As the fall television season came and went, many of us still mourned the fact that Parenthood did not return to our living rooms. There’s one image I still can’t shake from the final season. When the camera zoomed in on Julia (Erika Christensen) and Joel (Sam Jaeger) sitting in the car in front of their house in the dark, all we could hear was silence as they frantically waved their hands. It was then I also saw a real problem straight from my own life playing out on the TV screen: Where can couples safely fight?
Figuring out how to have an argument with your spouse or partner—let’s be real, a fight—when you have kids in the house is a tricky deal! I’ve been struggling with it for more than 15 years.
We all need to be able to fight sometimes, without worrying about scaring our children into thinking we will get a divorce or what outsiders will think. Yes, children need to learn about resolving conflict, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the big ones. The ones you never want your children to hear, especially the fights about your children.
My family lives in an open, two-story echoing house with all hardwood floors. There is no place to hide from the noise, especially my husband’s booming baritone and even his “whisper” echoes.Under the radar of our rage, our children have rounded corners in our house to hear name-calling and to see a mug splinter on the counter. Later, my then-7 year-old asked, “Mommy, are you and Daddy getting a divorce?” There’s no way to erase that memory from her head or mine. For years, she said that every time we fought; it always took her back to that day.
Our house, like many in similar suburbs, is surrounded by others that often appear little more than a wingspan away. Sometimes when we fight, I stare at the screens on our open windows and wonder when the neighbors will send Child Protective Services to knock on our doors.
Even making plans for a babysitter, specifically to work through a dispute, doesn’t always work. Fights sometimes spring up spontaneously, and it’s hard to contain the fire until a prearranged time, which might be days away on the weekend.
Then, if you do make a “fighting date,” where do you go? It’s not exactly Starbucks conversation, and I don’t want to yell at the park and ruin everyone else’s day.
My friends have told me about date nights spent crying into their dinners, while trying to resolve big issues away from their children.
For better and for worse, having children motivates you to avoid fighting. While I was raised not to show emotion, my husband grew up in a noisy, expressive family. For years during a conflict, when my husband’s frustration would loudly boil over, I would silently shut down rather than risk subjecting the kids to a full blowout.
But I wondered what kind of example I was teaching our girls about women voicing their opinions. Did I appear as if I was always “giving in?” Of course, that’s not what I was actually doing, because my “freezing out” just caused other problems. But the kids had no way to know that.
As the girls got older, I finally decided it’s worth the risk of a big fight to speak up when my husband and I argue, instead of shutting down. I try hard to communicate respectfully and ask for respect in return. Fortunately, after 20 years together, my husband and I are learning to navigate each other’s hot buttons and have fewer big fights.
We try to walk away before things get out of hand, to learn the timing of each other’s moods. I don’t ask him 20 questions right after he walks in from work, and he doesn’t try to talk to me when I’m manically cleaning before guests arrive.
But there are still times when we can’t seem to avoid a major blowout because of a build-up of thoughtless comments or a legitimate grievance. And there’s still rarely a safe place to hammer out that anger when you have children.
When I saw Joel and Julia in that car, I thought, “This is brilliant!” Once again, Parenthood hit the mark because at least I knew someone else understands this problem that no one ever talks about. Even if my husband and I don’t actually get into our car to fight, maybe we all need to think more creatively about “fighting space for parents.”
For now, I can’t think of any place better than behind those tinted windows in our driveway. Although when I’m sitting in my car waiting for our daughter at dance class, she has said, “You know, I can hear you on the phone from outside, even with the doors shut.”
Maybe I need to figure out how to borrow Joel and Julia’s car.