My husband and I have reached that sweet spot in our parenting adventure. Our boys are 11 and 14. They’re independent enough that we can leave them at home for a few hours with no fear of the house burning down (knock on wood).
This recent development has opened up a world of possibilities for our marriage. We’ll occasionally ask, “You two want to go out for dinner?” Our boys answer, “Nah.” And boom! The two of us are out the door and seated in a booth before those kids can turn on their Xbox. We have a drink (or two), we eat in peace, we solve the world’s problems and occasionally we reach across the table and touch each other. Then we head home with shoulders relaxed and flame reignited.
It hasn’t always been this way. Just like all parents, we went through periods when we felt like two ships passing in the dark, in Arctic seas, with no warmth, connection or light between us. But with effort and consistency, we managed to keep a little flame going throughout our kids’ developmental stages. That’s the key: Keep a small flame burning so that you can fan it into a full-fledged fire when you have more energy, time and space.
Here are my pointers for keeping your own little pilot light of love burning throughout the parenting adventures.
Flame extinguishers: You’re both exhausted. Emotions and hormones are running high as you’re figuring out how to care for your new little person. Bathing and housecleaning might be low on the priority list. If Mom is breastfeeding, she might feel “touched out,” like she just can’t stand to be touched by another human being.
Flame igniters: Hopefully, one or both of you are getting parental leave, which might mean more time together, even if it is in your pajamas. Seeing your partner transform into a parent can be incredibly sweet and endearing. You might find yourself falling in love all over again.
Add fuel to the flames: Think micro instead of macro. Look for love and connection in small gestures - giving a hug in the kitchen, telling your wife how beautiful she looks when she’s breastfeeding, sharing a glass of wine and bingeing on two Netflix episodes while baby is napping. Remind yourself of your partner’s preferred love language, and make a regular effort to show them affection and appreciation in a way that feels genuine and sincere. (If you haven’t taken the 5 Love Languages quiz, I highly recommend it.) Most importantly, resist the temptation to declare that your relationship will never recover. I promise that this phase is temporary and that your partnership will return to its pre-baby lightness with time.
TODDLER & PRESCHOOLER STAGE:
Flame extinguishers: You have a little human who can speak their mind (loudly) and wants to do their own thing. Sometimes they want to go to bed and sometimes they don’t, sometimes they want to eat their chicken nuggets and sometimes they don’t. All of this chaos and unpredictability can make everyone tense and testy. It can also make it hard to carve out time for your relationship.
Flame igniters: Although our toddlers’ moods might be unpredictable, their sleep schedules usually become more consistent. They typically go to bed earlier and sleep all through the night. With this predictably, you and your partner might enjoy the return of precious adult time in the evening.
Add fuel to the flames: Consider booking a regular babysitter and scheduling consistent date nights. Even if you decide to go to the gym or a bookstore, you’re getting out of the house and spending adult time together. Put aside time for self-care because it is hard to care for your relationship when you aren't addressing your own needs. Don’t be afraid to designate time for cuddling and love making. My clients say, “Yuck, we shouldn’t have to schedule something that should be spontaneous and sexy.” Whelp, if you don’t schedule it, it might not happen. Plus, when we humans put something on our schedule, we make it a priority, and connecting with each other needs to be a priority.
ELEMENTARY & MIDDLE SCHOOL STAGE:
Flame extinguishers: Your kids begin to stay up later. They might even wander around the house late at night. This cuts into that adult time in the evening that we were just talking about. Grrrr…
Flame igniters: They’re becoming more independent. They go to slumber parties, summer camps and Grandma’s house. They are in school for longer hours and they’re doing more of their own thing. They eventually get to the age where they can babysit themselves. Woohoo!
Add fuel to the flames: OK, mom and dad, this is your chance to reconnect on a deeper level. Plan a weekend getaway, or a week long Caribbean vacation. Find ways to be spontaneous again – if you have an opportunity, pop out to happy hour or a movie in the park. Seek out occasions to laugh and have fun with your kids. The joy and lightness you experience with your family will trickle into your partnership. Finally, lock the door regularly and cuddle or do the wild thing. If your kids are staying up until midnight, you might have to be creative about finding alone time and that’s ok.
HIGH SCHOOL & COLLEGE STAGE:
Flame extinguishers: You’ve worked your butts off raising these kids and now they’re nowhere to be seen. You and your partner might look at each other and say, “Who are you again? What just happened over the last 18 years??”
Flame igniters: Let me repeat, you’ve gotten your kids to adulthood. Pat yourself on the back. You two did it! And now you have more than enough time to reignite things in your relationship.
Add fuel to the flames: When your kids reach school age, I recommend that you and your partner make sure you are investing energy and time in shared interests and passions. Don’t have any? Then find some. It can be anything from remodeling your home to taking square dancing lessons to watching art house movies to running 5K’s. Find activities that both of you love and care about, and then make time to do those things together. This is your opportunity to rediscover your friendship and your original attraction. Finally, go back to those courtship behaviors that you invested in at the beginning of your relationship: writing sweet notes, surprising each other with chocolates or flowers, taking off on an impromptu weekend getaway. These gestures worked for you then and they are sure to get things heated up now.
My final suggestion, regardless of where you are on the parenting journey, is to never hesitate to seek out help. If you and your partner are trying all the things and still not finding romance or connection in your daily life, a skilled couples counselor or sex therapist might just guide you onto the right path. Most couples struggle at some point to feel connected in an intimate way. With the right help, you two can definitely fuel the fire between you and find a lasting spark.