The Marriage Challenge

Sonya FeherBy Sonya Fehér, contributing editor for the API Speaks blog, leader for API of South Austin, Texas, USA, and blogger at

Before my son was born, a friend gave me the book, Babyproofing Your Marriage. The book was based on very traditional gender roles and a husband who expected his wife to have dinner on the table when he got home and justify why the house wasn’t clean when all she had to do was hang out with a baby all day. The advice they were giving wasn’t for us.

Even so, it turned out our marriage did need some babyproofing. Decisions we made about parenting turned into unanticipated challenges to our intimacy and partnership.

The Parenting Decisions

First, I did all of the feeding. The few times my husband tried giving my son bottles of pumped milk, our son squirmed so much at being fed by anyone but me that I ended up giving him the bottle. If I was going to be feeding him anyway, I preferred to leave the hand pump out of it.

Thinking our son would start solids around six months old and my husband’s inability to feed our son would be short-lived, we believed we’d get to a point, soon, when I could leave the house for longer than the hour-and-a-half window between nursings — for doctor’s appointments, a grocery trip by myself, or some much-needed alone time. But even after our son started eating solids, he didn’t want to be fed by his dad. He thought that was my job and he wasn’t going for our changing the terms.

Since Mike wasn’t giving our son bottles and the only thing our son woke up for at night was to nurse, I did all of the nighttime parenting. We were bedsharing, so Cavanaugh would just turn to nuzzle me and I would nurse him for a few minutes before he fell back to sleep. Even though Mike changed our son’s diapers, sang songs to him, and wore Cavanaugh in a Moby and walked him around the neighborhood, he was out of the house for work ten-plus hours a day and didn’t interact with Cavanaugh during the night. When Mike got home from work sometime between 6 and 7 p.m., our son only wanted to be held by me.

Another big impact for our marriage came when Cavanaugh was about six months old. My husband moved out of the family bed. It wasn’t because he had a problem with bedsharing. He loved the coziness and shared sleep as much as our infant and I did, but my husband snored so loudly our son would wake up, which meant that I was awake and nursing when I’d rather be sleeping. Cavanaugh would fall back to sleep, and my husband would have slept through the entire thing. I, on the other hand, would lay in the bed, awake and seething.

It wasn’t just the nighttime interruptions. It was the alarm in the morning. My husband had to wake up for work hours before Cavanaugh and I would have woken up. When the alarm went off and my husband got out of bed, my son wanted out, too. So not only was my nighttime sleep disrupted but my mornings started earlier than they would have otherwise. So, my husband moved into the guest room.

The Result

We didn’t imagine at the time that our sleeping arrangement would have lasted almost two and a half years or that we’d get to a point where we felt like roommates instead of partners. The problem was that we didn’t have much to talk about because we didn’t do anything together except parent. So instead of trying to learn to sleep in the same bed again, we found ourselves negotiating how we might live in two separate houses. The ridiculous thing is that we both still love one another.

We just felt so far apart and our fights were getting more bitter, and meaner. The distance we had to reach across to try to find one another again had come out of being very conscious and loving parents who had totally neglected their marriage. If I could have handled it differently — let my son learn to feel more comfortable in his daddy’s arms, hired a babysitter so we could have more time together, and found a way of nurturing each other just as we nurtured our son — I think my marriage would have weathered these first few years of parenting better. Instead, right before my son turned three, my husband and I were talking — no, screaming — about divorce.

What I’ve Learned

Becoming parents presents challenges to most marriages, through the tasks of shared parenting, finding time to spend with one another, and the energy for your partner when you’re giving so much to take care of your children. Whether your relationship is in great shape or you haven’t given your partner much attention in a while, it’s helpful to find some topics of conversation besides the kids or the house. This is easier if you go make time for shared experiences besides parenting. Try some dates that will give you something to talk about: a murder mystery train, a zip line over a tree canopy, or some kind of class where you can learn something new together. If you need to be around for bedtime, go on an afternoon date.

And if it just doesn’t feel possible to get out of the house, try some dates after the kids go to bed. Get a dartboard, do a jigsaw puzzle or play dominoes, watch a documentary. Do some fun things together that you used to do before kids. My husband and I “play” Amazing Race. We watch the show and imagine who would do each challenge and talk about the places we’d like to go. Mostly, the key is to remind yourself what you liked about each other or had in common before children.

Study Marriage, as You Would Parenting

I also recommend reading The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. If you know your own love language and your partner’s — Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, or Physical Touch — you’ll both be able to communicate love in the way your partner can receive it.

The Five Love LanguagesThe Five Love Languages on API Reads: November & December 2010 — don’t miss this online API event! Get started by taking a quiz to identify your personal love language:

The best gift you can give your children is parents in a loving and happy relationship. Attachment Parenting does not mean a choice between being attached to your partner or your kids. It’s possible and important to nurture both.

2 thoughts on “The Marriage Challenge”

  1. For API Reads we’ll be reading The Five Languages of Love for Marriage in December. So we’ll be able to expand upon this subject. For my husband and I we did experience the lack of marriage the first 3 years. Our daughter was very medically high needs and it really left no time to be together since I was so drained. My husband was so understanding and would actually ground me because he would be the one to say, “this is only now, this isn’t forever”. We spend time talking to each other, giving hugs, respecting each other, watching movies together, and trying to meet each other’s needs. We never really need a date together since we spend time together in the evening. I believe a bedtime is very important for the kid(s) because it provides that evening time to be together.

  2. It is tough. Breastfeeding means having your baby around you all the time. Breastfeeding a toddler at bedtime means being there every bedtime for your toddler. Working (to earn a living) means that you leave your child with a nanny therefore any remaining time in evenings and weekends you feel you ought to be spending with your child and handing your child over to a nanny at a weekend after a whole week feels like you are neglecting them. Working and child rearing and night parenting is tiring, which means when you do get a free hour or two in the evening, you just want to sleep. When baby gets up at weekends in the morning, so do you. Time spent with your partner with a child around ends up being about the child and not about the couple. Time alone as a couple = zero. Couple = exhausted parents. Recipe for disaster. If couple break up, child suffers emotionally. No way out.

    What I am starting to realise, with the help of my husband, is that it is better to take time alone, use the nanny even at weekends to get extra rest and then spend time as a couple. A few hours of happy parent spent with child is better than a few more hours of exhausted unhappy parent spent with child. If that means that I spend even less time with my child (work time plus weekend rest time plus couple time) then so be it. My child needs happy parents who have a good relationship with each other.

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