So I don’t know if anyone has ever told you this, but having a kid is hard. I’ll give you a moment to do your best impression of blown-away Keanu Reeves saying “whoa.” Yes, yes, everyone talks about how parenthood is really hard, and how it’s really hard on a relationship, but you don’t always hear about how couples can do a great job of working together. It’s like “OK, thanks! Thanks for presenting me with this dire warning about how kids are going to be hard on my relationship with absolutely no advice to avoid it. Way to be helpful with that Greek oracle act!”
But these Negative Nellies and Dower Dans aren’t wrong — having kids is tough on a relationship simply because, well… often the relationship necessarily takes a back seat to the care, feeding, and keeping alive of your child (or multiple children, bless your intrepid souls). When you’re in the thick of things, it can be weirdly hard to stay connected to one another without using your children as a crutch. Any couple runs the risk of centering their entire world around the children for a couple of reasons:
- They enjoy doing things together with their child. (They are pretty awesome a lot of the time.)
- Children are demanding little black holes of time and energy and will accept no less of you (they are kind of jerks a lot of the time). Couples in which one person is taking on a disproportionate amount of work with the kids may soon find they have less and less in common as time goes on.
But! People manage! Really and truly, they do, and some relationships are even stronger after you toss a kid in the mix. So what do they do that makes them so resilient to the stresses of parenthood?
They Take Time For Themselves
As in, they do something just for themselves, like go out with friends or fishing or to a cafe to read. Maybe they just want to go to their bedroom for a few hours and not worry about having to being a spouse or parent. Hopefully, in most instances, those roles are a source of strength and comfort… but sometimes any one of those roles can completely drain you and you need to recharge. It’s just like, “I just want to be me. And I am going to put cucumbers over my eyes with a green face mask and listen to the kind of music one only ever hears while getting a massage or doing yoga.” A strong couple knows that when one person is feeling particularly exhausted (you know, more than your everyday, run of the mill, “we have a kid” exhaustion that lasts for about 18 years), they need to step up in handling more kid duties for a bit and step back from their partner to help them find their center. Sometimes this will be an hour, sometimes a long weekend, but it needs to happen at semi-regular intervals.
They Take Time Together
So the one piece of advice I got from people before I had my first child about remaining strong as a couple was “make sure you always have a weekly date night.” I found this well-intentioned and, in a perfect world, excellent advice, but ridiculously unrealistic for most couples. For one, it’s expensive, even if you have free childcare (and if you don’t, it’s crazy expensive). Also, there may just not be enough hours in a day many weeks.
But I think the spirit of date night can happen any time: Watch a TV show you both like together and discuss it; play a card game or a video game; join a fantasy football league; work on an art project or something together after the kids are asleep, if that’s your thing. Strong couples are always aware that a relationship is kind of like Audrey 2… you know, the big plant in Little Shop of Horrors.
It needs to be nurtured and fed (although hopefully not with blood, but I don’t know your life; maybe your relationship needs blood). Maybe this metaphor isn’t as great as I’d initially thought. Please don’t kill people and drink their blood in order to save your relationship.
Anyone Can Do Any Necessary Task
Many couples fall into a rhythm where one parent (in hetero couples, this is usually the mother) becomes the “default parent.” What may be a natural inclination based on personality is often exacerbated by our long history of sexist gender expectations and the really ridiculously unfair paternity leave policies in the U.S., which are even worse than our really crappy maternity leave policies. But this is something strong couples are conscious of and try their best to avoid by making sure either parent feels capable and confident undertaking any task they might encounter. So none of this, “Oh here, honey, I can’t put the baby to sleep, you do that,” or, “What do I feed this one for lunch? I don’t know, you do it.”
That’s not to say either parent won’t ask for clarification or backup in particular situations, or even that one person won’t have a knack for particular tasks while the other struggles, but strong couples do not just accept that they can’t do something. They always at the very least try. (And really try, people, none of this whiny “But I triiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiied. You do it now! It’s too haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaard.”)
They Don’t Let Discontent And Resentment Build Up
Remember the episode of Seinfeld with “Festivus”? Well, my favorite part of the Festivus tradition is “The Airing of Grievances,” where you have the opportunity to confront people about how they have disappointed you in the past year. It’s hysterical. Of course, strong couples know it’s better to let someone know in the moment (or near enough to the moment if “in the moment” isn’t strictly speaking convenient or appropriate) that you’ve been aggrieved. It doesn’t have to be done in an accusatory or angry way, just a simple, “Hey, could you please be more mindful of not leaving a wet sponge in the sink? It gets kind of funky and mildewy when you do that,” or “Thanks for cleaning the kitchen. Could you please wipe the crumbs off the counter, though? Otherwise everything is sticky and gross by the time I come down to make breakfast in the morning.” (These are two big ones in my house, so I’ll formally apologize to my husband, here and now, for frequently forgetting the sponge in the sink, although maybe it wouldn’t be there as much if you used it to wipe down the counter. #burn) Or even something like, “Hey, you hurt my feelings when you said X. I know you didn’t mean to, but here’s why it upset me.”
It may sound nitpicky or counterproductive, but when couples address the things that bother them quickly, it doesn’t have time to ferment into something worse than it was, or they don’t combine grievances and bombard the other person with upset complaints when something completely unrelated serves as a trigger. It also gives the other person a clear idea of what you want or need and they can do better in the future, so these issues come up less.
They Say Thank You
This one is huge and so, so simple. It’s literally preschool-level difficulty. When your partner does something for you or is especially awesome at doing something around the house, just say thank you. Even if it’s their “job” or expected or not a big deal. Not to sound all smug or whatever, but this is something my husband and I have practiced since day one and it’s been hugely important, especially since having kids. Every night, he says, “Thank you for cooking,” and I’ll tell him, “Thank you for cleaning up.” These are things one of us has to do, but by saying “thank you” for them, what we really mean is, “Hey champ! Thanks for doing your part in making sure this whole family thing runs smoothly. I appreciate what you do.” (Also, our son has started saying, “Thank you for cooking,” sometimes unprompted, and it melts my damn heart every time.)
They Praise One Another
This basically goes along the same lines as thanking one another, but, like, dialed up to 11, and it’s necessary. Because being a parent can wear. you. the. eff. down. It’s tiring and often a huge hit to your self-esteem. There’s only so long your child can scream at you without you taking it personally. So when you have that sort of thing balanced with your partner saying, “I read the report you’re going to present to the board tomorrow at work — you kick ass!” or, “Oh wow, you did all those necessary errands in one day? You’re the best.”
They Regularly Talk About Something Other Than The Children
It totally happens, even with power couples: You go on a date, you wax poetic about how great it is to be able to get out, and then within 15 minutes you’re talking about your child. Hey, I’ve been there. I get you. They’re a huge touchstone and commonality at this point, also, you probably sort of kind of love them, so why wouldn’t you talk about them? But it’s important to make sure they’re not your only touchstone. Talk to your partner about politics, or Scandal, or whatever book you’re reading, an idea you’ve been kicking around for a short story or hiking trip, or a really cool episode of Radiolab you listened to on the subway. In short, in addition to being parents, strong couples remain themselves.
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