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Wanna Date?

As busy married parents, it seems impossible to find time alone as a couple.  Indeed, it is often one of the first things we throw out the window when looking for extra time in our lives. Yet, in the life of the family unit, it is one of the most important things we can give ourselves, our spouse and our children.

Years ago, before we had children, my husband and I would try to get away every once in a while for a romantic weekend. We weren’t very good at it; in five years we made it away maybe a handful of times. But after long hours spent apart at our respective offices, we knew that it was important to step back from the daily grind to reconnect rest and refresh.  We would pick a bed & breakfast, preferably with lots of charm (my choice) and not too expensive (his choice), and head out for a night or two.

On one of these trips we met another couple who were staying at the same inn.  They were older than us and as we chatted across the communal table, steaming coffee and blueberry pancakes spread before us, they noted to us how important it was as a couple to have time alone together.

Although they were the parents of four young children they had still managed to get away and they took these trips quarterly, without fail. More importantly, the focus of the trip was to spend time physically and emotionally together, romancing each other, as well as talking over their goals as a couple and family, hashing out differences, and planning for the future. At the time I thought them a bit over the top.  Seventeen years, and three children, later I don’t think that anymore.  Indeed, I envy them.

In the years since we left our ”dink” (double income no kids) lifestyle behind we have been away, without children, a total of seven times, eight if you count the two nights we spent in China sleeping side-by-side on a brick-hard bed, comatose from jet-lag, before we adopted our third daughter.  That’s not too good a record, but at least it averages out to once every two years. For each couple we know whose average is better than that, we know ten others who have never been away without their children. My sister and her husband, married twenty-two years now and parents of three, have been away four times.  My brother and his wife, married eighteen years and parents of two, once. 

In defense of ourselves, and my aforementioned friends, it is not easy in today’s mobile, workaholic culture to manage a trip away. There are numerous hurdles: finding the time away from work and activities; living apart from extended family (and the grandparent babysitter); the chore of finding an overnight sitter; the exorbitant cost of hiring said sitter (“$10 an hour times how many hours?! Forget it lets just got to a movie”); the sheer aversion of our children to the notion of being “left” with someone other than mom or dad for the night.  Definitely enough to make it not worth the heartache and headache.

Which brings me to the salient point of this Valentine’s Day missive.  If you cannot get away without your children you can at the very least date your spouse, partner, better half, significant other. Many a marriage therapist will list time together as a couple as one of the top priorities for a healthy relationship and thus, in turn, happy family. 

My husband and I received such advice when our children were much younger and we were facing a rough patch in our marriage. Our counselor prescribed at least 15 minutes a day (more if possible) together, apart from our children, talking.  It could be over coffee in the morning, a lunch date, or in the evening after the children were asleep.  Of course, this ignored the fact that our alarm clock was a child, we couldn’t “do lunch” and at least one of us fell asleep to the sound of our own voice reading Pat the Bunny. My husband the ever efficient engineer asked if we could not just add up all the 15 minute “sessions” and do them on the weekend and call it a “date”.  Our counselor didn’t like this idea for obvious reasons, but to be honest this is what worked for us and this is what we have stuck to, in fits and starts over the 16 years of our “marriage with children”. 

For example, when the girls were younger we kept a sitter on “retainer” for two years and she came every other Saturday night for three hours without fail.  It was sheer bliss.  Then we moved to Singapore, and lived life that culture's way complete with live-in helper, and went out almost every Saturday night.  Sometimes it was just to the local food stalls for a bowl of noodles and a beer, other times it was more romantic, at a restaurant with tablecloths! Either way it was time alone.  Now that we are back in the US and have teenagers getting away together for “date night” should be easier but it is not.  Often things get in the way (usually children’s activities) and we still have to make a point of getting out at least once every two weeks or it does not happen.  But as we remind each other (and any child who might complain about Mommy and Daddy going out), as a couple we need it and our family unit needs it too.  

Happy Valentine’s Day.  Now go out and ask your lover for a date!