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Parents Eat Last

I have known a couple of professional nannies in my time. One nanny told me a story of a family with many children and the dinnertime chaos. She told me that the dad would never serve himself a plate of food. He would instead hang out, chat, and eat what the children left on their plates.


I heard this story before I had my own kids, and now I get it. At the time, though, it seemed unreal. This is just one of many parental adaptations I have witnessed, heard about, or participated in. Even though such selfless behavior is generally seen as a parental obligation or lauded as "servant leadership," it has a downside. In the above example, one downside is that if the father continues only to eat leftovers, eventually, he will be eating nothing as picky children turn into voracious teenagers.


Recently, clients have asked for couples therapy much more than ever before. It is almost as if a wave of marital strife is hitting my practice like a storm surge, but what is the hurricane causing the surge? If I understand my clients right, I think the hurricane was the Pandemic. The last year was tough for children to return to school after the Pandemic. The Pandemic seemed to have an especially negative impact on my special needs clients. Many of those children have progressed or are moving in the right direction, and now it seems like their parents might be trying to eat the therapeutic scraps to deal with problems in their marriage.


There is a term called Empty Nest Syndrome, where marital strife can increase when the last child leaves home. Some parents, consumed with the task of raising children, can neglect their marriage or other health or mental health issues and then be suddenly confronted with the issue in the vacuum of departed children. This feels a little like that in therapy. Post-pandemic children stabilize and improve and are able to reengage in the systems and supports of society, and these former all-around caregivers (i.e., parents) now must deal with the trauma, neglect, and damage the Pandemic and resulting recovery did to their marriage.


If this is you, I would encourage you not to be satisfied with the therapeutic scraps but to go for the full meal, so to speak. It is possible if there was no Pandemic, your marriage would be fine. Stress makes cracks into fissures in both bridges and marriages. The Pandemic did happen. Or perhaps you had some other related or unrelated stressor in your family. Unfortunately for some people, the Pandemic was not the worst thing that happened to them in 2020. Couples therapy and other efforts to tend to your marriage can pay dividends.

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