Everybody in a family has needs, and being a good parent means finding the balance among everyone’s needs. I am far from an expert on this. Like a lot of moms who are really attached to their babies and really enjoy motherhood, I find it really, really easy to take my husband for granted. However. Some stuff that’s been happening in my family and social circle lately has made me think a lot this week about the importance of balancing caring for children (which is all-consuming and more important than anything else when you’re in the midst of it like I am) with, you know, having a life. And particularly having a happy spouse.
It’s actually the eighth principle of attachment parenting, according to Attachment Parenting International, but it gets forgotten a lot in AP circles. It’s probably one of the main criticisms I hear of attachment parenting–that you’re so attached to and busy with your kids that you don’t have time or energy for anything else. And honestly, a lot of people do parent that way–and not just attached parents, either. Babies are overwhelming and needy and beautiful and perfect and even if you believe that it’s important for them to develop independence and all that jazz, sometimes it’s just impossible to put them down. Because they really do need you so much. That’s just how they are.
And when Anastasia was a baby, I didn’t do very well at balance. She was so incredibly high-needs and challenging, and she never slept and she screamed if I ever tried to set her down for a second, and I had not yet mastered the art of breastfeeding in a carrier. But I feel like I’m doing better at this the second time around. Partly because Teddy is just a much easier baby (He goes to bed at 7:00! And sleeps for hours! Hello, time with husband! Or time to watch The Walking Dead. Or, you know, whatever), and also because I’m more relaxed at this mom stuff. But some things that have been happening recently in the lives of some people I love has made me think about how I can do better at this. So here are some of the things I am trying to do to keep my husband a priority while our children are young.
1. Remind yourself and your spouse that this is temporary. This applies to a lot of things, but one really important and inevitable one, in my opinion, is postpartum sex. After Anastasia, I had lochia for a long time (twelve weeks!–so it was still going on when she was the age that Teddy is now), and I was sore, and plus I was not used to breastfeeding and I felt really touched out. And I basically did not want my husband coming near me for months. That was hard. It was hard for him especially because he did not like sex at the end of pregnancy (the belly is sort of difficult from a logistical perspective), so when the belly was suddenly gone, he was really, really ready to get back into it. And I was not even close to ready for a long, long time. And we were both adjusting to dividing the household responsibilities post-baby–I had been staying home at the end of pregnancy, so it was easy for me to do everything around the house, but after she was born I couldn’t do anything around the house for a long time so I wanted him to help–and disagreements over little things like dirty dishes can really affect the emotional tenor of a relationship. But this time, Teddy is easier, I am less overwhelmed, and my husband is already in the habit of doing the dishes. And also, Matt knew I wasn’t going to be up for things immediately postpartum, so he waited till I initiated, which I really appreciated. Of course we’re still sleep deprived and busy and kind of overwhelmed. But this time we both realize how temporary it is. We did eventually manage to make a second baby, after all. Just knowing that it won’t last forever helps a lot.
2. Learn what’s most important to your partner, and make it a priority to do that no matter what. I really like the book The Five Love Languages. It’s kind of preachy at times, but the concept of it is good. The basic idea is that there are five major ways that people express love–“love languages”–and in order to make your partner feel loved, you have to give them love in their language. The five types are gifts, acts of service, words of affirmation, physical touch, and quality time. So if your partner wants quality time, but you’re always giving them gifts, they will not only not feel loved–they will actually resent the gifts, because the gifts will feel like a replacement for you. You’ll be spending money on gifts when you could get so much more credit with your spouse just by sitting down with them on the couch for fifteen minutes.
Matt’s main love language is words of affirmation, which is awesome for me because I really like words. It’s one of the main ways I like to express love. But I realized as I was skimming through this book again yesterday that acts of service are actually a big way I like to receive love, which is funny because I never recognized that in myself before. But I mentioned the dishes already, right? It actually turns me on when my husband does the dishes. Especially when he does them without being asked (which he does pretty much every night now, unless he’s too exhausted). If I ever caught him sweeping the floor unexpectedly, I would probably rip his clothes off right in the middle of the kitchen. Kids or no kids.
