up that I don’t always take the time to let him know what I good dad I think he really is.
Matt was in the basement/toy explosion room with the kids the first afternoon of my experiment, and I could hear the kids squealing with laughter. I went down to see what was happening, and saw that Matt had become a human “train,” and the twins were the passengers — one on each knee. He’d bump them up and down as they went on their train ride, and then they’d each pretend to fall off the train dramatically, yelling, “OH NO!” and falling into a fit of giggles. It was a silly little game, but it reminded me how great Matt is at coming up with silly little games, and seeing how much fun the kids were having with him seriously warmed my heart. In the past, I might not have said something explicitly about how much I loved seeing them play, but since I was trying to give Matt the same type of abundant, specific praise that I give my kids, I thought this would be a great opportunity to speak up.
I really love watching you play with them, you’re so great at coming up with games like that. Maddie and Reid are lucky to have such a fun dad who loves them so much.
He looked a little taken aback by my compliment, and then shrugged. “Well, thanks. It’s fun to play with them like that.”
Matt’s not usually very comfortable talking about his feelings, and I could tell that he was feeling a little bit nervous that maybe I’d made that comment because I wanted to have a talk. And since Matt likes to have serious discussions about his feelings about as much as he likes to get unmedicated root canals, I figured I’d save telling him the details of my experiment for another time, lest he think that compliment came with strings attached.
Handling Annoying Life Stuff Deserves Praise, Too
Matt always diligently puts out the garbage, recycling, and compost every Wednesday night, and this week it was a huge pain because we’d been away two weeks earlier (we have bi-weekly pickup), and had a backlog. When you factor in that we have two toddlers who are still in diapers, a garbage backlog is not something you want. We only had extra-large garbage bags left in the house (not the usual standard size), but we figured, meh, we’ll use these and then we won’t have to worry about going over the four-bag limit. That was not a wise decision.
The next day, I woke up to find Matt fuming after the garbage truck had passed our house without taking our garbage. They left a note saying that the bags were too large, which pretty much meant we’d have to wait another two weeks before we could get rid of a literal crap-load of dirty diapers. Matt promptly got on the phone to the city, and after being put on hold, hung up on, and re-routed to a bunch of different people who had no idea how to help him, he finally got ahold of the garbage foreman (note: I did not know garbage foreman were a thing), who had absolutely no problem whatsoever sending someone to come back and pick our garbage up, so long as we didn’t use oversized bags in the future (why that was a better plan than just picking the bags up this morning, I’m not so sure — but hey, I’m not the garbage foreman).
All in all, the garbage thing wasn’t a big deal, and in the grand scheme of life concerns, it was barely even a mild annoyance. But the truth was, if I were the one who had to handle that garbage nonsense, I totally would have ended up not doing it and having to live with a month’s worth of garbage as a result (I’m not so great at adulting sometimes). I was grateful that Matt took care of this one, and in the effort of being attentive and validating, I decided to tell him so.
I’m proud of you for sorting out the garbage situation. I already know I would’ve just put it off, but you always handle stuff right away and are on top of everything, and I admire that. If I’d ended up with someone like me, none of the bills would ever get paid on time, and we’d probably have a garbage mountain in our backyard because I’d always forget to put it out on the curb.
He laughed. “You probably would. But we balance each other out, right? I’m just glad that garbage got picked up, because I don’t want to have to deal with all those bags for two more weeks.”
I was starting to realize how difficult it was for Matt to accept my compliments, choosing instead to just brush them off. And it also made me realize how rarely I probably say specifically nice things to him outside of this experiment, because I had never really noticed that about him before. Matt and I have been together for almost 12 years now, and sometimes I find myself feeling like I want him to pay more attention to me or be more romantic. But I was starting to see that I wasn’t paying him as much attention as he needed either. Instead of wishing he’d change, maybe the key was changing myself — remembering to take the time to explicitly say all of the things I like and appreciate about him, instead of just assuming it didn’t matter.
Dinner And Bedtime, Times Two
The end of the day with toddler twins is simultaneously the best and worst: once the kids are down for the night, it means I’m free to veg on the couch and watch bad reality TV, but in order to get to that point, I have to feed the kids dinner and then go through the entire bedtime routine. Twice. And it is basically the worst.
When Matt’s away or working late (which is often), I have to do all of that by myself, so I know full well how much work it is. And it’s why I totally understood Matt’s gripes when I left him to do bedtime solo because I had a brutal cold and needed to lay down and put myself into a NyQuil coma.
