By Carol Ummel Lindquist, Ph.D.
Author of Happily Married with Kids: It's Not Just a Fairy Tale
My mother always said that the best parents are lazy parents. Her theory, as I understood it, was that lazy parents don't jump up every time their kids need something so that children learn to entertain themselves, enjoy themselves, and become more independent. In couples, lazy parents, theoretically, have more time for each other because their children learn, maybe by the time they are 25, not to interrupt them when they are together. Of course, a lazy parent may also be too lazy to spend the time making the marriage work better. While I would never recommend neglecting a newborn in hopes of improving character, I am going to talk about ways to support your marriage that may substitute a tiny bit for time with your child. I am writing this as an antidote to all the literature on how to be the perfect parent. The current high standards for parenting lead to low standards for marriage. The irony is that having a healthy marriage is one of the greatest gifts for your children and yourself. While there are a few people that are so self-involved they shouldn't have kids that isn't the majority of modern parents. Most couples need to keep kids from completely overwhelming the little love rituals and routines they once shared. Encouraging your child's independence to create time for your self and your partner is an art that can start very early and evolves with the ages and stages of your child.
Finding alone time: Even though finding time is challenging, parents need to continue to find a way to "park the kids" safely and turn toward each other. No matter how established the marriage, talk time remains critical to long-term happiness in the marriage. Many women have very clear rituals around talking to their children after school or at dinner that they are loath to interrupt. They can see how the kids deteriorate without this contact. Yet they have no such connection to their spouse and may not see the immediate impact of missing time with their partner.
When I first read about couples needing daily 15-20 minute talk times I was astounded. The very idea of having time to chat together, uninterrupted, seemed like a fairytale. One, not-too-happily-but-long-married friend of mine flatly told me regular talk time was impossible given real people's hectic schedules. Although she could tell me when she talked to her own kids every day, she believed that real couples would need to find and agree on a new time each day. I thought to myself, if you are too busy to make a regular time to talk, wouldn't you be much too busy to agree on a talk time every day?
When couples are courting, making time together to talk is given careful attention. Before you have children, the idea that you would lose your connection seems strange, even impossible. If you tell someone without kids that couples that actually talk 15 minutes a day are rare and special, they will think you are unrealistically pessimistic. However, married people with kids think you are special if you do talk 15 minutes regularly.
Yet, in truth, I have met couples that snuggle in bed for 20 minutes after the alarm goes off, or have a cup of coffee or tea together after dinner, or always talk before or after a late night show. Or call each other at lunch. They are a lot happier. Their kids see themselves as safe from divorce. Couples, who connect routinely, see habitual time together as reassuring rather than rigid.
As soon as your kids are old enough ask them to help support you in this time by not interrupting. Kids can understand that every Sunday morning is Mom and Dad's time. Or the time before 7 am is off limits. They will respect it if you are consistent, especially if they understand they have a time each day that is theirs.
Creating uninterrupted time for each family dyad, even if it is once a week and not daily, develops the communication bond. Like parents, kids who get this brief daily one-on-one attention are easier to live with and experience a healthy relationship and connection to family. They will also support your time with each other more readily.
My friend Marni commented, "My kids love to see me get all dressed up on date night. They help me pick out my shoes and lipstick. I think it is great that they see the romance of getting ready for the date -- even when they sometimes whine a little that they would like to come too. I like that they are fascinated by this other side of Mom and Dad that they don't share."
Likewise, I like that my kids know that Neil and I are going to talk over some family problem together before we set rules and consequences. Sometimes waiting to see the outcome of our meeting is nerve-wracking for the kids but as they wait they get to think over for themselves what we might decide about the issue. They know if we disagree, Neil gets the last word on issues relating to their athletics and I get the final vote on school matters. On money we use consensus decisions. Everybody has to say yes. We laugh because when we get in a heated exchange, one or the other child is likely to ask us to either go have a meeting or take a timeout, using our own advice on us. Watching us solve problems prepares them to participate in family meetings and solve problems themselves.
It's never too late. Instituting agreed upon dates and ritual times for talk, sex and cuddling soon begins to change feelings of abandonment and erosion of love in a marriage. Fortunately, it is never too late to start your rituals even when the marriage feels dead or divorce looms. The habits, love rituals and positive experiences you create will either insulate your marriage from problems, or if absent, they will leave your marriage vulnerable to the natural erosion that the stress of negotiating many new needs that kids bring.
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