3. Understand your cultural differences. My husband and I have very similar backgrounds–both our dads are university professors and both our moms stayed home while we were little and have a nursing background. But there are still cultural differences. For us, it’s mostly just the differences between men and women and personality types. I’ve always been fascinated by the Myers-Briggs personality test, mostly because I fit the stereotype of my type so exactly. I’m an ENFP, and if you read the description then you know everything about my personality. My husband is an INTP, and he fits the description pretty exactly too. Knowing that he’s an introvert helps me recognize and respect his need for time alone. And knowing that he’s a thinker means that I can never use my “gut feeling” or intuition to convince him of things–I have to come up with logical arguments why something is a good idea. For example, when I wanted to have a home birth, he was totally opposed to it at first, but after I collected a bunch of studies and evidence about the safety and benefits, he completely switched his opinion. Now he warns strangers about the dangers of a hospital birth.
When it comes to the differences between men and women, I love another somewhat cheesy book–Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. When I first read that book, back when I was single, I was shocked because everything he said about women was so exactly true of me, but everything he said about men sounded so weird. I kept double-checking the title page to make sure that yes, it really was written by a man. I figured if he was so right about women (or about me, anyway), then he was probably right about men too. In any case, Matt loves the book, too, so I guess the author was right about him. One of the most valuable thing from this book when we were dating was the rubber band and cave analogy–it’s basically the idea that men need periodic space, and they need to go into their caves and hide or hibernate when they’re stressed. And this is even more true for an introvert. But I think one of the most valuable ideas when you’re married is the idea of the point system. According to this book, everybody keeps an unconscious “score” in a relationship of who is doing more. But men give more points for bigger things, while women give one point for everything. This is especially important for men, because they think they can get 1,000 points for, say, buying the car their wife really wants, whereas in reality they get ONE point for buying a car–the exact same number of points that they get for doing the dishes. (Matt and I were talking about this last night, and he said laughingly that we should sell the car then. But I told him he gets a point every time I drive it, too.) So men need to know that they can’t rack up lots of points and then take a break from the daily stuff. But at the same time, it’s useful for women to know that they can rack up lots of points with a something big. For me, there are some things I know my husband would like a lot that I really do not want to do. Like dressing up. Which just seems to me like a lot of pointless work, and it feels like if I do it once, then he’ll start wanting me to do it all the time. But the truth is that I can rack up a lot of points by doing it once. Knowing you can get 100 relationship points for one act of love is more motivating. It also means that you can’t replace the big thing he really wants with lots of small things–they’re not worth as much to him, even though they would be to me.
4. Know your own needs–and ask for them. This is something that my girlfriends always seemed to have trouble with when I was single, and it always drove me crazy. Women expect men to read our minds. “He should know that I want that,” we say. Newsflash: he doesn’t know. Tell him. Nicely. Just ask for what you want.
And if you don’t know what you want, then figure it out. Because you really can’t expect him to do it if you don’t even know what it is.
5. Go on dates. I realize that not everybody can go out for a date on a regular basis, especially if you try to go in the evening. We certainly wouldn’t go out regularly if my mom didn’t live nearby–she gives us free childcare every Saturday. And even with that, we still didn’t do it for a long time after Anastasia was born–she didn’t go to bed until 11, and nobody could get her to sleep but me, so going out in the evening was out of the question. But we did eventually start going out without her. And that was a great thing. Teddy, of course, is the amazing sleeping baby, so we only took a few weeks off after he was born before we started our regular Saturday night dates again. But even if your kids won’t go to sleep without you, you can still make it a priority to spend some time with your partner away from them on a regular basis. Choose a time when the baby is not usually fussy, and hire a babysitter for an hour–maybe on a Saturday morning, or in the afternoon during nap if the baby sleeps more predictably then. If you can’t afford a babysitter, then ask some friends with kids to do a babysitting swap with you–they watch your kids one week, and you watch theirs the next. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on a date, either–go for a walk for an hour. Or go get cheap coffee or lunch or ice cream. If your kids do go to bed at a decent hour, you can even have a date night at home after they’re asleep and not even need childcare. But plan a regular time when you spend time talking and enjoying each other instead of just going to bed or watching tv or doing something on your computer after the kids are asleep.
Those are the main things I’m trying to do right now. I really don’t like the concept of balance, because when I care about something, I like to do it to the extreme. Balancing sounds like one thing becomes less important as you prioritize another. Which really isn’t the case at all: valuing your relationship with your spouse adds to your parenting and your focus on your children. It doesn’t lessen. Just like having a second child doesn’t make you love your first any less. It makes you love them both more.
Disclaimer: Amazon links are affiliate.