The Happily in Ever After

This is one of those blogs born from parenting site “prompt”…the prompt being “Romance After Kids.” While it hasn’t hit the actual site yet, I thought I’d share it anyway while we’re still in everyone’s favorite Hallmark Holiday of a month. Marriage advice, I find, is much like child-rearing advice…the easiest marriages to navigate are those that are not your own. So, no worries if you crumple this one up and just toss it at your partner’s head.

When I talk about marriage tips to my friends, I often feel like a bit of a fraud. Most of them, after all, have been married for decades (plural) while I have yet to reach one (single) decade with a signed certificate. On the flip side, I did marry late (by the standards of my generation) but I don’t think I should be penalized for my tardiness. And, in reality, aren’t relationships just relationships? The same threads run through all kinds of pairings, creating the same patterns with the same challenges. It’s how you react when the threads start to fray that will either reignite or dampen the sparks of joy that keep the fires burning.

Kids are indeed a bit of a relational buzzkill. No, it’s fine. We can all admit it. Lightning did not strike me dead for putting that to paper. My kids came to me second hand, which means I did miss some of the more challenging overnights, yes, but still…wow. I thought the hardest part of intimacy after kids would be my absolute and total paranoia of surprise tiny witnesses to whatever was happening in our marital bed. We aren’t really door lockers in our home, see. My husband insisted, from the get go, that if any of the younger set did take an errant stroll in at an inopportune time, they’d likely only do so only once. Still, the idea that it was a hump (hee-hee) that we’d only have to encounter once (or twice, once for each child) did nothing to relax me.

Turns out the hardest parts of maintaining intimacy went beyond the mattress.

It was actually the exhaustion and the day-to-day overload and the never ending rolodex of the mom brain and the monotony of juggling a family that were the real downers when it came to romance when living with children. It took almost no time at all for our adult conversations to become very scripted, including those we had when we went out for the occasional kid-free date night. And on those kid-free date nights? Oh, the kids were still very much present.

Does this sound familiar? Order an appetizer, talk about one child. Order an entrée, talk about the other child. Work our way towards the desert, throw in some chatter about in-laws. Wait for the check with a roundup of the following week’s school/sports/doctors/chores expectations. Extra bonus if you can throw in a paragraph or two about an ex-spouse. It wasn’t just our date nights that were dedicated to these topics, it was also on quick trips to the store or on lunch breaks (when both working from home) or even while sharing a lane at the pool. We finally cracked. Did we have nothing better to talk about?

Um, not really?

We had to start over. We had to start investing in the “after” of our “happily ever”. We realized that if we didn’t start adjusting our present presence with each other that we would be weakening our future presence with each other. We reminded ourselves that, in the end, our lives would be starting anew when those little buzzkills (who we love to the ends of the earth) move on with theirs. But as they (currently) test us through their teen years, we found ourselves feeling really unmotivated to think about any future at all, with or without them. We were too busy riding the current crazy merry-go-round to entertain thoughts of the next ride.

How do you reset the romance? I say the following knowing that, truly, the answer is likely different for every couple. The answer is also trial and error, a process, and requires ongoing tweaks.

A great summary would be to pick a way that you think will work for you (yes, I will give you a peek into a few of ours) and practice, practice, practice. Eventually, it will seem less like practice and more like an investment into your future. Much like putting money into a retirement account for financial stability, we have come to consider investing in our current relationship a major priority to our future emotional stability.

Home rules changed very simply.

Any chatter of children, during those trying times in which we were wondering what was around the next corner, ended at the door to our bedroom. Period. We have had some trying times and knowing that those trying times would be ditched at the top of the stairs brought almost immediate peace to both of our hearts. And, if you must know, our mattress. It took practice, yes. But soon, I (the mom, who has the hardest time turning off my thoughts) began to notice my brain slowing down as the clock approached bedtime o’clock. And, with that, I did have more interest in closing that bedroom door again.

Our second at home rule? A time limit. During those super, super special times when the shit was really hitting the child rearing fan we implemented a thirty minute time limit on discussing whatever the flavor of the day was. I cannot believe it took us nearly ten years to figure this one out (and no shrink – we came up with that one on our own). This was the biggest winner for me, the OCD member of the marriage. Or perhaps the winner was my husband, the recipient of my OCD-ness. Either way, he stopped hiding in closets when he saw me coming, ready to pounce with another round of “I know how we should handle x, y, and z…” and I stopped wondering when I would be able to grab his full attention for x, y, and z. And, because we knew it was a thirty minute block, our talks turned into more of a punch list than a flustered run at why we could not figure out this parenting gig.

We’ve also gone back to dating. I know, that sounds so cliché. But really. We had a really rough week about six months ago and, in an odd twist, decided to take our stress out on our wallet. Before we left for a night out, we promised each other that there would be no talk at all about the kids. I took it a step further and ordered a set of Conversation Cards, meant to be icebreakers for first dates – which is exactly how we treated the night. We have repeated this mode of dining out nearly every other week ever since. We have also put it on steroids a few times by turning it into an overnight date (with strategically scheduled dual sleepovers).

Our latest First Date was just last weekend, an overnight, during which we were actually able to sneak out of the state entirely. We ended up at a restaurant in St. Petersburg, Fl called Lingr that we had serious curiosity about as it touted Nordic-Asian fusion. I’m not going to lie, our quick getaway started out rough – to the point where we debated turning right around and pointing ourselves back north. But, once settled into our seats with our phones (finally) turned to silent, we jumped into first date mode. No more talk about children. No more talk about grades. No more talk about towels on the floor or toothpaste on the mirror. We leveled up and deferred to our server to choose our appetizers and entrees (well, “deferred” in that the menu made me nervous and I always try to show off on first dates). Before we knew it, we had forgotten all about the previous twenty-four hours of drama and bathed in the fun of pretending that we were locals and for sure going to one of the new condos just around the corner.

“Wouldn’t it be great when to just order this…what is this?and walk it back to our new condo by the pier?”

“Yes, it’s Hamachi Crudo. And that’s corn fried rice. And we should definitely just retire here.”

“Wait, what? Nevermind, it’s amazing. Should we get jet skis as well?”

These date nights, when implemented correctly, leave us with renewed clarity on who we were to each other when we first met. We remember why we loved those simple, stripped down moments where there were only two people to worry about. Are we terrible? No. Because these breaks from reality have brightened the sparks in our relationship at exactly the right time. We were caught up in this society driven idea that once a couple went from being a couple to being a family, that the “good stuff” only counted if it included all members of the household. That is simply not true.

It may sound totally backwards, but we have found that the best way to keep our family happiest is to have regular moments which are very intentionally dedicated to being only a couple.

Without kids.

It doesn’t have to be as extravagant as a weekend away or a fancy dinner out or even a hike in the woods. It can be as simple as a lazy and long morning in bed, on a weekday, if that’s only as much as you are able to manage. Does it sound slightly insane to set your alarm thirty minutes early on an actual weekday in order to have quiet cuddles with your partner? Um, yes. And they will have to be quiet cuddles lest the little buzzkills sense your opened eyes.

But those quiet cuddles might turn out to be the best part of your day.

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