I was a child of the 1960’s – 70’s: The first generation of women in America discovering that they could, and perhaps should, have a career of their own outside the home. As little girls, my friends and I dreamed of our careers, not of having babies and making our husbands happy. That was what my mother did, and I looked down on her choice, though I loved her very much. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than staying home with babies, cleaning the house and cooking meals. I took no interest in any of those activities as a child or young adult. Babies were messy and annoying, and cooking was demeaning. I was well on my way building a professional career when I met the man that I wanted to marry. The only obstacle was that he wanted me to cook and to have children. I agreed to a child, but not to cooking. I ended up having three children, but I still hate to cook.
I was well prepared up until that time for most of what I had done in my life. I went to college and graduate school, and continued to take professional seminars to stay current on my career. My dad taught me how to pay my taxes, drive a car, and I even took birthing classes with my husband when I was pregnant. I studied his religion, so I would know what I was getting into. But, being in a marriage and raising a child? Who can tell you how to do that? Yes, my mother could have, but she was old school, and not supportive of the whole career plus motherhood thing. I needed a plan that made sense, preparation for my life with a single partner, guiding principles as well as skills and tools to use when problems occurred, or unexpected crises happened. When I considered being a parent, I could envision the adult citizens I hoped to raise, but had no idea how to get them from baby to adult and not screw it up.
As it turns out, pre-marital and parenting classes do exist, and not just for problem couples and bad parents. Pre-marital counseling isn’t just about balancing finances and avoiding fights. It helps us to understand and appreciate two very different perspectives on life. No matter how similar we think we are in the beginning, things change. It teaches couples how to nurture a relationship and grow together, as we evolve, and problems arise.
Parenting education helped me to avoid many, not all, of the messes that parents create unwittingly. They helped me understand that when I’m at the end of my rope, there are solutions other than anger or giving up. I learned how to focus on what’s important for my kids, and make it less about me. I made mistakes, of course, but I felt confident that I had a means to repair the big ones. I learned that trying to be the “perfect parent” wouldn’t send the right message, either.
I don’t know why pre-marital counseling and parenting education haven’t been embraced as valuable to all couples entering into a lifetime commitment, or starting a family. As a therapist, I see clients who could have saved their relationship, had they known how to communicate needs and desires in a way that nourishes a relationship. Similarly, if parents had understood the developmental stages their kids were going through, and considered what they were modeling in terms of conflict resolution and empathy, their children would have healthier relationships and maybe avoid my office altogether.
I am convinced that we would have a better society and fewer people seeking therapy and medication to handle their guilt, anger and depression if all couples and parents had the opportunity to learn these skills and explore their potential.
Tory Joseph is a psychotherapist who specializes in parenting and relationship issues at The Imago Center of DC. She runs a group in Bethesda for Moms struggling to find a balance in their lives. Tory is married and has three 20-something children.