When I heard the front door open and John's briefcase plop down on the floor, I knew I should put the spaghetti sauce aside and give my husband a big "welcome home" hug. I already heard the kids shouting, "Daddy's home, Daddy's home!"
But I didn't feel like it. I was bone tired from being cooped up with five kids, ages two to nine, all day. It seemed as though John and I just passed in the night. Our conversations revolved around matters as deep as who was going to pick up the dry cleaning; we never shared the way we used to before life got so crazy with the kids. We didn't have time or energy to connect, and I felt as though we were drifting apart.
Help, Lord, I said as I put down the spatula to go greet him. Please show me how we can grow closer instead of pulling apart.
While I love my kids, I want and need to continue to grow in my marriage. How do I do this in the midst of raising children plus handling everything else that's on my plate? Here are six actions that have helped me strengthen my marriage.
1. Reverse the Drift
Life feels crazy when you're changing diapers all day or breaking up yet another fight between siblings. Then your time becomes consumed with soccer games, homework, carpooling, volunteering, and perhaps working outside the home. When the last child leaves the nest, you wonder, What do my husband and I have in common besides the kids?
In every season of parenting, the tendency is to drift apart, to let the children's needs take over. It's so subtle, you may not even realize it's happening. That's why it's important to keep your relationship with your mate your first priority. You'll have your children at home for 18 years, but, God willing, your spouse will be there for a lifetime.
In our case, John and I realized we needed a way to let our kids know Mom and Dad's relationship came first. So when John got home from work, we began having a cup of tea together and visiting for 20 minutes. Then he played with the kids while I got dinner ready. We told the kids they could be in the same room but not speak to us during our "tea time." The first night they gathered around us and tried to monopolize things, but we held firm. When they realized we meant it, they quickly became bored and left us alone.
During our time together, we asked questions that called for more than a one-word answer—questions such as, "What is something that happened today that made you feel satisfied? How are you feeling about yourself? If we had unlimited funds, perfect childcare, and three days of vacation, what would you want to do?"
At first these questions seemed awkward, especially for John. When I asked him how he felt about himself, he responded, "I don't feel, I just do my job." However, the more we talked, the more he realized he did have feelings.
Our "tea talks" were one creative way we carved out some time each day without kids to dig deeper in our relationship and reverse our marriage drift. See what works for you and your husband's schedule.
2. Tackle Difficult Issues
In our marriage, our issue was our lack of time to talk deeply while raising five kids. For Sally and Jay, it was how to discipline their two preteens. Sally was more lenient, while Jay believed in firm discipline. Their different approaches caused dissension in their marriage.
If you and your husband disagree over how to discipline your kids, tackle the problem head on. Seek out a godly older couple who has raised their kids. Ask them to meet with you, advise you, and pray for you. If necessary, seek out a professional counselor who specializes in parent-child issues. You need to agree on how you operate together, or your kids will come between you.
After a couple of disasters in which I said "no" to something and John said "yes"—and we got mad at each other and the kids in the process—we sat down to determine our parental policies and actually wrote them out. We changed our policies as our kids grew, but writing them out forced us to come to an agreement rather than let the kids pull us apart.
3. Steal Time for Each Other
When our kids were young, we used to trade babysitting with another couple twice a year for a weekend getaway. Once we had five kids, it was harder to find anyone who wanted to trade! But I learned the value of a few nights away alone to nurture our marriage.
On one occasion, I was exhausted and we hadn't had any time alone in a while, so we got a babysitter to come to our house and went to a motel one mile away so we could have dinner and a night alone. I had to take a nursing baby along, but at least she didn't talk! Finally, the two of us were able to speak in complete sentences.
My friend Ellen's husband travels. It can be hard when he comes home from a long trip to reconnect as a couple when the children want and need to see their dad. So, often Ellen arranges for childcare, meets her husband at the airport, then they go to a hotel for 24 hours together before they head home. This gives them a chance to reconnect and models for their kids the importance of spending time with your mate.
As women, we need to take initiative and be creative. Put young kids to bed early and plan a romantic picnic. Light candles and put on music. Dine in a skimpy nightgown. The atmosphere will have a positive impact on you, and you'll have an impact on your husband.
4. Give Attention to the Little Things
When our daughter, Allison, was newly married, I went to visit her and her new husband. I noticed how thoughtful she was of Will. She made an effort to do things for him. She asked him if he would like a cup of coffee and she fixed it for him. As I watched, it dawned on me, I used to do that, too. Now, I just figure if John wants it, he'll get it himself. I was shocked to realize I'd become lazy in being kind.
It's so easy to become overwhelmed with the demands of kids and career. With all these pressures, it's natural to forget to think of each other. Men need appreciation and affirmation. They aren't often as demanding as we are, but that doesn't mean they don't need care. Thank your husband today for something you take for granted. Tell him something you admire in him.
5. Grab Some Girlfriend Time
Recently I joined ten other women for a surprise slumber party for my friend Sue's birthday. We did skits, cooked, laughed, and talked and talked. It was thoroughly invigorating. All that estrogen would have exhausted any man! Yet for us it was pure encouragement. Women need women—because we understand each other.
When my kids were little, I quickly learned I needed to be in a small group with other mothers of young children. It was all too easy for me to expect my husband to understand why I was feeling down from a long day of changing diapers, wiping noses, and breaking up sibling fights. Sometimes John just couldn't seem to understand or appreciate me. I finally realized it was unrealistic to expect him to! What I needed were other young moms who could say, "I know just how you feel. You're normal!"
We need other women to encourage us to grow in Christ and to move us closer to our husband. It's dangerous to spend time with women who bash husbands. Instead, seek one or two women who will hold you accountable for growing in your walk with the Lord and loving your husband more.
Godly girlfriends can make you a better wife and mother. Too often we look to our husband to meet needs that would be better met by going to God first and then to some other women.
6. Practice Forgiveness
I can't tell you how many times I've had to go to my husband and my kids and say, "I shouldn't have said (or done) what I did, and I need to ask you to forgive me." I go not because I feel like it, but because God has called me to ask for forgiveness and to grant it.
Our children need to learn how to do this in their future marriages and with their children. They learn as they watch us. So when I want to lash out at my husband, withdraw from him, or blame him, I remember the kids. I know that more than anything they need parents who love each other and who work through problems. They need parents who search for little ways to strengthen communication, parents who show kindness even when they don't feel like it. And most of all, they need a strong family in which their parents seek God first.
Susan Alexander Yates, a TCW regular contributor, is a speaker and author of several books, including And Then I Had Teenagers: Encouragement for Parents of Teens and Preteens (Baker).
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.