Be warned that I’m writing under the influence: since my husband and I just had our bimonthly liaison at 4 a.m., I feel like my marriage after my second baby is on top of the world. However, my feelings about things inevitably degrade by the time my tiny children emerge from the bedroom (all of our bedroom). And then the days pass by and before I know it, I’ve forgotten (again) to think enough about my husband, or about us as us.
When people talk about baby-proofing a marriage they usually mean DO YOU STILL HAVE SEX with your person? Like, enough? (Enough for whom?) I don’t particularly like the term though. To “baby proof” your marriage is to seal it off from the kids, so nary a whiff of kids permeates your bond? Not sure that’s a thing. I mean, the baby literally sleeps between my husband and me, taking over the vacancy my 2-year-old left when he moved to his little bed across the room. What does it mean to seal marriage off from children? Can you seal a cloud off from rain? To “babyproof” means something a little different: that you show love and respect for each other outside your roles as parents. Here's how that looks for us.
Firstly, about sex. OK, this is a big one. A friend who had had her own share of troubled relationships told me after my first was born, “You should have sex whenever he wants it.”
Well. That seemed about the most unfeminist, disempowered statement anyone could have offered. But. Just for the hell of it, for about two weeks, I tried it. Yes, I was tired. But the energy that flowed freely during the day between my husband and I, when we were supposedly “cultivating” our sex lives, was worth it. I was giving, but wasn’t I also receiving? That wasn’t how I’d been conditioned to see or feel sex. As receiving? Actually, my husband was such a giver. His touch was pure giving. So why couldn’t I try to meet that?
As I say, though, we aim for regularity closer to the paycheck cycle.
To keep things from falling off entirely, it helps to think of the way your partner parents as really sexy, and to know your parenting seems sexy to your partner, too. I had the dad-vantage of my husband already being a father when I met him. His boys were 5 and 7, and they were the quirkiest, bounciest children, who made Tigger of Winnie-the-Pooh look a little infirm. I may have loved them even before I admitted I loved my husband (I was a slow drip on that one). So we never really had a relationship without children in it.
This is a big deal, to love anyone else’s kids so hard, especially someone who you’re auditioning for front row seat in your heart. Because honestly, sometimes other people’s kids are just annoying, maybe mostly annoying, or at least 97 percent annoying, because YOU YOURSELF AND YOUR GORGEOUS PARTNER DID NOT MAKE THEM. That is, you have no vested interest in their gene pool, the very thing that makes your children appear cute and ultimately loveable to you. But in this case, my future gene pool was going, Simon Says Cook Those Boys Dinner, It’s Steamy.
You have to see your partner as a person, not just your partner, a dad, or a household servant.
His creativity, patience, humor and level-headedness were all terribly… sexy. Even from the foggy vista of haven’t-yet-been-a-parent, I respected his parenting choices. When the boys resisted the bath, he would pick them up by their underwear bands like luggage while they giggled. Or he would stay on the phone with his younger son, while he was at his mom’s, practicing counting to 10 slowly so that they could have any form of connection. I still find his parenting choices powerful and delightful, and always from a centered place.
And now he does the same with our two kids. He loves soft and hard at the same time.
I told my husband this morning that I must find it really sexy when he gets the kids water when they wake thirsty, and uses the snot bulb on our baby, who has been congested for the last four months. Because that’s what he did, at 4 a.m. no less, and then BOOM, orgasmic aforementioned bimonthly liaison. Additionally, his paying bills on time and cleaning the kitchen without forgetting that tea mug also makes my skin tingle. All things that become infinitely harder after bebe #2.
You have to see your partner as a person, not just your partner, a dad, or a household servant. That means when they want to do something they love (but you might not) like play loud heavy metal, or practice a bass line repeatedly for an hour, you sometimes just let it happen, with well-wishes. You observe the person objectively like they are a stranger. Same goes when you want to do whatever form of self-care or titillation or art makes you feel most like you.
A word about fantasy: I do fantasize when we have sex — I fantasize about us before we had kids. And that is all. And it’s really helpful. Because then when the baby wakes up I am LEGITIMATELY SURPRISED. Like hey, you here? I thought it was six years ago.
