The Grammy-winning actress and singer shares her hard-won wisdom on how to keep a marriage strong, even after the nest is empty.
Posted in , Dec 26, 2018
All our lives as a couple—David and I have been married 30-plus years—we’d planned for a family. We planned to buy our first home, with room for all our kids. We planned every birthday and graduation together. But we didn’t plan for the day our kids wouldn’t live with us anymore. We never planned to be empty nesters.
With our careers as singers and actors, we’re on the road a lot (you might have seen us in a Tyler Perry movie or two). Then one day we came home to an empty house. Peace and quiet. It was eerie. I didn’t know how to live in a house without noise.
Both David and I grew up in big families. From almost the moment we said “I do,” we had children around. There was my niece Sonya, whom we took in when her mom died, and David’s daughter Porcia from a previous relationship. Next came Tiffany, the greatest surprise our family has ever received. (I’ll get to that later.) Soon I had David Jr., followed by Tia. Our lives were noisy and busy. If the babies weren’t crying, the television was blasting. If the phone wasn’t ringing, then somebody was burning something in the kitchen. Then we looked up and our kids had grown and gone.
Admittedly we had to hasten the two younger girls along. Every strong family needs to have rules, and one rule I was strict about was that the kids had to keep their rooms clean. Tiffany and Tia, well into their twenties, found that impossible. I told them once; I told them twice. Finally I laid down the law: “Girls, if I walk back in this house and your rooms are a mess, you will be asked to leave.”
They didn’t believe me. The next time I saw their rooms looking like an explosion of clothes, makeup and hair products, I was done. I asked David to tape a notice to their doors: “Evicted effective today. Please vacate the premises immediately.” That did it. Tiffany and Tia left. Now they have their own apartments.
With some marriages, couples get so caught up taking care of the kids that when they leave, the marriage leaves with them. Not David and me. Sure, when our nest first emptied, it felt strange for both of us. David asked, “Who are we going to take care of now?” My answer was, “We’re going to take care of each other.” Because our marriage has always been our priority. Before kids and after kids. Like I said, it comes down to following a few rules.
Teamwork makes the dream work. I learned the meaning behind that motto one rainy night in Arlington, Texas, 26 years ago. We were driving back from a visit with David’s mother, and it was pouring. Our windshield wipers weren’t working, and we didn’t have money to fix them. David was driving and couldn’t see a thing. He pulled over.
“Grab two clothes hangers out of the trunk,” I told him. He dashed out into the downpour and brought me two hangers. I untwisted the wires. I handed one to David and took one for myself. He hooked his to the wiper on the driver’s side, and I hooked mine to the wiper on the passenger’s side. Driving slowly, David pulled his wiper to the left while I pushed mine to the left. Then I pulled to the right, and he pushed to the right. We had to catch our breath at each traffic light, but we made it home, our arms sopping wet.
These days we sometimes have to accept performing engagements apart from each other. Most times we travel together, work together, prepare together. Pray together. If we start as a team, we finish as a team.
LOL together. One summer day early in our marriage, when I was pregnant with our son, we were driving and David stopped at a 7-Eleven to get something cold to drink. He knew I liked fruity flavors, but he didn’t actually know my favorite drink. So he came out with two Big Gulps, one for each of us.
I took one sip and almost spit it out. “What is this?” I asked.
“It’s got a little bit of everything.”
“That’s not what I wanted,” I said. Not very gracious, but I was hot, pregnant and thirsty. The next thing I knew, David took my drink and threw it out the window. So I took his drink and threw it out the window.
The only thing was, my window was still rolled up. The cup bounced off the glass and the Big Gulp splashed all over my face, my hair, my clothes.
We had two choices: Keep fighting or start laughing. We laughed till the tears rolled down our faces. And we haven’t stopped laughing. Be playful in your marriage. Have fun. There’s always something to laugh about.
Love keeps no record of wrongdoing. I can’t speak for all ladies, but many of us are guilty of quietly tabulating how many times our husbands didn’t keep their word. Sometimes we even fall into the trap of guilting our husbands for the things we said we’d forgiven them for. But I’ve learned to stop keeping score. If anything, I would rather keep score of all the good things David does instead of rehashing the bad ones. If God can forgive all the wrongs we’ve done to him, surely I can do the same for my husband.
One winter night when David Jr. was only a few months old, we came home and flipped on the lights. Nothing happened. David acted as if a power outage had hit the neighborhood. He couldn’t admit that he hadn’t paid the electric bill. I could have ranted. But I knew David was already feeling defeated. Why make matters worse? So I said, “We can go to your mom’s or just go to bed. We don’t need lights to have a good night’s sleep.” I wrapped my arms around him and said, “We’ll fix it tomorrow.”
When we got married, I vowed to be with David through it all, thick and thin, and support him during his low points as well as high points. He vowed to do the same for me. Thirty years later, David makes sure we have plenty of lights in the house—way too many, if you ask me, but I know he wants me to feel taken care of.
Trust in God and each other. There’s a great gospel song that says, “Turn your pressure into praise!” That’s what David and I try to do in our family—let pain push us into purpose. One of the hardest moments in our marriage came when we faced some unexpected news. It turned out, he’d had another daughter besides Porcia before we married, one he’d known nothing about. Tiffany was five years old when we found out about her. David and I trusted that God’s purpose was for us to be together and to parent the children he brought us, so we embraced Tiffany fully.
We are as blended a family as you can get. But you will never hear any of us use the word step to describe our relationships. Right from the start, I wanted to give Tiffany all the love she deserved. She hadn’t asked to be put in this position. She was innocent. Funny, talented and beautiful.
Not long ago, the two of us were in an elevator and a lady said to me, “Your daughter looks just like you.” Tiffany and I got a chuckle out of that. We don’t look anything alike, but what the woman saw was the real connection between us. The love in our eyes. The bond that couldn’t be broken. I think that reflects the bond of love and trust between David and me as her parents.
Learn to know your spouse, and let your spouse know you. Don’t stop learning about each other once the kids are gone. David knows me through and through. He knows what pleases me and what gets on my nerves. He knows all my quirks and exactly what I love to eat and drink (no more Big Gulps!).
Two years ago, we were at the Grammy Awards. I’d been nominated for best gospel song/performance. I was decked out in a designer dress and heels. People kept asking, “What are you going to say if you win?” I didn’t know. I didn’t think I’d win anyway. I sat way in the back of the auditorium, wondering.
At last my category came up. I heard the names of the nominees announced and closed my eyes. I was so busy thanking God for what the other nominees had brought to gospel, I almost didn’t hear my name called. I had to jog all the way to the front. David was supposed to be capturing the moment with his phone, but he was crying too hard. I started my speech at the bottom of the steps to the stage, trying to hold back my own tears and not fall in my high heels. I kept saying, “Thank you, Lord. Hallelujah.”
At the end of the night, I said to David, “I want to go to IHOP.” That’s right. International House of Pancakes. All I wanted was pancakes. And that’s what David gave me, even though he would’ve liked to put my name in lights.
Pouring syrup on that stack of pancakes, I was happier than a kid on Christmas morning. Because of David, who knows the importance of celebrating me the way I want to be celebrated, who knows everything about me, good and bad, faults and foibles. For the gift of my husband, I’m still saying, “Thank you, Lord. Hallelujah.”
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Check out Tamela and David Mann’s book, Us Against the World: Our Secrets to Love, Marriage, and Family, wherever books are sold.