children • education • parents
relationships • marriage • the elderly


Marriage Counseling That Works: 5. A Full House

March 27, 2017 by

This is Part 5 of Ann’s series on her marriage. In it, she writes about the joys and simultaneous struggles of raising a young family.

Read the previous posts of this series here.

On August 28, 1976, nearly a year after we moved to the Bruderhof community at Deer Spring, our second daughter Amy Elizabeth was born. Life ratcheted up a notch. During the years between Amy’s birth and mid-November 1981, three more children joined our family: Martha, Aaron, and Garth.

With Aaron’s arrival, our children numbered four, and our home life soared beyond any fine-tuned motherly organization I could muster. I no longer knew what everyone was doing nor where everything was. It wasn’t exactly cataclysmic, but decidedly disconcerting.

With Garth, number five, family life rocketed out of my hands. The nadir of having our act together occurred one wintry Sunday at the morning family service. Short and child-friendly, this service relied upon punctual arrivals and parent-guided family focus.

four of David and Ann’s children

Per usual, we were behind schedule that Sunday morning as our children struggled into snowsuits and boots. David and I frantically collected all the necessary items – hankies, scarves, special dollies, dry mittens, the yellow fit-in-your-hand Matchbox car – that the kids would need for their hours at church, which included outside play during adult worship time.

Since we could thankfully walk to church, we tumbled out the door in installments, David dashing ahead with some and I straggling along with the poky ones. As our last family members clattered into seats in the meeting room, I settled Aaron on my lap and looked over at David. I noticed he did not have the baby. Neither did I. Gobsmacked, we stared at each other.

Frantic communications down the row over our other kids’ heads: “Where’s the baby?” “Is someone else holding him?” “Didn’t YOU bring him?” before we registered that Garth was actually still at home in his crib, all togged up for the trek, oblivious that his world had moved on and he hadn’t.

Horror-stricken, I leaped up and heaved Aaron, now wailing, onto the bench. I raced home expecting the worst – one suffocated baby. Fortunately he was still breathing. Having slept through the entire snow gear kerfuffle, Garth remained blissfully unaware that his parents could not count to five. It took a while before I could laugh about this misfire – we each, of course, thought the other had brought the little guy.

Because we often felt we had not really established the order and discipline in our family that undergirded Bruderhof family life, such ineffectual communications between David and me were slightly unsettling. Soon after our move to Deer Spring we had noticed that although many families were large and lively, children could sit quietly, wait at the table for food, and generally take turns. Though far from angelic, they tended to play harmoniously rather than wildly. Initially I had been ill at ease with all these well-trained children.

Then we ate dinner with a family with lots of rambunctious kids; the occasion was fairly bumpy. At bed time, there was bantering, laughter, and teasing from the father rather than a straightforward direction. This reminded me of families I had known; I felt right at home. Several months later this family took some time to live away from the community, just as a family, so the father and mother could re-establish respect and simple obedience in their home. The parents wanted to do this; their children responded positively.

This novel development gave me pause. I recognized then that my ideas of family life needed adjusting. I needed to understand more deeply the relationship between parent and child, and I needed to become a parent who set a direction and expected obedience. Although these new attitudes grew slowly in both of us, the seeds were firmly planted at this point.

I recognized then that my ideas of family life needed adjusting. I needed to understand more deeply the relationship between parent and child, and I needed to become a parent who set a direction and expected obedience.

As David and I grappled with parenting, we stumbled all over each other. David would sharply respond to something that I would have chosen to downplay. The child reprimanded would quickly escalate to a full-blown howl or a verbal challenge, which tended to begin the familiar downhill slide for our entire family. I would become annoyed with David for causing such a hullabaloo. Besides I was certain I knew better what to work on and what to ignore at this particular point in that particular child’s life.

The worst I could do at such miserable moments was to verbally intervene, which I did far too often. I would be more exasperated with my husband than with my offspring. If you want to confuse your kids, fight about your different approaches to a disciplinary issue in front of them. With help from other parents, we slowly learned to keep our critical mouths shut in front of our children, even though one of us was seething.

Although nearly impossible to do, it is wise to allow, or if possible verbally support, your spouse’s uncomfortably hard line, because it gives your children the much-needed security that their parents work as a team. Every parent knows how adept even young children are at manipulating any rift between parents; they cleverly use it to their advantage, which, considering their soul and character, is to their definite disadvantage.

David with one of his and Ann’s sons as a baby

So David and I learned to battle privately after the child-parent skirmish had ended. When I rose up incensed, convinced I was right about some discord, David’s default was to back down. This re-enforced in me that my convictions were unarguably the right ones. Neither of us identified this process as David being steam-rolled, nor did we recognize its negative impact on our relationship and our own characters.

Of course, there were times David put his foot down, but too often I marched victorious and disrespectfully over him. Conversely, as much as David needed to continue to supportively hear me out, he also needed to stand his ground. Had we met more frequently in the middle, our marriage and family life could have been far richer.

Despite blunders, these heated discussions were invaluable; they kept the lines of communication open between us. At least we periodically recognized that neither of us had any of our children completely figured out, which is why God gave every child two parents – a man and a woman, who naturally develop different insights. We also fitfully discovered that when parents muddle through together, it unquestionably beats practicing two divergent approaches to child-rearing.

