Published: February 6, 2002

Fanning the flame
How to keep the sparkle of romance when you're married with children

by Jean Znidarsic

Our eyes met across a crowded room. He was tall, handsome, gainfully employed. There was magic in the air. My heart beat faster as I pictured the two of us together, later that night. He'd be sound asleep, snoring gently. I'd bring my lips next to his ear and croon, "Wake up, Darling." And then, in fulfillment of my wildest dreams, he'd awake, turn to me with a flash of those sexy white teeth, and say,

"You just lie here and look lovely, my pet -- I'll get the baby!"

Not the most romantic of fantasies? When you're a parent of two, your desires have a way of changing. My husband, I suspect, has similar daydreams. In that crowded room -- a birthday party for the 3-year-old -- he was probably looking deep into my eyes and trying to gauge how much football-watching time he was earning by entertaining all these children.

We may sound like a conniving, calculating couple, but we're not always this way. We were in the throes of the first real challenge of our marriage -- babies. No matter how much you love your spouse, when you have small children, he or she is often your only chance of getting a break.

With an Everest of laundry to fold, a landfill's worth of diapers to change, and the bittersweet challenge of doing it all with your arms full, how can you help it if once in a while a desirable, charming and most beloved spouse gets transformed into your only ticket to a precious moment alone, a shower, or even a luxurious solo trip to the pharmacy? Who can blame you for lapsing into reveries about that person saving the day? Unfortunately, this takes its toll on the marriage.

How do you keep the sparkle in your marriage after children arrive? An informal survey of Peninsula parents turned up some ideas couples can try when lack of sleep and too many chores and obligations threaten to overwhelm the romance and turn them into score-keeping adversaries. If your response to the question above was, "What sparkle?" what follows is for you.
The ideas fall into four distinct categories.

#1. Make time for each other. Although this may sound simple, it's hard to find room in the schedule to button your shirt, let alone spend quality time with a spouse, when there's a new baby at home. Our respondents had hints on how to accomplish this.

For those with helpful relatives nearby, they are the key to time a deux. Otherwise, regular hired help is recommended.

"Go out on a date once a week," said one determined father. "It can be as simple as dinner out, but schedule it and arrange for a sitter -- make it happen."

"Watercourse Way," said one mother wistfully of the local spa. "Those little rooms."

Others suggested hiring a housekeeper to free up some time.

When getting clear away isn't possible, and the two of you have a little energy, use the time after the children are asleep. Play Scrabble. Read a romantic novel aloud to each other. Have tea together by candlelight. Burn incense -- anything to change the atmosphere from nursery to boudoir, and savor the company of the person you chose as your companion on the adventure of parenthood. Rent or watch a movie that was special during your courtship.

#2. Communicate. Build it into your routine, such as a daily call or e-mail to say "I love you," or go for a more intensive jump-start with a Marriage Encounter weekend through your place of worship.

Finding the opportunity to communicate is important, but it is what you express that lies at the heart of the matter, according to several parents.

"We try to notice each other and give each other compliments. I really appreciate that he tells me I look good," one wife said.

Another already-overburdened young mother stunned the rest of the parenting class with her comment. "No matter what has happened during the day," she said, "I always put on a clean shirt, touch up my makeup and rally the kids so we can all greet Daddy with great enthusiasm when he comes home."

I had to compare her efforts with my own habit of tossing him the baby like a football as he crossed the threshold, along with a few choice remarks on motherhood, and a warning about his chances of getting dinner as I sprinted for my room and some much-needed solitude.

#3. Simple acts of love and mercy. This category brings out the true essence of marriage, in which really knowing and accepting one's spouse can pay off. Even if you do manage to spend time together, and you communicate your love and concern, every parent has times when the candle has been burned at both ends and he or she needs a little extra attention. At these times, what you do for each other can be the difference between another dent in an already tarnished relationship and a gift that will add lasting sparkle.

"When he seems extra tired," said a mother of two, "I make him a massage appointment, call him at work and tell him to go there before he comes home." You can bet her husband feels loved, at least for the evening.

Or give your spouse time alone. One husband takes the kids out for the evening. Another let his wife ski while he watched the baby. "He didn't get the chance (to ski) but he knew how much I needed that afternoon," she said.

For new parents, who rarely get so much as a minute of solitude in the average day, a whole night alone can be revitalizing. "We send each other away for a night or two. This revives the marriage," one parent said.

If doing without your spouse for the evening is too much, try a smaller increment. One wife rubs her husband's feet while she reads her book. Another takes out the garbage and recycling when her husband's had a hard day.

These acts of generosity can give even the most careworn spouse not only a lift, but the sense of being treasured in spite of it all.

#4. Keep a good attitude. Sometimes, what makes the difference is a matter of attitude; our parents suggest cultivating forgiveness, acceptance and a sense of humor.

"We crack each other up, even when things are difficult," one parent said.

A successful mother of two grown children offered a glimpse of the attitude that has kept her marriage going for more than 25 years, when she was asked how she could stand her husband's long hours tending to his high-powered career.

"I interpret his supporting me and our children, and putting them through school, as part of the love he promised me. Yes, I wish we had more time together, but I don't see it as his ignoring me; I see it as part of his devotion to our family," she said.

These ideas might not prevent all stresses and strains on your marriage once you have children, but giving them a try might get your mind off of how many times he played golf last month -- or whether she ever plans on changing out of that old purple sweatshirt.

Jean Znidarsic is a freelance writer who lives in Palo Alto.


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