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How to Have a ‘Date Night’ When Date Nights Are Impossible

Photograph by Twenty20

Parents are fed a steady narrative about how essential date nights are for our relationships with our partners. Yet these narratives often fail to account for the financial and organizational privileges that are required to pull off a “successful” date night.

They fail to understand that date nights are damn hard to come by when you have small children.

Before kids, you can have a date night without even calling it a date night. You simply go and spend time together at a location that is not your house: a restaurant, a movie, the park, the grocery store. (Raise your hand if you’ve strolled through a grocery store with your partner, sans kids, and considered it a great "date.")

That all changes post-kids. What used to be “eating together at a location that is not your home” or simply “being together at a location that is not your home” becomes a task requiring herculean organizational efforts. You don’t just need to find a babysitter. You need to find a reliable babysitter with free time on the evening that you are also free, and you need to find the extra cash to pay said reliable, available babysitter. And you better hope that no one gets sick or has an unexpected work obligation. Because if you thought scheduling a date night was challenging, try rescheduling one.

We had a small reminder of what life was like before it was swallowed whole by diapers and daycare bills.

When my husband and I had our first two children, date nights were exceedingly rare. We lived far away from our families. I was in graduate school. My husband was in law school. We didn’t have much money, but we did have plenty of love for each other.

But it didn’t matter how much we loved one another: Date nights were nearly impossible. We couldn’t afford a regular babysitter. (We’re forever grateful for those friends who volunteered to watch the kids on our birthdays and anniversaries.) And we were usually so tired by the end of the week that we just wanted to be in bed early on Friday nights.

Yet we knew that we still needed date nights. Or rather, we knew that we needed child-free time together. In fact, date nights in general seem to be less about getting dressed up and eating at a nice restaurant, and more about finding time to be yourselves, together.

They’re about finding ways to turn off (or at least dial down) that hyper-aware parent brain, acknowledging the ways you’ve changed as parents and remembering that you each have an identity separate from (though always connected to) your children.

And, let’s be honest—and less corny—date nights are about getting the chance to be grown-ups without worrying about having to calm a crying child or going somewhere with chicken fingers on the menu.

Since we could neither afford nor find the energy for a typical date night, my husband and I devised a couple solutions that still gave us some child-free time together.

Our first solution involved a very early wake up call. We’d set our alarms for 5 a.m. a few times a week. We’d work out for about half-an-hour, and then we’d eat breakfast together in the hour or so before our children woke up. (We were lucky to have kids who didn’t often wake up before 6:30 a.m.)

That early alarm was awful. But the time together was priceless. We had uninterrupted conversations, a chance to drink a full hot cup of coffee and a small reminder of what life was like before it was swallowed whole by diapers and daycare bills.

A successful date night doesn’t have to occur at night. It doesn’t even have to be a formal date.

Our next solution was one that didn’t require an alarm clock at all. Every Friday night, we’d order take out and eat dinner together—after we’d put the kids to bed. Sometimes that meant that we ate at 10 p.m. (Curse those hellish, unending bedtimes.) But it was worth it to eat together without having to clean up spills or worry about whether the meal was too spicy or had “yucky green things” on it.

It was worth it even when we ate those meals on the couch and in our pajamas.

Our lived realities are much different now. Our kids are older and more independent, and we live closer to family (and free babysitting). But we’re stronger now because of that time we carved out for ourselves when we were in a date night drought.

And what we learned is that a successful date night doesn’t have to occur at night. It doesn’t even have to be a formal date.

It can be two tired parents sitting together before dawn, eating breakfast and enjoying a sliver of quiet.

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