I always dreamed of having a family. It was one of my hopes for the future when Dennis and I were engaged and newly married. And of course, my dreams were only about good, peaceful, happy times with children who loved and obeyed their parents. I was unprepared for the perpetual demands parenting would require of me. From 2 a.m. feedings, potty training, ear infections, nightmares, and coloring on the walls to braces, birthday parties, and driving lessons for teens, mothering is a full-time, 24/7 job with few vacations and a delayed payment plan.
How do you balance being a mother with your first calling as wife? How does motherhood mix with romance? Not easily, at least if you are like me.
I have a vivid memory of standing in my kitchen sometime after child number three was born, feeling conflicted internally over my role as wife and mother. It seemed incongruent to be a mother and a sexually interesting wife at the same time. I had no model for that. I had questions but no answers.
Children are just one of several common threats to romance. FamilyLife conducted a survey of more than ten thousand couples, asking them to name the culprits that robbed their marriages of romance. The most commonly mentioned factors were children, stress, fatigue, busyness, misplaced priorities, anger, and unresolved conflict.
In the Bible we find an appropriate name for these romance robbers. The bride of King Solomon described him in endearing, poetic terms and then said, "Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that are ruining the vineyards, while our vineyards are in blossom" (Song of Songs 2:15).
In those days, a wise gardener would protect his vineyard from foxes. The nocturnal bandits would sneak in during the dead of the night and eat the most tender parts of the vine, rendering them fruitless and useless.
The vineyard is like your marriage. The foxes are the things that sneak up on you and snatch the fruit of passion before it can bloom. These sly creatures are relentless. Drop your guard, and they'll reduce the vineyard of your marriage to a barren, lifeless place where romance shrivels on the vine.
"Children ended our romance!"
Without question the biggest deterrent to romance for moms is children. The sweet, precious, innocent, little ones, given to us by God, are also self-centered, untrained, unending "need machines" who aren't naturally going to think once about helping our marriages. In fact, they can suck the life out of our marriages. For us as wives and mothers, our children will be the greatest distraction and hindrance to growing a healthy, romantic marriage.
Our mailbag at FamilyLife is filled with letters from mothers dismayed at how difficult it is to feel romantic or sexual. One woman wrote, "During this season of life, I have three children, four years and younger, plus a full-time job. I cannot even think of doing anything romantic."
Or maybe you feel like the mother of a "rambunctious two-year-old," who said, "It's ironic: Romance gave us our children, and children ended our romance!" It's sadly true for too many women.
Oftentimes, motherhood can be a tempting excuse for giving up sex. Caught up in her responsibilities day in and day out, a mother can experience a slow shift in loyalty from husband to children. She begins thinking she has more important things to do than getting involved in the frivolity of playfulness with her husband. She thinks the needs of her children, because they are so helpless and formative, are more important than the needs of her husband. After all, she reasons, he is an adult.
One reason this is so common is that we as women are able to express and experience our femaleness by nurturing our children. We feel fully alive as women when we care for our children—except for the times when we are fully exhausted. Women feel a deep, innate sense of well-being and fulfillment when we give birth, nurse, and nurture babies and children. It is an indescribable privilege that brings profound satisfaction. It's what we were made to do.
But it's only part of being a woman.
Raising children, as wonderful a calling as it is, is not all we were designed to do. Children were given to us for only a short time. They are not possessions but a stewardship. Our job is to train them in godliness and then to let them go. You will always have a job as wife, but motherhood is only temporary.
One of the most important parts of your job as mother is to be a model to your children. If your children see a mother who has resigned from her duty as wife, they will grow up confused about marriage; that is especially true for your daughters. Your children desperately need to see Dad and Mom as husband and wife who love each other, care for each other, and are loyal to each other above all others.
God didn't create women with the ability, the capacity, or even the compulsion to nurture just for the sake of our children. He also meant for us to nurture life in our husbands. Maintaining that balance with your children will probably be your biggest challenge in the parenting years.
Too many hats?
How do you balance being a mom who deals with spit up, poopy pull-ups, modeling clay ground in the carpet, and frogs and lizards escaping in the house with being an attractive, romantic, interesting wife? The first step is to teach your children that they are third on your list of priorities. They cannot be more important to you than their father, and certainly they cannot be more important than God.
Clearly they will take more time on a daily basis, and meeting their needs may be your number one priority when your husband is not home. But when he is home, they can be taught to wait unless it's an emergency. Your marriage will not grow and there will be no chance for romance if your kids are allowed to constantly interrupt, make demands, and dictate your lives. They will be much more secure if they learn that they have a place in the family, but that they are not the center of this little family's universe.
Parents—not the children—must be in charge. Again, you are modeling what a Christian marriage looks like for them, and that includes being romantic together. They are watching you more than you may realize.
A wise older woman said to me years ago, "Honey, one child will take all your time, two children will take all your time, and so will three. It doesn't matter how many children you have, they will take all your time." She was right. They will if you let them. It's up to you if they get all your time or you save some for your husband.
Second, realize that your children have great value, but so does your "work." Yes, you want your children to know they are more important than a perfectly ordered house, more important than possessions, and more important than jobs, financial success, and status. But you also must teach them that parents have to work, and part of your work is to make time to be an attractive, interesting wife.
When you pay attention to your husband, children begin to see that their needs and wants do not have to be met immediately. They learn patience when they have to wait on Mom and Dad to finish their tasks or their conversation. They learn responsibility and greater independence when you and your husband leave them (well-supervised, of course) to go on a date or a weekend away to "work" on your relationship.
It's healthy for them and for you.
A light at the end of the tunnel
Without question children are the greatest interruption to the romance relationship you began with your husband when you married. But they are just that—an interruption. Eventually they will leave home, and it will be just the two of you again. There will be time again for spontaneous decisions that foster relationship and romance. There will be freedom to travel together, go out to eat together, go for walks together, have picnics together.
As you enter and journey through the teen years, begin to talk and dream and plan for your life together after children. The teen years may be the most difficult of all and, as a result, may strain your marriage to what feels like the breaking point. But if you work to keep your relationship and your romance of utmost importance, and you look to the future together, hope will grow.
On the other hand, if you let your relationship falter and you let the hope of romance die, you will arrive at the end of the parenting years as total strangers. Even as we devoted our lives to strengthening marriages and families around the world, and worked hard at keeping our relationship strong and vibrant, we still found ourselves in the early days of empty-nesting realizing that as we raised our six, we'd missed each other in some areas.
I can't imagine the profound sense of loss that many couples experience when the children leave and they find themselves totally isolated, with little attraction to each other and no romance. What an unnecessary tragedy.
Keeping children from robbing your marriage of its romance will be an ongoing challenge. Finding that balance between my role as wife and mother was the subject of many conversations with my husband during our full-time parenting years because I was so often off balance. It was not easy to manage both roles well at the same time.
Often Dennis felt he was getting the leftovers of my time and energy, and he was right. There was only so much of me to go around. We laughed one day while writing this book when I told him that because I had six children to take care of and him to serve too, he got one-seventh of my attention. He said it was often less than that!
Growing romance in marriage during the different seasons of life is hard work. A good question to ask is, Where does my loyalty lie? Am I loyal to my husband first or my children? Answering this question will be a litmus test of your romantic allegiance.
Adapted from Rekindling the Romance © 2004 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used by permission of Nelson Books, a division of Thomas Nelson Publishers. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of Nelson Books.