A couple of weeks ago, at the end of an extended family vacation that was equal parts fun and stressful, my husband and I were arguing while packing up. I can't remember the exact context of this particular fight, but we'd been clashing all week about a few issues that seem to pop up on every family trip we've taken in the seven years since our daughter was born (basic premise: he needs more attention than I'm giving him), and we try to work through it once we return home. Summer is not our best marital season.
"Are you fighting again?" she asked. That "again" was an instant dagger to the heart.
Blame it on the increased stress and exhaustion I feel as an at-home mom who's balancing two active, ever-present kids and a part-time job; the disruption from our regular family schedule through trips, camps, and missed bedtimes; the pressure I feel to make my kids' childhood Summers as magical and memorable as I remember mine were; or the struggle to find dedicated "couple time" during a jam-packed few months, but somehow, every Summer, my spouse and I struggle to get on the same page.
This was one thing when our kids were really small, and we could hurl insults at each other in dulcet tones, knowing they didn't understand our words, only our intonation. But now our kids are 7 and 4-and-a-half, and for some reason, as they've gotten more aware of their surroundings, we've gotten worse at hiding our marital strife.
I've always been a believer that arguing in front of our children isn't always a terrible thing, and in fact, can teach them some good lessons about conflict resolution and about how it's OK to make mistakes as long as you take responsibility for them and actively try to make things better. But during this particular disagreement, my daughter made me rethink my pro-open-conflict stance.
In this case, we were arguing behind a closed door, on a different floor than the one my kids and my parents were hanging out on, so I'm sure we were loud and using some questionable language. It was one of those fights that's even more frustrating because we've had it so many times before, and frankly, I was at my breaking point, close to totally losing it, when our daughter walked in.
"Are you fighting again?" she asked. That "again" was an instant dagger to the heart. "Honey, we're just trying to resolve the argument we had earlier this week," was my lame response, not wanting to admit that absolutely, we were engaging in another round of childish insult throwing. "Oh, I thought you were in another fight," she responded, a nervous laugh punctuating her sentence and showing me that the bounds of this fighting had gone much farther than I'd let myself believe. Her anxious giggle was a plea that I heard loud and clear: this needs to stop.
There's nothing like being called out by a 7-year-old to take the wind out of your anger sails, and with that, my husband and I stopped the unproductive bickering and realized we had a bigger issue on our hands. The next day, we agreed to go back to counseling to work through the minor, fixable issues that were becoming a major problem for both us and our daughter. We all deserve better than spending the last day of our vacation locked in a bedroom, yelling at each other. I'm just sorry it took our child to make us see that.