“I must say, I am enjoying parenting more and more…but I am feeling ‘out of balance’ personally and in my relationship with my husband, as I stay at home with my daughter (and the four or five times we have had a babysitter in the past 2 years to go have dinner alone, it has not gone well at all, with my daughter being unable to separate). My husband, who works such long hours and travels so much, just wants time for ‘us,’ and so do I. It doesn’t feel right to leave my daughter with a babysitter when she cries and is miserable most of the time and then continues to get upset about it for weeks, but it also doesn’t feel right not to make alone time for myself and my husband. Parenting is certainly not easy, and sustaining and nurturing a marriage relationship alongside is something I am finding to be getting more difficult instead of easier. How do we ‘get it right’ with our children and our spouses during these early parenting years?”
This is a rather classic challenge and I’d start by acknowledging that, my wife assures me, I was quite frustrated with things at this point in parenting. While I might like to think of myself as having been a paragon of patience, alas I’m told that I would angrily say things back then like, “We never have any fun.” Over a decade later (even if it seems to have flown by) it’s much easier to talk about that time without anyone getting too defensive.
And this is my first point: hang in, don’t think it will always be this way, you fell in love, you had a kid together… you can make your way back to each other—especially if you try to be a team in the context of frustration and not turn against each other.
I am also told that although I thought I was asserting my love and desire for my wife, the pressure only made her feel worse. Not a good plan for building intimacy. A mom really can’t just let things go and have a good time if she feels that her child is in distress (not to mention that feelings of stress are antithetical to sexual arousal).
Given that if mama’s not happy nobody’s happy it will help if dad better understands mom’s feelings and works to support her. On the other hand, it can help for mom to look within to consider her own ambivalence about separating; thinking about how life was when we were our child’s age can often shed light on unconscious pain and a reluctance to “hurt” our kid the way we were hurt. However, giving our kids what we did not get can easily create unconscious resentment; and if we regress into the thinking of early life things tend to get black and white and we may split our feelings into “all good” baby and “all bad” spouse.
Of course dads are equally susceptible to being unconsciously dragged through their own childhoods as well and if rejection was part of that picture they may be extra sensitive to feeling left out in the cold (often unaware that deeply held angst and sorrow may be dragged up by feelings of one’s partner/now a mother, favoring a child/not themselves).
Of course we don’t want to traumatize our kids, but control issues may come into play here and if a child can block separation with pitched misery they may feel anxiously in charge of things when sometimes a good tantrum that fails to get one’s way is just the ticket for feeling safer by not having the perceived power of being in charge. It’s the parents’ confidence that the child will be fine that cues a kid that separation is not catastrophic. If nothing else, preschool will bring separation that is clearly about the child’s development and not just the parents’ need for a break (so by the time that rolls around you can plan for brunch, a movie or a trip back to bed while junior has circle time). The more both parents feel that they are still loved and desired, but also supported and respected in his or her feelings, the more the challenges of parenting can ultimately be powerful bonding experiences over time.
As for strategies to consider: beyond trust that time will make all the difference, seek a babysitter with whom the child really feels comfortable (perhaps a non-toxic family member, a trusted friend—someone with whom the kid at least has had no bad separation experiences in the past).
Another interim option is to plan together-time after the child goes to sleep; have some wine, talk, make love—this is unlikely to disappoint. Sometimes it helps to key in on the feeling we are after (i.e. feeling close, loved, validated and mutually appreciated); we may carry memories of these feelings as being associated with dimly lit restaurants, but if the mood is wrong it all turns to crap while take-out Chinese food, some laughs and a great movie (oh, and did I mention sex?) can start to create new memories rather than trying to recapture some vanishing past.
So as we close in on Valentines Day (a day that has mixed associations for us native Chicagoans), let’s dedicate today to patiently and lovingly breathing fresh romance into our relationships no matter what our kids are up to—in the service of all our collective children.