“She is the most beautiful creature I have ever seen,” you thought when you first laid eyes on that gorgeous woman you now call your wife. She is beautiful, smart, and sophisticated. You pursued her like she was royalty: picking her up for dates, holding doors open, bringing flowers, cooking dinners, the ring, the beautiful wedding. Finally, she became yours.
Fast forward to today. She is still the love of your life, but dating her is like running through an obstacle course, and the babies you had together are both delightful and a terror.
You lean in for a kiss, but you get pushed away by the envious one-year-old in your wife’s arm. You hug her and the toddler clings to your leg because they also want a hug. You try to have a conversation and every 30 seconds you get interrupted with someone wanting milk, apple juice, crackers, Cheerios, and of course the inevitable diaper change. You make plans to go out for dinner and one of the kids gets sick. Perhaps, at last, you decide on an at-home date and she falls asleep during the first 30 minutes of the movie.
But despite this, you, the husband, are her rock star and best friend. Your affirmation and support means the world to her, now more than ever as you raise your children together. In their book “And Baby Makes Three,” Drs. John and Julie Gottman write that “the greatest gift you can give your baby is a happy and strong relationship between the two of you.”
However, with kids around, maintaining that happy and strong relationship isn’t that easy with all the new changes in your lives.
Blame the brain
Research shows that your wife’s brain is changing in pregnancy and motherhood. A study published by Dr. Pilyoung Kim in 2010 shows that her brain is actually growing! Specifically, the gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, parietal lobes, and midbrain areas increases, which is associated with a mother’s positive perception of her baby.
A more recent study completed by Dr. Elseline Hoekzema, published in 2016, indicates that the gray matter in areas associated with social cognition (where we store, process, and use information about other people) decreases, creating a “pruning” effect that results in a mother’s focused attunement to her baby.
Furthermore, hormones released when a mother is with her baby, such as dopamine and oxytocin, create an “in love” feeling that keeps her motivated to return and take care of the tiny human who keeps stealing her sleep. While one study suggests that there is diminishing ability in memorizing words (not recognition or working memory), the majority of difficulty concentrating may be attributed to her lack of sleep and increase in responsibilities.
That being said, she may be more forgetful and absent-minded with certain aspects of life, but she is also a mental genius when it comes to your children’s needs, schedules, and even keeping up with the dirty diapers.
But it is up to both of you to continue to devote time to each other and maintain your relationship. Dating is a great way to keep the love alive, and it is essentially spending quality time together, doing something you both enjoy while simply catching up on what’s going on in each other’s lives. Dating will not just keep you both close to each other, but its positive effects will model a strong and healthy relationship for your children, thus creating a happy home.
The amazing thing about parenting is that you are both doing it together. So, naturally, the first ideas for plans are things you can do with your kids. You can go to a petting zoo, have a backyard camp out, or build Lego castles together.
Make time for two
However, spending time together, just the two of you, is just as important as playing with the kids, and going on an actual date together (or having an at-home date) is a great way to maintain the fun and closeness of your relationship. Once the kids are in bed:
- Hire a sitter and go out for a dinner date. Over dinner, you could talk about your love maps and explore each other’s worlds, or ask each other about highs and lows of parenting, marriage, and how you can support each other.
- Make a pizza together and watch your favorite show on Netflix.
- Write each other a poem. (No ideas? Try this.)
- Create a bucket list.
- Give each other a massage.
- Watch a TED talk, then discuss it.
- Get a deck of Salsa Cards and talk about how you can spice up your sex life. Then try it.
- Make a time capsule that reflects the current moment in your family.
- Cook a recipe you’ve never made before.
It can be difficult to make time for yourself and for each other when you have children, but it’s also a great time to grow together in a new way. Make sure to continue building your friendship and keep going on dates, which can be fun, romantic, and will keep your relationship strong. It is, after all, the best gift you can give your children, and also each other.
Written by Tamara Patterson for the Gottman Relationship Blog.