I felt pretty bad about this, but normally I probably wouldn’t actually say anything about it. I mean, I’d help if I weren’t feeling so terrible. And I do have to do dinner and bedtime solo all the time, so, you know, maybe I’m also a little indignant about it. But in the spirit of praising him like I praise my kids, I knew I had to swallow my pride and acknowledge what he was doing.
I really appreciate you taking over so that I can go lay down. It’s hard to do the nighttime stuff solo, and I know if the situation were reversed, I’d want you to help me.
He answered with: "Well, I know you’re not feeling well. It’s just frustrating, because these kids are so draining sometimes, but I also want you to be able to rest and feel better. The last thing I want is to leave you with the kids tomorrow if you're still feeling sick."
As I went back to bed, I realized that even though being a parent is stressful, we’re still totally on the same team. The fact that we’re so often left feeling tired and emotionally drained can get in the way of us feeling connected to one another, but we’re forgetting that we’re feeling this way because we’re trying to raise two little humans together. And we really need to rely on one another and have each other’s back in order to do that.
Had I not thought to speak up because of this experiment, I probably wouldn’t have said anything at all to him, and we would’ve missed out on an opportunity to remember that we’re both feeling a lot of the same things. It was validating for me to hear that he’s feeling overwhelmed too, and yet, it’s nobody’s fault — and, ultimately, not even a bad thing, because we both love our kids and love being parents, even if it's hard sometimes. By not trying harder to compliment Matt more and recognize all the stuff he does, I’m probably keeping us from having all kinds of little conversations like this — conversations that would leave us feeling more connected to one another amidst the stress of parenting two busy three year olds.
Remembering To Notice The Little Things
Three days a week, I work from home, beginning at 7 a.m. And three days a week, at around 7 a.m., Matt brings me coffee. It might sound insignificant, but I love it so much when he does this — he could just make coffee and expect me to come down and get it myself, but instead he brings it up to me. It’s a sweet gesture. And this week — my experiment week — his early-morning coffee delivery got me thinking about all the other little loving things he does that I don't always notice.
Even on days when I don’t have to get up to work, Matt will still be the one who gets up with the kids, because he is much better at waking up in the morning than I am, and he lets me sleep in as much as possible before he has to leave for work. And when he’s gone, he always calls to check in and chat, even though I only ever call him if I have something specific to say (“can you pick up some milk on your way home?”).
I realized he probably had no idea how much these little things mean to me, and it was way past time I actually told him.
It’s so sweet and thoughtful of you to bring me coffee in the mornings. It makes me feel loved.
To which he responded:
Well, I do love you! And I also know that your brain doesn’t function in the morning unless you’ve had caffeine.
I noticed with that response that he seemed to be less uncomfortable with my direct statements of love and appreciation. I hadn’t ever realized how rarely we actually spoke like that to one another, so much so that it felt foreign to both of us at first. And now, not only was it starting to feel normal, but it felt like it was bringing us closer, able to focus more on the positive things we want to say than the negative things we might think.
I thought about how freely I give my children as much love and praise as I can — mostly because I think loving thoughts about them all day long, and they deserve to know just how crazy their mom is about them. But it should be the same for my partner: if I think loving thoughts about him, I should always tell him, and always let him know how important he is to me. And if I’m not thinking loving thoughts about him, then it probably means I need to pay attention better to all the kind things he does.
More Praise For Everyone!
When I set out to change the way I praised my kids, it was mostly to avoid over-praising, which most parenting experts agree is pretty unhealthy for a child’s development. But in doing this experiment, I realized that I was really in danger of under-praising my husband, of not recognizing and acknowledging how important he is to me. Not only would continuing to do that be bad for our relationship, but it would be bad for our kids too — it benefits them to have two parents who love and respect each other, and who are happy together. Given the amount of time I spend trying to be a more aware, loving mom, it’s ironic that I never realized the effect not paying as much attention to my marriage could have on my kids’ wellbeing. And, as a child of divorce myself, I know exactly what it felt like to deal with the fallout of your parents’ marriage collapsing.
Of course, paying more attention to my husband and trying to give him more heartfelt, specific compliments was not going to be the magic ticket to avoiding divorce forever. It did make me more aware of the role I played in how my husband feels about our relationship, and about how much happier I can feel in our marriage just by taking the time to notice all of the good things about it, instead of glossing over them like they’re no big deal.
Remembering to stay connected and aware of how I interact with both my kids and my husband will take more of an effort than just throwing out a bunch of meaningless “I love you” and “good job” compliments, and surely I’ll probably slip up plenty of times. But then again, keeping your marriage and family strong is a big effort — and one I know is totally worth it.