Some things went off the rails in postpartum period with our first, undoubtedly because of an herbal cocktail of 3 parts no sleep + 2 parts financial stress + (my) crushed lemon peel attitude. So it was important to name what those things were, over three years later, and, like the adults we supposedly were, see if we could make a road map forward that was slightly more attractive and definitely more equanimous and loving.
When I asked John, “What should we do differently this time?” I was 8 months pregnant, trying to act casual rather than terrified of the accidental barbed wire fences that postpartum could quickly build between a couple. I collect resentments the way some people responsibly cut coupons. This pregnancy had been One Long Mood, just like the first, and I kept being shocked to hear that John still Loved Me Anyway.
“What was hard for me was when YOU JUST KEPT SLEEPING WHILE I DID ALL THE (MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT) THINGS,” I said.
From my end, I offered to try to laugh more, not get so bound up in myself, have a sense of humor. I also made a request (maturation points! Ask, before you hold it against someone for not reading your mind BUT SOMETIMES READ MY MIND, m’kay?). I said, “I don’t need you to be awake with me at 3 a.m. (OH BUT SOMETIMES I DO, minor lie), I just need you to acknowledge that I am doing something that keeps our child alive and buys you sleep. I don’t need you to get up to do random tasks (you could change this pee diaper, buddy) just so I am not the only one awake, but I do need to know that you know I am doing all the stuff and exhausted from it. What does that mean? That means just touch me, let me feel that you see and know what is happening, and then I’ll let you sleep (just a wee bit buddy, don’t get carried away).
“Also, please get me water.”
He reached out and put his hand on my shoulder, as if to demonstrate he could easily fulfill my requests. It was the afternoon, and no one had been up for hours in the night to test our protocol, but practice makes perfect.
John didn’t really have a lot to ask of me because I covered all the bases first.
And when we don’t do it all so well? We reset, start over. The power of the reset is huge.
And what happened after the baby was born?
I reread our marriage vows a bunch, which hang over the computer, signed by our community.
Did I laugh more? Yup, most days. Well, Mon-Wed. Thurs-Sun were dedicated to drinking. **I AM REALLY OK.
Did I complain about breastfeeding? Maybe once or twice because truth is I blimmin’ love it except when I am deeply annoyed to have to stop writing or thinking or… who am I kidding? I love having to stop. I just want it to be on my schedule sometimes, not hers. (My partner still likes my breasts and wants to do things with them that are babyproof, but I’m not super into having an adult in their vicinity, currently.)
Did John touch me in the night? Mostly. Yup. It felt great. Rubbed my back while I met the demands of baby and tried to make it over as a spiritual experience. And then he fell back asleep but at least we had connected and I had been seen.
Did I see my partner as sexy? Well, I think he’s beautiful. I really do. We don’t change our clothes enough or buy ourselves very much new and you can tell this because in basically every picture of us we are wearing the same thing, but at least we share this lack of standard. But I try, every day, at least once, to see him as his own profound got-slightly-more-sleep-than-I-did-but-hey self and to feel seen that way, too.
And when we don’t do it all so well? We reset, start over. The power of the reset is huge. Sometimes it looks like on-the-spot forgiveness, though forgiveness can sound like such a big word for people who have reached emotional maturation and know its power. I’m a little remedial about granting forgiveness, though not about asking for it.
Another reset option: each of us gets some time to do whatever we need on our own. Or: the famed date night. Resets don’t take that long, even though, like most other people, we have to try really hard not to talk about our children when we are on a date (we’ve been on two, thank you Mom and Dad). It’s glorious to spew about art together for even 10 minutes while eating a warm meal without defending it from children.
Even a short reset puts a varnish on life. Go see something, anything. Listen to something. Discuss the ideas (ideas! Can you imagine?) and try really hard to not look at your phone to share that pic of your kid taken during the day when your tastefully appointed living room was transformed into the Sodor train yard. If things are altogether too hard, by all means get onto your old therapist.
It’s as hard or simple as keeping a sense of humor. So much of your daily interactions with children really is funny, and it’s hard to have an anxiety attack while having a sense of humor. Trust that magic rapport that convinced you to have children in the first place — if it’s not there, maybe your bodies will revive it.
And remember: I LOVE YOU. I CHOSE YOU. I MADE PEOPLE WITH YOU.