Imagine a game of "Wheel of Fortune" in which three married couples face off in a high stakes game. The grand prize is a happy future filled with love and passion. The consolation prize is a future involving only the lives of the couple's children. The word has eight letters. The clue is, "The most enduring relationship is one between (eight blanks)."
The first three letters have been revealed by the stunning Miss Vanna. P, A, and R. The letters remaining are E, N, T, and S. Couple No. 1 think they are going to win. They shout out "Parents!" But couple No. 2 know better. They will be crushed not to win the cruise to Cabo San Luca, so they blurt out "Partners!" Pat Sajak looks confused. Indeed, either of these words seems to fit. Is there really that much of a difference?
Couple No. 3 have lost interest in the game. They have been eyeing each other for the last half-hour and their score has suffered as a result. In an unprecedented move, the two step off the sound stage, head back to their room at the Beverly Hills Marriott, and jump into the queen-size bed. They know that there is something more important than being partners or parents. They know that first, they must be lovers.
It is a common belief in today's world of gender equality and egalitarianism that when a couple marry and become parents, they assume the role of partners. When a conflict arises or a decision about a child crops up--well, of course, they parley their way through parenthood.
But when we sign on to parenthood, must we lay to rest all the passion and mystery that existed when our relationship was new? Mind you, I am quick to endorse the role of parenting. It is the highest purpose we can serve as humans, and a child is the greatest contribution that we can make to this world. I have seven myself to back up this belief. And indeed, both religion and evolution tell us that we have no higher function than being parents. It allows humanity to endure.
In fact, women reach their sexual peak years after the prime child-bearing years. And yet I hear the same story time and again from married couples: "After the kids were born, we just couldn't find the time/energy/attraction/desire." A newborn child becomes both the product of a couple's love and passion, and the cause of its diminishing. As much as this little bundle of joy symbolizes love, it is likewise capable of disturbing the lambent fire that keeps couples together.
Sure, children take up more of our time than we ever thought possible. We have to feed them, clothe them, wash them, cuddle them, wake up in the middle of the night for them; and by the time we have finished all that, the thing we want most, more than anything else in the world, is sleep. The thought of offering affection to our spouse seems like something that is too difficult to do. So we justify not doing it.
According to nearly every study, your sex life suffers after you have children. Masters and Johnson documented that both sexual and marital satisfaction decline steadily from the moment of the birth of a first child until the last child leaves home. A University of Michigan study reports that the incident of sexual intercourse between new parents drops by more than 40% in the first year following childbirth. Is it simply a matter of too little free time for sex? Too many diaper changes, lost teething rings, late nights of crying, and Cheerio spit-ups to find 30 minutes to make love? I don't think it is that simple.
The aspect of parenting that many mothers and fathers forget is the following: Not only should they be giving their child love in practice, they should be showing them love in theory. They should impart both the belief in love and the example of love. The greatest gift a man can give to his children is to love their mother. The greatest blessing a woman can give to her children is to cherish their father. By doing so, parents convey to their children that life is not a capricious accident or a purposeless ruse. Rather, life is embedded with deep meaning. And every time a child looks at two parents who are happy, they are reminded of that fact.
What do we do, then, to halt the incidence of sexual drought that so often accompanies parenthood? The following six suggestions are practical, simple changes that can be made and will remind a married couple with children that they were first a couple, then a married couple, and only in the final stretch did they become parents.
1. Put a lock on your bedroom door. Don't allow the kids to sleep in your bedroom, unless there are very specific circumstances. This room is to be your sanctuary--the place in the house that is reserved solely for you and your spouse. In fact, you not only have a right to this space, but keeping it off limits is necessary to the health of a household.
2. Never talk about anything functional during lovemaking. Do not let your mind wander to whether you left the oven on, or whether you remembered to sign Bobby's homework assignment. Your brain can be the biggest enemy in restoring an active sex life. It gets stuck in "function mode"--and it worries about everything else that is going on in the house besides your spouse.
3. Go away together at least twice a year. Farm the children out to friends or relatives, book a vacation, and act like newlyweds on a honeymoon. Make love, giggle, and have long and deep and meaningful conversations so that you can rediscover that you are not just a mother or a father but a person with a libido, an intellect, and an emotional capacity. Treat the financial burden of these retreats as wise investments into your future happiness--spend now, so that you won't have to spend on a marriage counselor later on. If this is something you cannot afford, then at least try and get the kids out of the house--perhaps sending them to their grandparents, so that you and your spouse can have time together at home.
5. Always use physical touch. When you come home, hug your spouse; when you wake up, kiss each other. Even if you don't feel like it. Nothing creates better communication and closeness than experiencing love through touch. The same is true with smiling. If you try smiling, eventually you will discover that you have many reasons in your life to feel happy and to smile. Find the brightness in every day and let your countenance reflect your discovery.
6. Declare family time over at 9:00 p.m. Every night, set aside a few hours for family time, but end at 9:00 p.m. From six to nine every evening, have dinner with your family, bathe the children, read them stories, help them with their homework, and let your kids come and talk to you about anything they want. But at 9:00 p.m. make sure all the children are in bed with the lights out, and that teenagers understand that you are not to be disturbed. This gives you time to unwind, read, cuddle, and hopefully, perhaps, maybe even--have sex!
Think of all these suggestions as strategies that can be implemented to ensure that you stay lovers and not just parents. They will help you keep a happy home, where your children feel happy and secure. This will enable them to build their own happy homes when the time comes.