Most anyone will tell you that it takes a lot of skill to be a parent. Now, I’m not talking about the simple tasks that you can learn from books. What I’m referring to are the advanced techniques that come from wisdom and experience (in other words, trial and error). For instance, how to extricate a sleeping baby from a car seat and get him into the crib without waking him…chances are, you haven’t been this stealthy since your teen years. Or, what about getting a reluctant eater to try a new food? You may wish you’d taken some theatre arts electives in university! Perhaps the biggest one that nobody tells you about is how to nurture this new little life without starving your marriage. Now that’s a skill worth mastering.
You see, the relationship between husband and wife is the most important one in the family. It is the foundation. So, if it’s strong, then the family will be strong. It’s easy to understand this on your wedding day – you are marrying the person you love most in the world. But something happens once we have kids, and in the midst of the busyness and chaos, it’s all too easy to forget this fact. To be sure, a baby is helpless and insistent; there’s no way to ignore his demands. But we mustn’t allow our marriages to suffer unnecessarily either.
I once read a surprising statistic that after the death of a spouse, the most stressful event in a marriage is the birth of a child, especially for those entering the realm of parenthood for the first time. The demands on your time and energy as parents are enormous, but for the health of your new, growing family, your marriage still needs a lot of attention. In short, what’s good for the marriage is good for the family! Sure, it’s way harder to continue to put your marriage first – but it’s extremely important to try. It just requires some thought and ingenuity.
As a mother of five children ranging in ages from 23 to 7 years, I’d like to suggest some practical ways to help ensure that your marriage stays strong after having kids. It’s all a matter of maintaining boundaries, balance, perspective, and unity. First, let’s consider the idea of boundaries. We live in a society that has taken freedom to the extreme, with all sorts of implications and potentially negative consequences. We’ve even extended this notion to our children and don’t want to put any limitations on their freedom. For instance, not so long ago, mothers used playpens to keep their children in one place once they were mobile – the idea was to keep them safe. Now, this practice would be unthinkable to most parents. I’m not actually promoting the use of playpens, but just want to point out that it’s all part of a mindset that our culture would have us believe – that we are somehow harming our children’s development by limiting their freedom.
Teaching boundaries to our children from early on is actually healthy – both for them and for our marriages. We don’t necessarily need to go back to the staunch attitudes of “children should be seen and not heard,” but we do need to teach them respect in this regard and give them reasonable boundaries. Here are some suggestions:
- Once children are old enough to understand, don’t allow them to interrupt when mom and dad are speaking to one another…good manners that will go a long way outside the family, too!
- Set aside time that is just for mom and dad to talk and catch up on the events of the day.
- As much as they would have you believe otherwise, your children don’t need to be with you 24/7! Find a reliable sitter and go out to dinner or on date nights to foster the closeness and intimacy of your relationship. If finances are an issue, consider a babysitting co-op where you can trade help with other families in your area.
- Remember the sacredness of the marriage bed, the place where both new life is created and the life of the marriage is nourished and strengthened. One way to preserve this sacredness is by not allowing your children to share your bed once they are no longer nursing at night. On Saturday mornings, everyone in our family likes to pile in and snuggle, but my husband insisted from early on that our children not sleep in our bed. If necessary, one of us will go to them – to a sick or frightened child’s bedroom – or allow them to sleep on our floor, but that’s where we draw the line. I know this is a divisive issue…just so long as it’s not dividing your marriage! Make sure that you and your spouse are in complete agreement on what’s best for your marriage and family.
- When they ask, let your children know whom you love most – your spouse. It may sound contrary to what you would think, but children actually find this reassuring. As much as you love them, they must know that nothing they say or do can shake the love that their parents have for one another. Even though most children aren’t able to verbalize it, they get this idea and grow in confidence by the strength of their parents’ relationship.
Another important aspect to consider in our families is balancing time. While it can be challenging for anyone, new moms in particular find this extremely difficult. The tricky part is to provide for their children while not neglecting themselves or their relationship with their husbands. Before becoming a mom myself, I had never really considered what was involved. The sacrificial nature of motherhood requires totally giving of yourself to another, beginning with your very body to bring this new life into existence, but also your time, energy, intelligence, and a whole lot more. This selflessness is at the heart of what it means to be a mother.
It’s no different for dads – they want to support their wives while not losing sight of the need to provide for their growing families. I know over the years that my husband has struggled with juggling work and responsibilities at home. Finding that balance is imperative for everyone. Two principles are at work here that you should keep in mind:
- You will quickly begin to feel depleted if life gets out of balance.
- You can’t give what you don’t have.
It’s sort of like the advice we get when traveling on airplanes – put on your own oxygen mask first, before trying to help someone else! You must first find what nourishes you as a person, the oxygen in your tank – things like prayer, exercise, hobbies/interests, and friendships – and make sure these things are happening. Then focus on what nourishes your marriage.
There’s a huge mind-shift in the way we view our lives once we have children; it’s almost like we separate events into the things that happened BC – before children – vs. AD – after delivery. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a mom say, “Well, before having kids, we went on dates…” and then her voice trails off in reverie, as if such things will never happen again. But it doesn’t have to be that way! It’s easy to say that you don’t have time to spend with your spouse once you become parents – there never seems to be enough time. But you must be creative to come up with ways.
