No one can prepare you for how much your marriage will change after the first child enters the picture. It's not that kids change your marriage. It's more accurate to say, "You will no longer have what you used to call your marriage. You will have an entirely different marriage in an entirely different life." As I say in Marriage Rules, you can't begin to imagine how kids transform everything until after you have them.
The idea that you have to pay attention to your relationship when a kid comes along is the sort of conventional advice you might find when thumbing through a magazine in the pediatrician’s office. It sounds as simple as 1,2, 3.
But the problem is that you’ll give yourselves reasons to not do 1,2 or 3. So here’s 1,2, and 3, along with the excuses you’ll make not to do them.
1. GET BABYSITTERS: Leaving your kid with a sitter is a big step. First of all, finding a good sitter takes energy and initiative, both of which will be in short supply. Then there’s the worry factor. While it’s normal to doubt your own competence to be a parent, it’s a nightmare to doubt the competence of hired help since you’re not there to see what’s going on and your child may be too young to tell you.
As author Anne Lamott puts it, “You’ll want to sit outside the house in a rocking chair, with a gun laid across your lap, like Granny Clampett, to protect your baby. And you really won’t be able to because life is out there prowling around like a wolf and it’s going to drive you nuts.”
Live with the anxiety and don’t let it stop you from finding a good sitter—or better yet, two. Some couples line up someone who comes regularly on Saturday nights, or, alternatively, on a weekday, so they can meet their partner for dinner after work. Keep in mind that the longer you resist finding a good, reliable babysitter and separating from your child, the more difficult it will become. Avoidance only makes fear grow.
2. GO ON A DATE: Once you have a sitter, you actually need to go on a date. Expect to have enormous resistance to this idea. First of all, you’re too tired to go out—you’d rather just go to sleep. . Second, money is probably tight so it seems more logical to rent a video and watch it at home when the kids are asleep. Third, you may not want to go out with your partner, just the two of you, like you did before the first child came along. What do you have to say to each other that isn’t child-related? What did you talk about anyway, before the baby came?
Just do it. It is important to occasionally go to a restaurant, a real movie theater, a free cultural event, or some other activity you enjoyed before you became parents. It doesn’t matter if you have a ho-hum time, or end up arguing about the expense of the meal, because that’s normal and you need to overcome your resistance to scheduling dates. You might even see what happens if you decide in advance to not talk about your child or child-related topics, or anything on the family to-do list.
Not to push you, but perhaps it’s best not to wait until your kid is filling out college applications before you realize that you and your partner forgot to go on a date.
3. GIVE YOUR PARTNER ALONE TIME, AWAY FROM YOU AND KIDS: Whatever age your kids are, it’s very important you give each time off from family life. Again, you won’t want to, because family time is important and you don’t have enough of that. Still, give it a try. You’ll be closer as a couple if you support each other doing individual fun things apart from the family. Plus, your kids will be closer to both of you if they have the opportunity to have alone time with each of you.
You can probably add to this list of how to try to shore up your depleted energy reserves so that you have something left over for each other. Getting kids to bed an hour earlier makes a big difference. Resisting withdrawal into your favorite technology helps, as does resisting the cultural pressure to have your child participate in more than one extra school activity. Finding someone who can clean your house-- even once a month--also makes a surprising difference, as can springing for a hotel room without kids every once in a while. Scheduling fifteen minutes a day to shmooze with your partner (No complaints or to-do list) can change everything if you stick to it like a sacred pact.
The hard part (beyond economics) is actually doing these things. Don’t be like the man who lies shivering in bed but is too tired to get up and go find himself a blanket.