It was a rare, golden moment in the Miller household.
Our 14-year-old daughter was at a friend's house, and our 17-year-old son had just driven off to play racquetball with a few buddies. This left my husband, Tim*, and me alone in our house.
As the front door slammed and we heard the car pull out of the driveway, realization dawned and Tim and I looked up from our computers. We were alone in the house. Tim waggled his eyebrows; I responded with a smoldering "come hither" wink.
We shut down computers, hightailed it for the bedroom, and began gleefully disrobing faster than a couple of trained strippers.
And then the phone rang.
Mom? Becky has a dance lesson. Could someone pick me up now?
I didn't have to say a word—Tim read the news on my face. His expression darkened with frustration, and he all but stamped his foot. "I can't believe it! We never have time for this anymore. I may as well enter a monastery."
Though time and some distance have given us the ability to chuckle at that memory, the frustration Tim expressed (and we both felt) is valid and ongoing. Late night, early morning, mid-day—no matter the timing, we're constantly faced with obstacles when it comes to lovemaking. And while as a woman I can accept this is a season in our lives that will eventually pass, as a man who's wired completely differently from me, that just doesn't work for Tim. It's the equivalent of me saying, "I know you're hungry, honey, but hang in there. A couple more years, and you'll be able to eat whenever you want!"
Before we started a family, I'd heard plenty of warnings about the negative impact small children can have on your sex life. I don't recall a single person, however, who mentioned that teenagers can be just as detrimental.
Although infants and toddlers demand the lion's share of our time and attention, leaving us drained, sleep-deprived, and light years from "in the mood," older kids bring their own set of intimacy dampeners. For one thing, little ones take naps and generally go to bed early. Big kids, on the other hand, can still be going strong late into the night. It's not unusual (on a non-school night) for our kids still to be talking on cell phones, instant messaging, and watching television when Tim and I are ready to turn in.
And then you have the whole "awareness" factor. There's a definite security in knowing that your kids are blissfully ignorant about exactly what Mommy and Daddy are up to behind closed doors. Once they hit the teen years, a certain level of subterfuge inevitably becomes part of the lovemaking process—along with the anxiety that we might be "found out." Tim and I frequently worry: Did I hear the front door? Did one of the kids just wake up? What if they get back early from the movie?
Talk about your mood killers.
So how do we make sex a priority when no time is a good time? Relationship expert and best-selling author of The Sex-Starved Marriage (Simon & Schuster), Michele Weiner Davis says that an important first step is for couples to realize that struggling to find time for lovemaking is a normal part of marriage. "Parents need to know they aren't doing anything wrong—with their marriage or their kids." She goes on to point out that while it may seem "no time is a good time," in reality it's more like "few times are good times." "Couples need to take a close look at their schedules and at their kids' schedules," she says, "and see what times can be used for intimacy."
Although finding those times is still a battle for Tim and me, we've learned a few things along the way.
Be ready to be spontaneous. Opportunities for intimacy arise when you least expect them. Kids go down for an additional nap or make spur-of-the-moment plans with friends. Don't let anything stop you from taking full advantage of those moments. In the middle of cooking dinner? Turn off the stove. Mowing the lawn? Cut the engine.
On one unforgettable occasion Tim and I missed making use of an empty house because he attempted to finish paying bills. Meanwhile, children came home, and the opportunity was lost. Despite our frustration, we learned a valuable lesson. Work, household chores, and even recreational pursuits will still be there in an hour. A shot at alone time with your mate may not.
Remember to plan ahead. I know—this seems contradictory to my first point. But while spontaneous opportunities for lovemaking are great, they're also not enough. Like dessert, they won't always be available and aren't substantial enough to satisfy a healthy appetite. Planning ahead can be the "main course."
"When it comes to marriage," says Weiner Davis, "we all know we have to negotiate certain things with our spouses: where we're going to live, whether we have kids, where to spend the holidays. A couple's sexual relationship is often missing from that list. But it does need to be negotiated."
If you have younger children, you can choose to schedule your day so you'll be ready to take advantage of an early bedtime. By trading long afternoon naps and extended video viewing for plenty of fresh air and physical activity, the odds will increase that they'll be ready to crash at a reasonable hour.
If you've got older kids who like to stay up late, you and your spouse can decide to be the first to turn in—and the first to awaken in the morning. This has been a challenge for Tim and me, since we tend to favor the same schedule of late nights and mornings that our kids keep. But making a conscious choice to get to bed at an earlier hour means we're refreshed and ready to make love while our night owls are still catching z's.
Send the kids somewhere else. For little ones an afternoon or evening with your folks or trusted friends can provide concentrated attention for the kids and couple time for you and your spouse. For the older, more independent crowd, try handing over the keys and some cash for a movie, or dropping them off at the mall with some friends. Tim and I are fortunate that our kids get along and have buddies and interests in common. Volunteering to pay for a fun activity they can share with each other and friends, buys us an empty house for a few hours of grown-up time.
Send yourselves somewhere else. Sometimes a simple change of scenery is just what the love doctor ordered. "Getting away is really important," says Weiner Davis. "It gives you a chance to rekindle your sexuality without worrying about someone getting out of bed or knocking on your door." Don't hesitate to grab the occasional overnight getaway at a local hotel—especially if you've got older kids who won't need a sitter. The accommodations don't have to be anything fancy or expensive, just a clean, quiet room with plenty of privacy and no interruptions. A few years ago Tim and I spent the night at a hotel that specifically caters to married couples. For nearly 24 hours we interacted with no one but each other, able to relax, talk, and make love without interruption (or the fear of it!). I'm still amazed at the impact that brief time had on our relationship.
Engage in plenty of PDA. Public displays of affection—whether hugging, kissing, or flirting—can go a long way toward helping each other feel sexy and wanted. Weiner Davis says, "There's nothing wrong with a teenager seeing his dad grab his mom's butt once in a while. It's playful, and that's a good role model for kids. Too many people grow up in families where there's no display of physical affection." Though not a substitute for sex, physical displays of affection can bring you closer and sustain your relationship through sexual "dry spells."
While Tim and I have found these suggestions helpful, the hard truth is that we still struggle daily to fit lovemaking into our schedule—and often feel as if it's a losing battle. Kids—whether toddlers or teens—are inevitably going to make intimacy difficult until the day they're grown and gone. But knowing that we're in this together, and that we've both committed to placing sex at the top of our priorities, brings Tim and me closer as a couple and helps us to persevere. Though it's no answer for today's frustrations, this season in our life will pass. A few years from now, I'm sure we'll look back, shake our heads, and chuckle.
Of course, I'm still trying to convince Tim of that.
Sheri Miller is a pseudonym for a writer living in Illinois. She and her husband have been married 22 years.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.