When my husband and I prepared to adopt our daughter, Grace, friends offered dire warnings. "Forget about passion," said one. "The good part is, you'll be too tired to even care that it's gone," quipped another.
"The unhappiest years of most marriages are when the children are small," said my friend the psychologist, who ought to know.
Of course I was worried. I liked being happily married, and I didn't want to ruin our relationship. But being an optimist, I swallowed my fear and plunged ahead. I hoped and believed my husband, Mike, and I could maintain our pre-child romance, even after becoming parents.
Did we succeed? Well … not exactly. When we brought our daughter home, I had to give up making elegant candlelit meals for two. Instead, I threw together quick-prep, toddler-friendly meals such as meatloaf, served in light bright enough to reveal my every wrinkle. When we collapsed into bed at night, the exclamations often had to do with the hard plastic stacking cups we'd plopped down on.
And yet … and yet.
Am I the only woman who finds her husband more appealing now that he's a dad? Are we the only parents who find that the increased time we now spend at home with our daughter can bring us closer as lovers, too?
I've found parenting to be a roller-coaster ride for my marriage, with snippy "don't-touch-me" valleys and deliciously romantic peaks. It takes effort, but I'm convinced parenting can make a marriage more romantic. Here's what I've discovered about married-with-children romance:
That All-Important Sense of Humor.
When asked what qualities they find appealing in a potential partner, most people rate "sense of humor" at the top of the list. I loved my husband Mike's ready smile and willingness to share a laugh from the first time I met him.
But when we were a childless, hard-driving career couple, we took life seriously. There wasn't a lot to laugh about as we worked toward professional goals, contended with office politics, and climbed toward the top of the ladder.
Now, we laugh together all the time. As Grace dances, shouts aggressive greetings to surly grocery-store baggers, and gobbles handfuls of goldfish-shaped crackers, we can't even pretend life is all serious business.
The best lovers' jokes are private jokes, and your child is the ultimate one. That's why spouses save up kid stories for each other: No one else appreciates them in quite the same way.
No More Me-Me-Me.
Selfishness is the antithesis of love. And parenting destroys it.
Nothing teaches a self-centered person she's not the center of the universe better than being around another self-centered person. When that self-centered rival is your child, there's no ego contest: Your son or daughter wins every time.
In being a servant to your child, you learn the crucial lesson that serving others feels good. And there's a spiritual benefit: If we want to live like Jesus, we're commanded to serve others as he did.
While taking care of my new daughter, I discovered a nurturing side of me that spills over into nurturing my husband a little more. And Mike's gotten much better about holding doors and offering to carry heavy bags now that we have a vulnerable little being with us everywhere we go.
Before we had a child, Mike and I went out for dinner at least once a week. We caught as many of the latest movies as we wanted. We met for concerts or bookstore visits after work. We dated so often, it never felt like dating.
Now, going out means finding and paying a sitter and being away from our precious daughter. Consequently, it doesn't happen near as often as before we were parents.
So when it does, we really, really, really appreciate it.
Eating dinner together at a restaurant feels as special now as when we first started dating. We have intense conversations during which I feel as though we're catching up after weeks apart. We even savor the drive to the restaurant or the overlong wait for the meal.
Stolen moments can happen at home, too, as my friend Tory, a mother of four in Nova Scotia, remembers. "Once the baby was asleep, we'd share a candlelight dinner (which my husband cooked!), or snuggle together and watch a movie, or just chat by the fire as we sipped hot chocolate. After days of endless diapers, feedings, and laundry, those special hours with my husband seemed like little romantic vacations."
A Bigger Heart.
It all boils down to this: Kids make your heart bigger. I never knew I could love someone as much as I love my daughter. And my husband is the beneficiary of my increased capacity to love.
I love seeing his heart grow, too. The expression on Mike's face when he greets Grace after a long day at work lights up my whole evening. Watching him melt when she cries and hearing him sing her silly songs show me a new man with a softer, gentler, more playful side.
But what about all the warnings I kept hearing before I became a mom? What about all the complaining we moms do when talk turns to lack of romance or our husband's failure to help with parenting duties? Is it all just false pessimism?
I don't think so. Marriage can be hard, and children can make it harder. When you're tired and frustrated, it's difficult to reframe the lack of privacy as a fun opportunity to sneak around. And sometimes, when you've had one too many quarrels over the endless chores and shrinking bank balance, the last thing you want is to snuggle up with your husband for an intimate chat.
Since we all face those marital valleys, I looked to the experts for some specific, practical tips. Here's what they advised:
Take Time for Yourself.
It sounds like a paradox. You're looking for together time to improve your marriage, and the advice is to go off alone?
It may sound selfish, but it actually works. I learned about it from Kay Willis, mother of ten and founder of Mothers Matter, a national support group for moms.
In Are We Having Fun Yet? The Sixteen Secrets of Happy Parenting, Kay argues that all mothers need to get out to do something fun, just for themselves, at least once a week. Whether this requires hiring a sitter, trading childcare favors with a neighbor, or enlisting a family member to watch your little ones, you need time to nurture yourself. It doesn't matter whether you use the time to get a haircut, read a magazine in the bathtub, or eat lunch with adult friends. Valuing your own happiness can make a big difference to your overall well-being. Having invested time in your needs, you'll have far more love to bestow on your family, and the benefits will accrue to your marriage as well.
Include the Children.
Mercy Gilpatric, who writes about marriage and faith, recommends getting children involved in the romance between husband and wife. "If a mother, for example, tells her children she wants to have a special Friday night welcome for her husband when he comes home after work, she can invite the children to prepare a surprise he'll like," she says. She also recommends parents share their love story with their children, telling them about when you met and fell in love. "Returning to these original stories is a constant source of renewal" for your marriage, she explains.
Prepare by Pampering.
No, not those kind of Pampers! Instead, as Stormie Omartian recommends in The Power of a Praying Wife, don't let saying "no" to your husband become a habit—as it can when you're tired and overwhelmed by all the little hands that reach out to you all day.
Stormie recommends that instead of saying "no" when your husband wants that kind of romance, you insist on 10, 15, or 20 minutes to pamper yourself. Use that time to bathe, put on a nightgown that makes you feel pretty, or use scented lotions to get in the mood. "You'll be surprised at how much better a sex partner you are when you feel good about yourself," she writes.
Focus on the Romantic.
In our bathroom, I keep a photo of my husband cradling our infant daughter against his bare chest. Maybe I'm biased, but I think those two easily could model for a romance novel's cover.
Inside story: That photo was taken in the middle of the night when we were new, scared, sleep-deprived parents, right after we'd argued about whose turn it was to get up with the baby. By putting it where I'll see it every day, I remind myself to focus on the good, the romantic, and the happy ending—instead of the chaos that got us there.
Nobody said it was easy to keep romance alive throughout a marriage, especially when children are small and demanding. But if, as the apostle Paul says, marriage is a microcosm of the relationship between people and God, then we ought to do all we can to build a strong, lasting, enjoyable connection. The effort will bear both emotional and spiritual fruit—and will impact generations to come.
Lee Tobin McClain, Ph.D, a writer and English professor, lives with her family in Pennsylvania.