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For Your Marriage

Josh and Stacey Noem have been married for almost 20 years and have three children in middle school and high school. They blog about parenting and their adventures as a family.

Only As Happy As…

Here is the most profound lesson I have learned about having a multi-child family:

“A family is only as happy as the least happy child.”

I heard this, I don’t know where, a year or two ago. I have tried to find the source more than once to no avail. Regardless, it immediately resonated with my experience of our family.

No matter how well a morning, an outing, a trip, or a day is going – in any given moment it is only as enjoyable, and we can only be as content, as our least happy child.

For instance, we may wake up with plenty of time to have a leisurely morning getting dressed, eating breakfast and packing up for school. But if Simon is a little overtired he may refuse to eat breakfast. Then Joshua gets nervous that Simon will be too hungry to succeed on his spelling test. Then he may be less than patient with Oscar or Lucy.

Or, we might go out for a walk or a hike on a beautiful sunny day (those don’t currently exist, but imagine with me for a moment). The boys are thrilled to be out in nature, running and exploring. Joshua and I are enjoying the walking and talking. But Lucy decides to protest the “forced march” by continuously whining or asking to be carried or stopping and refusing to go any farther. Even the beauty of nature is diminished significantly by a crying child.

Or, Oscar may have wanted to spend part of his weekend using some specific technology — the Wii, computer or iPad — and get to Sunday night feeling as though he didn’t have the weekend he wanted. He may feel unsatisfied and want to communicate it to us. Unfortunately, he may choose less than charitable words or tone. Then we feel like we should attend to his less than appropriate behavior, but we also need to get the younger children ready for bed so they don’t get overtired, because if Simon is overtired….see above.

We often seem to be only as happy as our least happy child.

The thing is, the children get to take turns being the least happy. Joshua and I just get a somewhat continuous stream of opportunities to deal with unhappiness. And sometimes — well, often, if I am being honest — that is just plain exhausting.

I have been thinking about this dynamic for a couple weeks. When I first started thinking about it, I really didn’t even try to come up with some sort of solution or coping mechanism. It just seems to be the lot we are dealt as parents. It just falls under our job description. Not something to fret about or necessarily change; just the nature of family dynamics.

In the last several days though, I have discovered a pretty interesting counter-dynamic at work in our family.

The best way I can explain it has something to do with the romanic love between Joshua and me. When we are really keyed into one another — whether because of spending good time together, having good conversations and solid communication or, frankly, just attending to our personal intimacy – we are better and more patient with the children.

Our love for one another somehow increases the resevoir of energy that we have for dealing well with challenging parenting moments. Loving one another well more fully capacitates us to love our children well.

Theologically, it makes me think of the nature of the Trinity. That the mutual indwelling love of the Father and the Son generates an outpouring of love that is the Holy Spirit. Joshua and I are the Sacrament of God’s love — that Trinitarian love — for one another. Our love generates love.

In family life, that reality is revealed in a certain type of romance. Not always the romance that feels like unforgettable first kisses or heart-stopping professions of love. More often it comes in a knowing, shared look over the head of a sobbing, tear-stained child or the intentional touch of hips as we pass in comfortable proximity around the kitchen counter.