Looking at one’s spouse through the lens of parenting can shed light on an array of behaviors that are subject to completely different interpretations of strengths and weaknesses. What may be infuriating as a spouse may be essential as a parent. And vice versa, what may be delightful to a spouse may be totally disquieting to a child. Having children with my husband, Sterling, was a very big adjustment for me personally. And it was a big eye opener to many of his merits.
As many of you know, I had already divorced him before we had children. We lived apart for the better part of four years, and while I wanted to get back together, I remained uncertain of our ability to accommodate one another. We are both strong-willed people with very definite ideas on how to live our individual lives—some of which are compatible and some of which are, undisputedly, not. How on earth could we form a united front in raising children? It scared me. For one thing, I knew that having a child with someone meant that they were forever a part of your life. There’s no divorcing children and there’s no denying paternity. Once you have a child together, you are together to the end regardless of the validity of your marriage certificate. Children are irreversible choices.
The real surprise for me was how much closer our children brought us together. Once I was able to accept that we were in this together forever, I had to admit that I had chosen well. Sterling is a wonderful father, and fatherhood had done wonderful things for him and for our relationship. Rather than exacerbating our temperamental differences, parenting seems to have given us each the ability to file down our edges and put real effort into forming an effective team. We nearly always see our children’s needs through similar perspectives, and we are quick to defer to each other, acknowledging when one of us might be better suited to address specific issues.
Sterling’s relentless loyalty and dedication to those he loves is a central part of his fatherhood. Our children know that they can disappoint him, they can make him mad, they can irritate and frustrate him, but they can never damage his love. He is, and always will be, there for them. It is unquestionable; it is their granite footing in life. He will go to any extreme, incur any self-sacrifice, and endure any pain to be there for them, and they know it.
They also know that his love for them gives him boundless pleasure. Sterling relishes time spent together with them, and puts in incredible effort to create family outings for them with his extended family. His commitment to his entire family has created a circle of familial love for our children, forging strong relationships with cousins, aunts, and uncles from across the world. It has opened them to different ways of being and seeing, and helped them understand that love is an active verb, something that must be nurtured, safeguarded, and freely given without expectations of reward.
During our years in Alaska where our children were born, Sterling would often commit his entire summer to planning, organizing, and implementing great adventures in Alaska’s wilds. Transportation and logistics are no small matters in a state that has more coastline than all of the lower 48 states, is the largest state with the least amount of road and the fewest people per square mile, and where weather conditions can turn an afternoon picnic into a life-threatening nightmare. Mistakes in planning Alaskan wilderness treks can, and routinely do, end in tragedies. Some thought us totally foolish and irresponsible for taking our very young children into such primitive and potentially dangerous circumstances. Some questioned how much benefit a small child could possibly derive from such extraordinary wilderness excursions. Yet Sterling never wavered. He was meticulous in his planning, incorporating extra precautionary measures to ensure that we were well-equipped to meet any challenge.
While indeed our children do not remember the specifics of their earliest Alaska trips, their love of nature, their confidence in being off the beaten tracks, and their participation and roles in the family stories and lore of those Alaskan expeditions are central to the men they have become. Our youngest son, Mark, learned to walk on gravel beaches and over fallen timber during a long river trip above the Arctic Circle when he was 16 months old. His older brother, Jake, clearly remembers catching his first fish all by himself on that same trip. Sterling organized upwards of 10 Alaskan trips during the 20-plus years that we lived there, including trips that had participants ranging in age from 2 to 76, giving multiple generations of his family totally unforgettable wilderness experiences.
Having children with someone opens up uncharted emotional pathways. No one loves your child more than its other parent. No one can provide the same counsel with the same depth of concern or knowledge, or muster the same degree of enthusiasm for the tiniest of accomplishments. No one else’s eyes fill with tears of joy, tears of pain, or tears of pride as your children move through the ups and downs of life. For Sterling and me, this intimate sharing of our children has helped break down old emotional habits of conflict, struggles for power, defensiveness of our individual positions, and our seemingly endless need for control. Our mutual desire to be the best parents we can be has not only made us better people, but better spouses. In trying our best for them, we have ended up trying our best for each other.
Rewards flowing from our decision to have our two sons cross all aspects of our lives. One of the biggest for me is to have witnessed the depth of love, patience, and commitment Sterling has given them. Our sons have helped transform us from a couple struggling to find common ground in a marriage once broken by divorce to an unbreakable family of four. My love for Sterling as my children’s father has strengthened my love for him as my husband.