Have you seen those pithy memes that describe a typical parenting day? The big, bright letters seem almost perky, as they proclaim: “Coffee. Chaos. Wine. Sleep. Repeat.”
It would be funny, if it wasn’t so damned true.
For parents in the little kid years—past the sleepless infant stage but before school age—there’s a brutal, undeniable reality to our lives. We’re so exhausted by the tending and the washing and the cooking and the cleaning and the bills and the bath times and the seemingly endless bedtime requests that each day ends in a daze. Forget keeping romance alive. The question for an overwhelming number of parents is: How do you keep your relationship alive?
It might help to know you’re by no means alone.
Andrew Sofin, president of the Canadian Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, says most of the couples who come to his therapy retreats have children under five.
“The first five years are the hardest,” he says. “You’re going through multiple changes—maybe you’re now a full-time caregiver or are juggling daycare. Time becomes the premium. Sleep becomes more important than sex. You’re going to have hard times with your spouse. It’s not if—it’s when.”
This flies in the face of cultural expectations that kids should make us happy, and romance should still be hot and heavy. Throw in the fact that when we have kids, we demand more from our partners than ever before, and it’s a recipe for disaster.
But it doesn’t have to be. By stepping back to get a more realistic view of your situation and taking a few measures to strengthen your relationship’s foundation, you, too, can make it to the promised land. Here are some ideas to get you there.
Give each other a time out
Bruce and Jen Parker were together for more than 10 years before they decided it was time to have kids. When their son Robbie was born in 2010, he arrived seven weeks premature with a serious heart condition that required surgery. At seven months old, he started having seizures. He went from being a vibrant little baby to a heavily medicated child until, at 18 months, he underwent a procedure to disconnect the two halves of his brain. It worked. Robbie is now five, seizure free and off medication, but he still has physical challenges that require regular therapy.
Over the years, Bruce has watched a number of parents they know separate. How do he and Jen hold it together—especially now that they have a second kid, Morgan, who is almost one?
“We give each other space,” he says simply. “There are days when I can see Jen is completely at her wits’ end, and there are days she sees me that way. It’s then that you have to suck it up, dive in there and give the other a break.”
Find a way to work little breathers into everyday life, and don’t try to have tough conversations with your partner in moments of crisis, he says. Even if you’re just taking one of the kids out of the house on a Saturday morning so your spouse can have a cup of coffee without someone wiping snot on her sleeve, that little bit of physical and emotional space can often be enough.
Beware of withdrawal
There’s needing space, and then there’s vacating the relationship. Sofin says emotional withdrawal is the biggest warning sign of all. The challenge is knowing whether your partner is withdrawing or just temporarily sidetracked. That’s why it’s important to keep the lines of communication open.
“The most dangerous sign is when it seems fine, but you’re really just not talking about your feelings,” he says. “You’re not as emotionally invested as you used to be.”
Often, withdrawal reveals itself when one person suddenly becomes more invested in things outside the couple or the family, or consumed by work—at least, more than their job should typically demand. Sometimes, it’s fantasizing about how much easier life was without kids (beyond the occasional daydream every parent is prone to).
If you find yourself falling into these traps or feeling distanced from your partner for an extended period of time, Sofin suggests talking about it with them, and consider seeing a family therapist. It’s normal for distance to occasionally develop between two swamped parents juggling multiple demands. What’s dangerous is not admitting to that distance when it seems to be ongoing.
“The number one thing is to stay in communication,” Sofin says. “Stop thinking you can read the other person’s mind. You can’t.”
Take care of yourself
The toddler and preschool years are some of the most demanding in a parent’s life. Kids that age have the ability to get up to mischief but lack the awareness to avoid danger. And the autonomy to play, bathe or even eat unsupervised is still years away.
So it’s no surprise that most of us end up relegating our needs as secondary to our kids’. But that, says Sofin, is a mistake. Self-care isn’t a hobby you can simply pick up again once the kids’ toys are out of the den—it’s an essential piece of a healthy relationship.
But what does “self-care” actually mean? In essence, it’s carving out space in your life for you and helping your partner do the same. (And, no, it doesn’t have to be yoga!) Maybe you take the scenic route on your bike ride to work, attend a monthly photography meet-up or start that garage band you’ve always dreamed of. Whatever it is, make sure it’s about you and not for the kids. And help ensure your partner gets his or her time out, too. Not only will it make you feel less guilty when you’re sipping a quiet latte, but it will also help strengthen the “we’re in this together” bond.
Take care of each other
You are a team, and no team will get to the playoffs if the players are always sniping at each other. Instead, try to make kindness your go-to response. That can actually be quite difficult. When you’re in the thick of the morning rush or dinnertime flurry, it’s all too easy to take your irritation out on each other.
Start to sharpen your Spidey senses so you can predict when you’re about to nitpick. Then hold it in. Whatever you were about to say can wait until you can either frame it more kindly or realize you should drop it altogether. Sofin says you should also always ask yourself what you’re gaining from lashing out.
Another tactic that is effective is to just say thank you. When you’re both working hard to keep family life chugging along, it can be easy to stop acknowledging each other’s workload. That can leave people feeling ignored or unappreciated, which can quickly snowball into resentment.
“It’s validating what the other person is doing,” Sofin says. “‘Thank you’ goes a long way in keeping the couple alive.”
Have date nights (but only if you want to)
OK, OK, I can hear you sighing in frustration. How are you meant to fit date nights into an already packed schedule? Isn’t that just another stress to add to your bubbling stew of busyness?
Sofin says it’s still worth it. “A lot of times, the couple gets lost,” he says. “It’s like running a daycare with someone you used to date.”
He says a monthly date night is good. And if you have a support network to help take care of the kids and can snag an occasional night away—even if it’s just to a hotel in your hometown—even better.
Another option is date days. If you can both take a day off work, consider sneaking away to the movies or visiting a gallery, or get a babysitter on a Saturday afternoon and grab a late lunch while the kids nap. A date day can be lower pressure and often cheaper—and the chances are better you’ll both be awake enough to enjoy it.
Mom of three Linnea Knight says romance in her home is a shared video game after bedtime. As she sees it, there will be plenty of time for dates once the kids have grown up a little more.
“When you’re in the thick of things and also trying to ‘keep the romance alive,’ that’s more stressful than anything,” she says. “If you don’t, then you feel like you’re failing, and that’s baloney.”
The key is to work out what suits you. Happy to catch a matinee together once a month? Good enough! Would rather splurge on weekly dinners? Do it. Talk to your partner to find the right balance, for both of you, and then ignore pressure to be any other way.
Play the long game
The hardest thing to remember in the under-five whirlwind is that this, too, is a stage. One day, you’ll wake up and your kids will be leaving for university. Keeping one eye on the far horizon as you juggle today’s demands can help smooth some of the rougher bumps along the way. The bumps don’t disappear, but they might appear less insurmountable.
“Our relationship has taken a hit,” Bruce admits frankly. “We still love each other. We don’t get the quality time we used to, but at some point in time, we will. This doesn’t go on forever.”
Sofin says pragmatism isn’t a repudiation of romance. Rather, it’s a clear-eyed acknowledgement of the stage of life your family is in.
“Right now, you’re in a busy phase. Sex and romance have shifted down the totem pole. It’s going to come back when the kids are more autonomous. It will come back.”
And when it does, hopefully you can turn to each other, gaze into each other’s eyes and murmur those three beautiful words: “We made it.”