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The Hard Work of Staying Married After Kids

Photograph by Twenty20

One afternoon in The Baby Cave, my husband and I walked in the door and lay down on the rug. The world dissolved and we melted together, our bodies recalling the old spark.

Then the children pounced on us—crying for attention, pulling us apart. They couldn’t bear to see us kiss, focused only on each other.

What evolutionary instinct makes offspring disrupt their parents’ intimacy? The way our girls carry on, you’d think our snuggling threatened their survival.

Either way, the irony is that “the parents’ relationship is the linchpin of the family.” So claim the authors of "Babyproofing Your Marriage," three married moms who want you to “laugh more, argue less, and communicate better as your family grows.”

I’ve read this book many times, carried it in my bag with the diapers and wipes. I believe that “nurturing the marital relationship is central to our children’s sense of security and happiness,” as the authors claim.

But it’s a complicated task.

Several of my friends are getting divorced. One college pal revealed she’d be flying solo to our reunion.

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“I’m divorcing my husband,” she wrote. “But don’t feel sorry for me– it’s the best thing I’ve done in years.”

Another friend has two young children the same ages as my own. A look of horror must have crossed my face when she told me her husband had left

“Hey, it’s going to happen to half of us,” she shrugged.

I know the statistics. Americans have one of the highest divorce rates in the Western world. Many of my relatives and favorite celebrities have taken a ride on the D-train. But my own parents stayed together for 35 years, and I assumed that granted me immunity.

Let me back up: I have a strong marriage. But raising babies has challenged us to the core.

Many recent studies show that marital satisfaction drops—often steeply—after children arrive. Today’s parents are overworked and overwhelmed, as Jennifer Senior writes in "All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood." With our child-centered lives and high-investment parenting, we’re putting nearly all our energy into our offspring, who one sociologist describes as “emotionally priceless.” Before long, the marital relationship slips into autopilot.

How can we snap out of Mommy-Daddy mode and channel the old, free selves?

Oprah says you can have a romantic date night at home after the kids are in bed. Turn off your phones, light the candles, and fall in love with each other again.

But Oprah doesn’t have kids.

And how can we leave the kitchen in shambles? How can we snap out of Mommy-Daddy mode and channel the old, free selves? The girl who loved to dance at dive bars, shake her hair till the sweat flew. The boy who walked the red carpet in Hollywood, surfed big waves on the Cali coast.

He was a rock-star songwriter in a muscle car. She would jump naked into any water—even the river just after ice-out.

Winter drew them together under fierce northern stars. Who can help them find each other again, as they did that first night beside the frozen lake?

“Let go of the past,” says my husband.

“You can only move forward,” says my mother.

“Kill the ghost of your past self. Surrender to the chaos and wonder of parenthood and embrace it wholeheartedly,” says "Babyproofing Your Marriage."

It’s good advice, but I’m bad at surrendering.

I remember my late father shaking his head in disapproval when my aunt and uncle divorced. “They stopped trying,” he told me. “Marriage takes hard work, and they were tired of working.”

That was the only marital advice I received from a family member. Back then I thought I understood what he meant. I remember nights lying awake while my parents fought, burrowed under blankets to muffle their voices. Once my mother threw a gallon of milk at my father—it glugged out like white shame on the linoleum.

Now I try to fill in the gaps. How did they survive the emotional pain of arguing? What kind of “work” helped them through conflict and into compromise?

One friend says that most marriages have bad patches—a hard few months, even years. But they’re not necessarily headed for the D-train.

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“We were in a dark place for two years,” my friend admits. “But we made it through. We’re stronger for it.”

I want to follow her lead, though sometimes I fear we’ve displaced our intimacy onto our children.

My 4-year-old strokes my eyebrows at bedtime. “An ear nibble,” she begs. “An ear nibble, and an ear bite.” I oblige, taking her soft lobe in my mouth as she giggles.

My round toddler has already nursed to sleep, her free hand patting my cheek. These girls love me effortlessly, but I know it’s a fleeting thing. Another few years and they will withhold affection. They will return my embrace with an embarrassed half-hug, the way I hugged my parents when I was a pre-teen.

Children eventually grow up and away. In the meantime, a marriage can starve from lack of intimacy. If you neglect it, it will wither like a houseplant.

“We didn’t make it,” said one friend.

“Our ship has sailed,” said another.

I wish them luck, and try to plan another date night.

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