This was a blog I wrote for Soul Food and Sanity.
Kids are fantastic! But so is your spouse. That’s why you’re together. So how do you raise your kids and still have a thriving marriage?
Ceri and I have been married for almost 25 years and we have spent the majority of our married life raising our four children. Our love for each other is deeper and stronger than ever. Being asked to write this blog has caused me to reflect on some of the things that have worked for us. They are not necessarily things that came naturally, or were obvious to us at the start, but more things we have learnt and experimented with as we have tried to invest in our marriage during the parenting season. Here then are a few of those observations ….
1.Remember your relationship still matters
The responsibility of raising our children can be all consuming. After all it is a demanding and responsible task, and understandably it takes priority. It’s so easy in the day to day of young family ’survival’ to forget that there are other priorities. Thinking about our own relationship can appear selfish. It’s not. How guilty do we feel for wanting a night out or a few hours off? But we shouldn’t. Our relationship matters:
a. It matters for our children
This quote often encourages me. It is a popular one so attributed to several people:
“The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.”
We must never underestimate the positive impact of a love-filled home. Fake doesn’t work. Children can sniff it out from 100 yards. I love the fact that our children comment on how much we love each other. It blesses them, gives them something to emulate and builds a sense of security and well being to their lives.
b. It matters for our children’s future
Far too many parents end up investing everything in their children at the expense of their marriage. The trauma of children leaving home is then compounded by the terror of the discovery that the only connection between you now is your children. When they leave there is nothing left. Many relationship fail in this season. Children, now grown up, are left wondering what was true and real about their family experience. I know it seems a long way off, but honestly it’s only a couple of minutes away when your children will be taking the car keys and stooping down so you can kiss them. Rachel is away at university, Emma is off driving and Joel bends down to kiss me on the top of my head. Last week I was pushing them on the swing in the local park.
c. It matters for us
It can be hard to still think of yourself as a parent. To lose a sense of your own self in the pressures of childcare is not uncommon. But you are both worth more than that. Two are better than one. If your relationship is healthy and energised, you will be a much better, happier and more secure you. That’s a gift to receive from and give to your partner. We must, of course, invest in our children but we cannot afford not to invest in ourselves either.
2. Cultivate day to day investment in your marriage
However strong your relationship without investment it will wither. We have discovered that it’s not all about the Date Night. We love Date Night and we would encourage you to fight for yours. However on its own a Date Night will carry a big expectation which, if there has been little other connection, will be hard to meet. The same is true for weekends away or the first time you leave the children overnight. We have found that there is no substitute for a daily rhythm of connectivity.
Here are four ways that we have found helpful
a. Seek a rhythm that brings you together regularly
Having a rhythm to our lives has proved a great way of us making sure that we achieve the things we want. The same is true in our marriage. For example Ceri & I like to run. It’s good for us but it also creates space for us to be together and connect up with each other. We have therefore built into our week times when we will run. Just a short time to do something together can be a lifesaver in the middle of a busy week.
It’s not always easy finding the rhythm. Ceri is an early bird and I am an owl but we do try to go to bed at the same time and avoid the habit of us routinely not going to bed together. In the morning we arrange the tasks of getting everybody ready and out of the house so that we occupy the same space as much as possible. We get dressed together for example. We have also found that having a regular shared experience that is for us as a couple really helpful. Running is part of that but also we will have a TV series (thanks Netflix) on the go.
Different things are possible in different seasons. It will not always be easy to work it out but the effort will be worth it. Here are some other things that we have built into our lives in different seasons to ensure we stayed connected on the day to day. Some we still do, others not.
- Three mornings a week we take the children to school together (now only 1 child). I realise that for many that’s not possible but our jobs mean we often work evenings so other opportunities to connect are lost.
- Meeting for lunch once a week
- Having one night when we eat together after the children are asleep (or feeding them earlier)
- Go an hour late to work, come home an hour early once a week
- Do chores together rather than separately
- Keep the family together during family time. We have resisted boys going off and doing boys things and girls doing girls things in that family space.
b. Stay connected through the day
The days can be long, and by necessity you will be apart for most of it. It’s easy for one or both of you to feel lonely or isolated. There are loads of ways these days to keep in touch. We’ve encouraged ourselves to use them. We text, share a quick call, chat on messenger or sometimes a few minutes on FaceTime. These interactions can make a huge difference to your sense of connectivity and that you are in the game together.
c. Share your experiences
With parenting and work, large amounts of time and energy are going in different directions. We must avoid a creeping separateness. Experiences shape us and make us. If we are not sharing these experiences our partners can begin to lose touch with the person that we are becoming. This is true whatever the experience – good or bad. We have therefore committed ourselves to sharing experiences with each other as soon as possible. By experiences I mean a joy, a sorrow, a new idea, a dream, a disappointment and the like.
There may be all kinds of reasons why we do not share something but the result is the same. A little gap grows between you. Of course it is not always possible to talk about things quickly. Children might be small but they have elephant ears, and the conversation might need more time and space than a quick whisper at the kitchen sink. We have discovered therefore that it’s important to make time for the conversation at a later date and to let one another know that you have something you would like to talk about. Things can then be much more comfortably held until the right time.
We find that questions like this help us to avoid any creeping separateness:
- Are there things that you have done and experienced that you have not told your spouse?
- Are you thinking about something that your spouse is unaware of ?
- Are you carrying feelings or hurts that you have not talked about?
- Do you have dreams, hopes and ambitions that have not been verbalised?
- Do you find yourself telling your friends stuff that you haven’t told each other?
c. Save time for yourselves
Yes a Date Night. Go for it. But not on its own. We have learnt to choose things that increase our interaction and intimacy. For us we love the cinema. Watching the actual film though doesn’t in itself help us to connect (apart from snuggling up). For us it’s important to build that connection into the experience. We will therefore usually park a 20 minute walk away from the cinema so that we can walk there and back together. We will pick up a coffee along the way and then have the return walk to share the film together.
d. Stop the clutter
Play dates, parties, medical appointments, family visits, clubs, homework, school letters, transport and meals. The average family needs a Director of Logistics. It’s not surprising that much of your daily interaction gets full of the clutter of these daily decisions. Find a way that works for you to reduce it. There are three things we do:
- We have our own facebook page (private) where all the logistical detail of our lives gets put so that our together times are not overwhelmed with family operational matters which are not very romantic at the best of times. Setting up a shared calendar or similar can help in the same way
- Periodically we set aside time (an hour) to have a major diary overhaul – dates, plans, decisions for the next month or so.
- We agree certain rhythms to our week so that we are free to make decisions quickly and without the need to reference each other or the rest of the family.
3. Surround yourself with a wider family
Every family needs backup. We certainly do. This can often work naturally with grown up siblings and grandparents living nearby and being part of your weekly rhythm. Like many though we live over two hundred miles away from our nearest relatives. It has been important to us to be part of a wider extended local family that believes in us and can support and encourage us – emotionally and practically. Having friends that are routing for you in your marriage and cheering you on as a parent is so important. We all need that. We have come to discover that being a nuclear family alone can be very depleting. It’s a subject for another blog, but we have found great resource and joy in joining with others (families and individuals) to form a wider extended family. As a result we frequently share meals with other families, takes days out together and share responsibility for each other in our daily lives. This has brought a strength and a richness to us that we had not anticipated.
Writing all this out makes it sound easy and masks so much of the struggle along the way. We would though encourage you from our experience that you can come out the other side of parenting with a stronger more love filled marriage than when you started. Don’t try and do everything here (we’ve been working on it for nearly 25 years) but take one or two things that resonate, and with your spouse plan a little extra investment. There will be a great return.