Despite having four school-aged kids, Ann Douglas still manages to steal romantic dinners with her husband -- candles, a bottle of wine, a movie later -- even if they're only sitting at their kitchen table and just pretending to be in some exotic restaurant.
She says it's a matter of self-preservation.
"When weeks go by without that kind of a break as a couple, you start to get on each other's nerves, lose all connection, and just feel like, 'Where's this relationship headed?' " says Douglas, author of The Unofficial Guide to Childcare.
Sure, there are tons of excuses for letting "date night" (or morning or afternoon) opportunities slip by: Good babysitters are a hot commodity. Sleep is all you want by the time your baby finally nods off. Or you may worry about leaving your child, especially during that 6- to 18-months-old period when separation anxiety kicks in.
But refueling your relationship with the other parent is important for your kids, experts say, in large part because it's important for you.
"If you're not taking care of your own needs as an adult and as a couple, you're in a much less healthy position to be of value to that young child," says Daniel Kessler, MD director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Children's Health Center of St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix. It makes intuitive sense that a troubled marriage can negatively affect a child's emotional, cognitive, and physical health.
Getting Out the Door (or at Least <I>Behind</I> One)
The time you spend with your partner or spouse won't necessarily make or break a marriage or a partnership, but it may help you manage the stresses that new parenthood places on a relationship, says Jay Belsky, a professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University. Among 250 new parents he tracked, half reported that they had grown further apart by their child's third birthday.
"Time together gives couples time to catch up on each other's lives and experience the pleasure of each other's company," says Belsky, author of The Transition to Parenthood: How a First Child Changes a Marriage. Otherwise, "Before long they will just become a team of parents, partnered in raising children."
As most parents will attest, leaving your baby for the first time is always the hardest, so ease into it with a quick getaway, like dessert at a coffeehouse or a walk in the park.
"Don't try to go for dinner and a movie if you're going to be a basket case by the time the entrée arrives," says Douglas, "and if you're paranoid, call from the restaurant. Who cares if they think you're obsessive? You're allowed. You're a parent."
If you can't get out, get creative. Some couples wait until the baby's down for a three- or four-hour stretch, then order a nice meal, dim the lights, and ignore the phone and other household distractions. There isn't anything magical about Saturday nights, either -- take the time whenever you can.
My Time Is Your Time
The Oberholtzers of Evanston, Ill., have a standing date on Wednesday mornings. James takes time off from his law practice; Katherine -- a marriage and family therapist -- doesn't schedule appointments. Typically, the two hit a yoga class, then do lunch.
"We're firm believers that parents should get out at least once a week," says Katherine, a mother of three. "When we haven't been able to do that, we feel it."
To find a good babysitter for your trysts:
- Ask family and friends.
- Call a university's early childhood education department.
- Check with the instructor of a local baby-sitting or teen first-aid course.
- Ask teachers, coaches, and others who work with teens, such as members of the clergy or the career counseling department at a high school.
Since a good sitter is hard to find and keep, be prepared to pay top dollar ($5 to $7 per hour for a teenager and $7 or more per hour for a college student) and treat them with respect: Return home on time, pay anyway if you have to cancel at the last minute, and spend time teaching them what you expect.
Family co-ops -- groups that trade baby-sitting services on a non-cash basis -- can be helpful, too, particularly since many new parents are tight on cash. But Douglas says to make sure you understand the arrangements (for instance, decide upfront if it'll be hour for hour), and that your child-rearing philosophies and personalities are in sync.
Katherine Oberholtzer found that a co-op was particularly useful to her as a new parent reluctant to leave her first baby. "We knew the other couples had already been through it and they weren't going to panic or give up," she says. They stopped when it became a burden to sit for families with much older kids and different house rules.
If you lose your gumption because your child is wailing at the front window as you pull out of the driveway, take heart. As long as you have a nurturing, attentive sitter, the little one will probably stop crying before you turn the corner.
And think about how you're helping to lay the foundation for your child's own healthy relationships later on. "When parents value each other, are happy to see each other and keep each other's needs in focus, their children learn the importance of marital closeness," says Judith Siegel, a social worker and author of What Children Learn From Their Parents' Marriage. Give yourself time alone with your spouse or your partner -- and give your kids valuable lessons in intimacy.