I was three months into my most stressful parenting phase when I realized that a toll had been taken on my marriage. My husband and I were surviving in a state of shock. It was triage. We were trying to mend our son, who had crumbled under the anxiety of elementary school. We were trying to save him. Being happy together while doing that seemed impossible. And quite frankly, it wasn’t a priority. When your kid is down, it’s all hands on deck to save that kid.
My husband and I had faced many difficult parenting phases with one or both of our kids and we always managed to keep our union intact. But this time it was different. This time, we were divided, physically and mentally. This time was the first time I thought we could break.
I always assumed my husband and I would be one of those couples on perpetual solid ground. But, I found out that doesn't exist. Marriage requires work, and our kids—though we love them deeply—can deplete us.
Our son is doing a lot better, and naturally so are we, but that didn’t come without some serious effort and focus. I’d like to think my kids will never test my marriage again, but I know that’s not true. There’s middle school, high school, teen behavior and adulthood all on the horizon. I can’t avoid the stress, but if and when it happens I’ll be ready. Here’s how:
The Test: My kid wanted to sleep with us and we weren’t down with that.
The Solution: I have 100 percent respect for people who want to co-sleep. The problem was, we didn’t want to. Convinced he couldn’t sleep alone, our son became the roommate we never wanted. That meant no privacy, no free time and certainly no sex. So, we got him the help he needed, put down some serious boundaries and we are slowly taking back our room and our sleep. It’s been a rocky road, but everyone is sleeping a lot better and we don’t resent our child for taking over our room.
The Test: There was no time or money left for date nights and we missed them—and each other!
The Solution: We started prioritizing spending time together. Sometimes that meant me meeting him for lunch during the work day. Sometimes that meant getting a sitter and going out at night. Our kids seemed to live through it, and us having adult time made a huge difference in our connection.
When you’re in a rough patch, it’s hard to know that it’s just a patch and not an indicator of how the rest of your life will be.
The Test: There never seemed to be an end to a problem with one of the kids. It became all we ever talked about.
The Solution: We designated "talking about it" time. That meant unless something was urgent, we designated a time to talk about whatever was going on with the kids and otherwise reserved the right to discuss something else. By giving ourselves a break from worrying about and talking about our kids all the time, we opened up the time and energy to connect, catch up and talk about something more fun.
The Test: We were disagreeing about how to handle the kids and starting to resent each other.
The Solution: We tried to be more collaborative rather than at odds with each other. Usually, one of us had more insight or info on a kid-related issue. When we stopped battling and just opted for the best solution possible, we worked together better and spent a lot less time pissed off.
The Test: My kids only wanted to be with me, and were vocally upset when I was with one and not the other. By the time I had time for my husband, I had been sapped of all my energy.
The Solution: This one required a bit of tough love on all fronts. I found the constant “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” totally draining. I hated feeling like I was disappointing everyone and that I needed to clone myself to make everyone happy. It meant never actually doing what I wanted.
It also meant that by the time my kids were asleep, or the husband and I were out, I was drained. The last thing I wanted to do was tend to his needs or hear his problems. He took it as rejection, which annoyed me, too. So I started to carve out more quality time with each of my kids and realized that what they were saying is that they wanted to connect with me, too. By giving everyone more quality time, I ended up with more time to be a grown-up.
The Test: My husband couldn’t always handle the heavy lifting of parenting.
The Solution: Since I have a more flexible work schedule, I’m the default parent, which means I know more of the details and nuances of my kids' lives. Because there were certain dynamics with our kids that my husband just couldn’t seem to handle, I never required him to handle them. Naturally, however, this made me mad. So, I stopped minimizing his contribution, even if that contribution was a bit rocky.
I also stopped helping him avoid being the best dad he could be. No one taught me how to be a good mom. By requiring him to step up, he did. His contributing more to all aspects of our kids' lives increased our connection tenfold.
The Test: Kid stress made us think we'd never have happy times again.
The Solution: When you’re in a rough patch, it’s hard to know that it’s just a patch and not an indicator of how the rest of your life will be. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 12 years of marriage, it's that marriage is a long haul and whatever stressful phase you’re in will be short in hindsight. While months may pass when you and the hubs are at odds, it won’t always be that way. The kids will get happier, you’ll get more sleep, you’ll be able to enjoy your life more and that stressful time in your marriage will pass. Really, I promise!