How We Make Marriage with Young Kids Suck Less

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Recently I was talking to a friend with two kids under 2, and she confessed to me, very upset, that her marriage was having problems. She was so distraught, I felt terribly, and asked her to elaborate. As she described what they were going through — no sex, sporadic affection, nit-picking and bickering — I was like, oh, phew, that’s all? Then, I looked her in the eye and said, “Your marriage will be fine. Every couple with young children goes through that.” She looked at me surprised, but also relieved. Then, I proceeded to have a serious heart-to-heart conversation with her about how challenging new parenting can be, and the toll it can take on even the strongest marriages.

See, I had been sort of lucky. I had written relationship articles in the past, ones which addressed how marriage changes after kids. I’m a very open person, with very honest friends, so even before I had children, my people had shared with me their own relationship struggles. One friend even told me that there would be an end date, explaining that a marriage really doesn’t recover until your child is 2 years old. (Of course, if you then have a baby, everything may reset.)

So, armed with all of this information, I was ready when the exhaustion, frustration, and overwhelming stress of new parenthood caught up to my marriage. And we have twins, so everything was magnified by two. With double babies, the logistics of parenting was always a two-man job — we needed all hands on deck, which meant neither my husband nor I really got much of a break. We couldn’t really cut the other some slack because, well, we needed help. You need a nap? I need a nap! This is too much for you? It’s too much for me! You have errands to run, things to do, dinner to cook, and need a haircut? Me too!

Here’s what helped us get through the tough times, though: acknowledgement and communication.

In those first couple of years, my husband and I tried our best to talk through things and be as honest as we could. We knew that this hit to the relationship kind of came with the territory. We knew that it would pass, and that we would get through it. We recognized that we were taking our frustrations out on each other–that it was normal, if not exactly fair. We acknowledged that we still loved each other, liked each other and were still attracted to each other, but we were tired. So freaking tired. In those first couple of years of parenting babies and then toddlers, I felt like I had nothing left to give anyone–every ounce of me went into being their mom. So when my husband and I would finally put the babies to bed and have our alone time, I was too tired to do much of anything, besides zone out in front of the TV. I didn’t have the energy to then “work” on my marital connection. It felt like just one more thing to do.

But a relationship expert had told me years back that, after kids, you have to decide to put your marriage above all else. See, naturally, the kids are going to be your top priority, so you never have to “prioritize” them. Your relationship though will require more attention, more than ever before. So, we did that. Date nights and getaways (thank you Grandma!), sweet thoughtful gestures, and acknowledgements of each others’ feelings. When we could, we put aside our own needs to make sure our partner’s needs were being met. We did the work. And just as my wise friend predicted, by the time our kids turned 2 years old, our lives and our relationship got easier.

I’ll say this though: For couples struggling with the changes that come with new parenthood, Facebook doesn’t help. Because people tend to only share picture-perfect snapshots of their lives, we casual newsfeed observers assume that their entire lives must be blissful and charmed. “Look at them all smiling on their exotic vacation with their cherubic baby who is not crying and probably sleeps through the night and must eat vegetables because they posted that picture of him with a single green bean last week.” These “happy couples” are not trying to mislead you — they’re just sharing a good day. That’s not their everyday though. It’s just a special moment captured. Do you really want to see casual acquaintances in sweatpants, covered in baby puke, bitching about how their husband forgot to bring home diapers…again? Actually, I kind of do, because at least it’s honest, but I’m not likely to see that as a status update anytime soon. My poor friend with the young babies assumed from Facebook that everyone else was having a grand ole’ time, except for her family. She didn’t realize that social media is all “best of” clips and flattering angles. How lonely and sad is that?

I’m so glad that my friend was able to talk about it with me, and that I was able to be honest with her, the way so many people had been with me. I’m so happy that I could normalize her experience, reassure her that all of this stress and disconnection doesn’t mean the marriage is doomed–it just needs a little more TLC right now, TLC that stretched-thin parents are often too tired to give. I hope it made her feel better.

That’s why I think it’s so important for moms to share all of our experiences with each other–the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s why I’m sharing all of this personal marriage stuff with you now. I hope that any other parents with young kids can find some reassurance knowing that we’ve all been there, and most of us do pull through it. You’re not the only ones. You just have to put in the time and energy, as tough as it is, as tired as you are, and commit to working it out. In the end, your marriage will be stronger for it.

Photo: Getty