At least we periodically recognized that neither of us had any of our children completely figured out, which is why God gave every child two parents – a man and a woman, who naturally develop different insights.

Meanwhile, in addition to pouring myself into being a full-blooded mother and struggling to be 50% of the parent team, I was heroically morphing into a Bruderhof woman. It’s kind of like being a Renaissance man – someone who can do everything. I grew up liking to bike, play, and read, notably not homemaking skills. My mother thankfully had taught me to sew and to clean proficiently, however I was decidedly not a lover of hand work, housewifely chores, nor culinary activities. No one pressed me into becoming a laudable Bruderhof woman; I was genetically ambitious enough to want to be a shining star of domesticity.

Worse, I unfairly compared David to other fathers. This is lethal and I had to learn to not do this to my husband. I also finally decided to stop shamming competence on the home front. Both had created undue pressures in our family life. Which is another area we eventually learned not to compare: our family life. When we foolishly did so, we always came out on the losing end, obviously dissatisfied and discontented with one another and with our children – not a creative nor nurturing spot for any family.

This probably sounds grimly cheerless, but rest assured, David and I did not don combat gear every morning nor relentlessly hunt for each other’s foibles. Between the routine outbreaks of chaos, we actually had a whale of a time with our five kids: playing, reading oodles of stories, looking after the baby, coloring, singing, baking cookies, going for walks, and simply spending time together. When David came home from work each evening, the highlight for our four oldest was to line up spraddle-legged on the floor and tug off his size-fourteen work boots. David super-dramatically supplied all the appropriate sound effects.

all four children helping to pull off their dad’s workboots

Several months after our fifth child Garth was born, I ran head-on into myself as the arrogant, loveless wife I still was. I still held myself back from my husband, I still lacked the deep trust in him that marriage depended on, and still my ability to humbly serve him was patchy at best. As difficult as this was to admit, it came as a moment of grace. We needed to learn a few things about this husband-wife submission thing.

Because my mental wheels spun faster than David’s, I thought I was cleverer than he and so was often frustrated at his seeming inability to make decisions. It was difficult for me to patiently step back so David could step forward. As a Christian wife, I knew my husband was meant to be head of the family; I could not fathom what this meant for either of us. I was neither meek nor mild, nor self-disciplined enough to keep my opinions to myself; by nature I was downright bossy. My husband was not an Alpha male (thankfully).

As a Christian wife, I knew my husband was meant to be head of the family; I could not fathom what this meant for either of us.

Unfortunately I missed my God-given opportunity to encourage decision-making in my husband. Even though I instinctively knew that a woman’s role is to nurture; puzzlingly I did not approach my husband that way. Perhaps since I wanted David to shoulder more responsibility in family leadership, my frustration with his apparent ineptness hindered any compassionate response. Childishly I bucked him, not unlike any two-year-old, whenever he did step forward with an idea I happened to think was dumb. I thwarted rather than nurtured his less natural ability to step out in front and lead. An ironic catch-22.

As David and I attempted to squarely face our marital poverty, we recognized another related problem: we had become admirable communal beings by investing all our energy in outward activities. Consequently, we had neglected developing our own prayer lives, both as a couple and as individuals We did not pray aloud together, which is perhaps not wrong, but praying aloud does lay bare each other’s needs and concerns. Shared personal prayer also would have placed our children daily into God’s hands, which distressingly neither of us had been doing.

The richness of the community’s daily life and of its church life had become our entire spiritual food. In reality the outer and the inner life of the Bruderhof was intended to deepen, broaden, and offer substance to our personal relationships with Christ. Neither should have replaced the individual responsibility of discipleship.

The richness of the community’s daily life and of its church life had become our entire spiritual food. But it should not have replaced the individual responsibility of discipleship.

David and I needed to re-establish our own direct connections to Christ. We needed to rediscover again the single-hearted fervor which brought us to the community six years ago. Most importantly we needed to find the true order and the loving heartbeat of our marriage. So we asked to take time away from the community, not because we wanted to leave, but because we knew we could only live on the Bruderhof when we became a couple.

Although surprised, everyone rallied to support us. Different men helped David find work, a house for our family, and the furniture we would need. Our children’s clothes were revamped. A van-load of women traveled to our new home – the middle floor in a typical New England three-story house in Hartford, Connecticut – which they thoroughly cleaned and lovingly set up, especially for the children.

Our three daughters, aged three to seven, sussed out all this activity and excitedly looked forward to our upcoming adventure. For their sakes we kept the transition time positive, although for us adults the move away was difficult. We would not be cut off though; we would simply be cut loose so we could find our way home again. It took two years in Hartford for us to re-establish our lives, but that’s another chapter.

Check back in two weeks for part six.


About the author

a photograph of Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey lives in Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in England, with her husband, Dave. They delight in the English countryside...

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  • Beautiful piece of opening your heart sharing the depths of your pain and struggles.I also found myself living the community life without the lifeline. It's a joy to restore it.

    Cynthia Mawson