For instance, going for a walk together is a great time to talk, and you accomplish two important things at once. Never underestimate the benefits of a little fresh air and exercise to anyone who’s been stuck inside all day, whether it’s at home or the office. Over the years, David and I have come up with many strategies to “steal time” away together. Even one night alone can do a world of good! For us, it’s simple things that we’ve built into our routine. After we put the kids to bed, we spend some time catching up on the news, while also catching up with each other (mute out the commercials and boring stories). I like to use this time to fold laundry, too – nothing wrong with multi-tasking. Occasionally, we even enjoy a late dinner together. Believe me, it’s worth the effort!
Another aspect of balancing time is work vs. play. Unlike a 9 to 5 job, the job of running a home is never done. This is even more pronounced once you have children. If you are a perfectionist, like me, dealing with the workload and perpetual mess (piles of papers, toys with a gazillion little pieces, nonstop laundry…) can become exhausting and very frustrating! I’ll admit that it’s tough for me to walk through a room in my house without stopping to straighten or put away something. Even on weekends, we frequently have lists of chores and household projects to do. But, at some point, it is important to put work aside and have some fun together as a family and as a couple! Don’t let the cares of life make you boring or estranged from one another…or worse, relegated to mere roommates.
This brings us to the idea of maintaining proper perspective when parenting young children. Perspective is essential so that you do not feel overwhelmed. Here are a few things we’ve learned over the years in this regard:
- “Never say never.” In my book, that’s the first rule of parenting. Truth be told, it’s hard to know what you may resort to in the heat of the moment. Sure, you and your spouse should discuss and agree on your main principles of parenting and try not to deviate from them. But don’t beat yourself up if you do. Before we became parents, I can’t tell you how many times we watched some poor parent with dismay and said, “I’m never going to let my kids do that!” Famous last words.
- Which brings us to the second rule of parenting: Don’t worry about every little thing – children are very resilient, and it’s highly unlikely that you will ruin them. But also do not hesitate to say you are sorry if you have messed up or had a bad day. It gives children a chance to learn about forgiveness – and that it goes both ways. They also begin to understand about unconditional love and that none of us is perfect. God loves us in spite of our mistakes – this is the kind of love we are striving for in our families!
- Good friends are essential in helping us keep things in perspective, especially ones who know us well and understand what we want for our children.
- We like to make jokes about it in our family, but phrases such as “It will go on your permanent record” or “He’ll be scarred for life” do tend to become burned into the brain. Unlike these phrases, very few things last forever.
- “It’s just a phase.” This little gem came from my older and much wiser sister-in-law, and it carried me through many a trying time. Similar to the wisdom of “And this, too, shall pass.”
- Just as we can’t take all the credit when our children turn out great, we also can’t take all the blame when they don’t.
Remember that love covers a whole range of blunders and offenses!1 The truth of this statement is never understood more than in the context of a family. We may make mistakes or even hurt one another from time to time, but if love is our motive, we aren’t far from the mark.
Finally, how do we maintain unity once we have children? That oft quoted phrase, “United we stand, divided we fall” doesn’t only apply to civilizations – it’s every bit as important in maintaining good, strong marriages. There are endless ways this principle plays out in our relationships in regard to parenting. I’d like to just mention a few:
- To be united doesn’t mean to be carbon copies of one another. The message and values that you teach your children should be the same, but the way you get those messages across may vary. In fact, for a healthy understanding of the varying male/female perspectives, what you do and how you teach your children probably should be different as you each bring something unique to the parenting role.
- If there are times when you do disagree on something, let your children see how you work through that and still come to a united decision. It’s important for them to understand that sometimes we defer to one another out of respect for our spouse in a particular situation.
- Consult each other privately, if possible, before giving your child an answer. Children are extremely perceptive and will play you against each other if it’s to their advantage. (Who ever said there was no such thing as original sin?)
- Visible signs of unity are important, especially to our children. Some ways to do this are holding hands, giving each other hugs, or choosing to sit next to each other. For years, I always admired a family who sat a few rows in front of us at Mass – the parents would always sit together with all four of their boys surrounding them. That’s the way it’s meant to be and a goal to strive for, recognizing that at times it’s better to corral everyone in or break up squabbling siblings!
The real beauty of parenthood is that we get to see our spouse in a whole new way. It is an opportunity to discover this person we’ve married all over again. Parenthood brings so many beautiful moments of seeing our children – the fruit of our love – experience life and begin to understand God’s love for them. In fact, the love of parents for one another and for their children is a reflection of God’s love in the world. What an awesome responsibility we have been given! He entrusts these little souls to our care, so we must do our best to bring them up right. By nurturing the marriage relationship and keeping it as the heart of the family, the love of the parents will continue to grow, spilling over to the rest of its members. Through all the ups and downs of parenting, we must be the steadying force and the enduring witness that keeps the family on the path of love.
– Kelley Holy
1A rough translation of 1 Peter 4:8