My heart broke when Gwneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced their conscious uncoupling.
In a different time, I would have wondered why such a seemingly well-matched couple fell apart after so many years of marriage. But the more I read about their different approaches to parenting, the easier it is to believe. She was organic and macrobiotic, he was mac-and-cheese and icecream tubs. She was about food, he was about treats. He loved television, she banned their children Apple and Moses from it, except for television in Spanish and French. It all makes sense now.
When you think celebrities are messing it up so often, it’s easier to accept that parenting does create a huge divide between couples, however unified they were to start with. Look at Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes divorcing over protecting their daughter Suri from Scientology.
Every now and then, I find myself comparing my vegetarian, recycling, anti-consumerist beliefs with the husband’s “Eat everything that eats vegetables” or “Why buy one toy when you can buy ten?” philosophy. It’s year five of parenting and seven of marriage and we are still learning how to agree to disagree. He still thinks a game on the iPhone is the best way to diffuse the child’s meltdown and I still feel it’s taking the easy way out. I hope we meet midway at least as long as the child is still a child, but when I look around, I find most couples are like us.
The trouble is, we all get into relationships with our own set of beliefs, stemming largely from our upbringings. But when it comes to raising your family, these things often do not cancel out. In fact the differences become more glaring than they ever were. We may talk endlessly on food preferences, books, religion and politics before tying the knot, and we may probably have a conversation about whether we want children, but do we ever talk about the kind of parents we want to be? No, that doesn’t happen till we are hit by the diaper truck. Suddenly you realise who you really married. And very often, it’s a couch potato who can sleep through the loudest of baby cries and for whom bath is often optional.
Even if you have a lot in common with your spouse, there’s a good chance you have different parenting styles. And your style is probably influenced by how you were raised. The trouble is, both parents always believe they have the child’s best interests at heart, it’s just that they might qualify “best” differently, and hence end up arguing about everything from toys to television.
The irony is, you may still agree on the big things. Like the importance of kindness or respect or being polite. But very often, it’s the small things that make you feel that collaborative parenting should never have been invented.
Food is a huge one , and we often underestimate our own food memories and how they lie buried deep in our subconscious. There is often an ‘eat’ parent and a ‘treat’ parent and it’s not hard to figure who the child will tend to favour as the years go by.
Sleep is another differentiator. Having a baby makes you realise that your partner and you have hugely different sleep cycles, that you are a morning person and he is an owl and how come you never noticed it all these years?
Another bone of contention is your attitude to money and how often you use it as a crutch to win brownie points with the child. Money can buy things, yes, and children love things. And so, they often see money as power and in the long run, it can really skew things between couples.
But one area where parents can’t afford to agree to disagree is discipline. If you’re polar opposites in terms of the way you approach behaviour and discipline issues, the kids will just end up having a stronger relationship with the lenient parent, and that can get really complicated. The strange thing is, whatever your approach, parenting is often a push and pull, and defining new boundaries on a daily basis. As long as you know that you are working towards common goals, your differences will not drive you apart. The truth is, no one wants the bad cop’s job and yet someone has to do it, and it is so very often the mother.
There’s a reason why you’re not supposed to have a baby to save a marriage. Having a child is definitely not about bringing a couple closer. If marriage is fragile, children make a tsunami out of it. They take a small crack and turn it into a fissure of irreparable magnitude. They are a reminder of a life and a spontaneity that was, they make us realize that the gap between our fantasies and our reality is huge.
But in the end, they are our only chance to be better people.
(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 25th August, 2014)