Keep Your Relationship Strong While Raising Kids
Every fall, the problem surfaces: Parents deliver their youngest child to college, and then return home, look at each other and realize they have nothing left to talk about. They’d been so focused on being parents for nearly two decades (or more) that they’d lost their sense of identity as a couple.
Why does this matter to young parents still awash in late-night feedings, toddler playgroups, science fairs, soccer matches or adolescent drama?
Because the earlier couples commit to keeping their own bond strong despite the competing demands of little ones, the better that relationship will be once the kids have left home – and the more they’ll enjoy each other until then.
Let’s face it: The time and energy demanded by parenthood can challenge the strongest relationship. That’s why it’s critical to focus on that bond from the start, says Peggy H. Kaufman, M.Ed., a licensed social worker and director at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Boston.
“The couple-ness is the family’s foundation, and it has to stay solid,” she says. “It’s important that couples make it a priority to nurture their relationship.”
Besides, parents aren’t the only ones who benefit from maintaining a strong, loving connection while raising their children; kids are in tune with what’s going on from an early age and they feel safer and more secure with parents who value each other. They also learn to develop their own healthy partnerships, Kaufman says.
“One of the primary tasks of parenting is teaching children how to have their own relationships,” explains Stephanie Cosner Berzin, Ph.D., chairperson of Children, Youth and Families at Boston College’s Graduate School of Social Work and the mother of three young children. “You’re modeling how to show love and affection.”
Carve Out Time
How can you focus on your own relationship amid the often overwhelming demands of parenthood? Start going out together right away, even if you have to bring the baby at first, notes Trina Zilla, a clinical psychologist in Wellesley and the mother of two.
“New parents need to begin going on dates immediately,” she stresses. “The minute mom has some energy, go get a meal. Newborns sleep a lot – bring the car seat with you to the restaurant. (Creating this habit) is really good for everybody.”
Obviously, it’s also good for couples to go out without children, once they feel ready to leave their youngsters with a trusted caregiver. Dorothy Suput of Somerville, mom of 8-year-old Alena, remembers that the first time she and her husband went out by themselves, they checked their cell phones constantly and raced home at the end of the evening, only to find that the baby had slept the entire time they were gone. Once they got past their discomfort, they found that the time alone allowed them to have the rare adult discussion. “Otherwise [at home], we never really got the chance to finish a conversation,” Suput says.
It’s not always necessary to hire a sitter in order to have time out. Krissy Ferreira of Milford, the mother of Dominic, 4, and Giovanni, 1, has an aunt who has taken her children overnight since they were a few months old. Ferreira also trades childcare with a friend on a regular basis. Another solution is a babysitting co-op, where parents earn points every time they watch each other’s kids, and then cash them in when it’s their turn to go out.
Dates at Home
The most critical “dates” of all occur within the home itself, when couples regularly make time to reconnect. This can be as simple as a backrub or playing a board game, or as elaborate as setting the dining room table and having dinner together once the children are in bed. Parents of older children may need to be assertive and emphasize that their couple time is “uninterrupted, sacred time unless the house is on fire,” Zilla says.
Beth and Isabel Tappan-deFrees of Waltham discovered that their son Elijah, 12, is a late sleeper. Their solution is to set the alarm clock earlier to claim some time before he wakes up. “Being able to sit and drink coffee in front of the fireplace is as important as going out to a fancy dinner,” Beth says.
Another way for couples to show their love is to allow each other space for separate interests, whether it’s dinner with friends or time to pursue a hobby. This enhances the relationship; it gives each parent a break and provides new topics of conversation. It also emphasizes that partners are important in their own right, says Berzin, of Boston College.
Ultimately, the investment that parents make in each other while raising children will pay lifelong dividends. “This really sets the stage for the children leaving home,” Kaufman concludes. “If you’ve been nurturing yourselves as a couple all these years, you’ve got that foundation.”
Leslie Jaffe is a freelance writer and mother of two.
Some Helpful Books on Marriage
• Childproofing Your Marriage, by Dr. Debbie L. Cherry, David C. Cook (publisher), 2004. A psychologist details how to emphasize being couple-focused, rather than always child-focused, so that the distance that can creep in while raising children doesn’t harm the marriage in the long run.
• Passionate Parent Passionate Couple, by Ed and Betty Coda, TAG Publishing LLC, 2010. Two parents with a houseful of kids offer slice-of-life examples of how they kept their relationship strong.
• 15-Minute Marriage Makeover: Refresh Your Relationship, Add Sizzle to Your Sex Life & Be Happier in Just Minutes a Day, by Dustin Riechmann, Engaged Marriage, 2011. While the author takes a Christian slant occasionally in this book and on his website, www.EngagedMarriage.com, the information here is universal and the tips are great.