Mothers, it seems, can live without a lot of things: sleep, exercise, quiet dinners made from scratch, peace, privacy in the bathroom, romance. On second thought, scratch the last one. We think we can live without romance, but we can't, at least not happily or indefinitely. Romance is the gel on the lens, softening those harsher moments of marriage and child rearing. It recasts days of all whine and no roses in a sunnier light. Romance also keeps the parenting going as it feeds our malnourished egos and ids. Without it, life becomes one long to-do list.
The problem is, parenthood can be so consuming, both in spirit and in practice, that there is little time or energy left for the couple who began it all. In 12 years of marriage, my most frequent complaint to my husband has not been about taking out the garbage or helping with the kids. It's been about wanting more affection, more attention, more talks, more dinner dates -- more romance. And although I call it my need, I believe it's his need, too.
When our first child was born, we knew our romantic life would take a dive as we adjusted to caring for a new baby. But I assumed that as long as Fred and I continued to love each other, our relationship would automatically retain romance.
Mistake #1: You can love each other and still have a relationship devoid of romance.
Mistake #2: There is nothing automatic about romance when you have children.
For parents, romance must often be a state of mind as much as anything else, sometimes even premeditated and deliberate. Which is not as much work as it sounds. All you need is to notice love and to bother acting on it.
I'm not talking about single white roses brought to dinner -- a practice that got a now-divorced man I know absolutely nowhere. This kind of staged romance looks better than it feels. Real romance is those ephemeral moments, like when you find your spouse sound asleep next to your wide-awake baby. It's looking at each other and laughing instead of crying when your 4-year-old knocks over her third beverage of the day. It's love's impractical, sentimental side.
If it's as simple as all that, then why aren't our lives just full of romance? They are, but we're too busy to notice and too tired to act. Plus, it feels frivolous to think about romance when there are so many other things to worry about, like fevers, car seats, and toilet training. "Kids are the number one excuse parents give for allowing their marriage to take a backseat," says couples therapist Michele Weiner Davis, author of The Sex-Starved Marriage. "But when you have a child, you need to put your marriage first, because having a good relationship is a lifelong gift you can give to your kids."
Here's the truth: Maintaining your romance postbaby depends, in large part, on broadening your definition of what's romantic. Lingering in bed till noon on the weekends is no longer a workable definition. Lying in until the decadent hour of 7 a.m. with your chubby tot between you is. It's not less, it's different.
"What I consider romantic now actually includes Hannah," says Kim Casalena, a new mom in Belmont, Massachusetts. "After coming home from the hospital, we had a photo session with the digital camera. Dominick was running back and forth to the camera, trying to set up the self-timer so we could get a picture of the three of us. It took so long to get a good shot, but the snuggles on the couch and the way we laughed were totally worth it."
I remember those giddy days of new parenthood. But even now when I watch my husband let our 7-year-old give him a hairdo, I tend to tear up as I laugh. Look at what this man is willing to do to make his little girl happy, I think, and that gentleness makes him very attractive to me.
For my friend Kitty O'Callaghan, a mom of three in White Plains, New York, romance beckons when her husband helps with chores without being asked. "It's like that episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, when Ray buys a super-vacuum and is loving all the gadgetry. The wife walks in and Ray is vacuuming the curtains, and she says, 'I've never been more attracted to you than I am right now.' My husband helping like that increases the chance of romance later, because if all I'm thinking about is how I didn't get XYZ done, it's probably not going to happen," she says.
As we broaden our definition of romance, we can think of it this way: There's G-rated romance (family tickle-fests), which can include the kids but is still between the two of you. There's mom and dad PG-13 romance in front of the kids (kissing at the sink, grabbing each other in the hallway). And there's husband and wife R- and sometimes X-rated romance. A couple would be wise to cultivate all of them.
It only takes a minute
But you're too tired to have a romantic life or even a sense of humor, right? Well, snap out it. You're going to be tired for the next 20 years, so you may as well make the best of things. Adding a little romance to your relationship won't make you any more tired, it doesn't require much energy (in fact, it usually gives you energy), it doesn't take a lot of time, and it pays off in spades.
"Think back to the early years and the little things you did to be romantic," says Weiner Davis. "Maybe he would call from work and tell you he wants you, maybe you would send him a slightly suggestive e-mail." You could also trade back rubs once a week or even single body-part rubs. Touching is romantic even if it ends there, and every parent can use a massage.
My friend, a mom of three in northern New Jersey, talks to her husband on the phone several times each day. And every time they say goodbye they make a little fake kissing noise. "It started as a total goof," she says, "but it's now become this kind of sweet private joke between us."
Work for it
"This marriage isn't working for me," said a friend's husband (and so many husbands before him) as he was on his way out the door for the last time. Talk about misguided notions. Who said marriage was supposed to work for you? Maybe you're supposed to work for it, just as you work for everything else you value in your life.
"Unless you make the effort to connect with each other -- talking after the kids go to sleep, taking walks together whenever you can, having dinner dates as often as you can -- then the little time you do have together may be spent fighting because you'll feel like opponents," says Weiner Davis. "When you spend time and attention on each other and connect emotionally, the little irritating things can get written off."
Georgia Galanoudis, a Dix Hills, New York, mom of two, says she stays connected to her husband by playing games. "Once the kids are in bed, Steve and I get out the trivia games or play a computer driving game together -- just hang out having fun like we always did."
But for many of us, television and the computer suck away precious evening adult time when we could be reconnecting but don't. Meghan Kendall, a mom of two in Los Angeles, tries to solve the problem by multitasking. "I ask Joseph to sit and read next to me while I'm catching up with e-mail -- it's nice and quiet and we're close." They also have a standing Friday-night date, with their son's former preschool teacher booked to babysit from now to infinity. "Occasionally, we have to use the time to get stuff for the house or do errands, but these days it's romantic to walk through a store holding my husband's hand and not have a child pulling at me," she says.
Elaine Stinson, the mother of a 3-year-old and a 23-year-old in Northampton, Massachusetts, says that having any kind of a romantic life with her husband now requires "recruiting a sitter to take Emma for Saturday-morning walks in the park so that Dave and I have the morning to do whatever." When my husband and I have a weekday lunch date or, every once in a while, take what we call a "marital health" day while the kids are in school, it feels a tad illicit, like I'm having an affair with my husband -- which is a nice way to feel about your spouse.
Leave your body alone
Besides exhaustion and inertia, feeling rotten about your body can be one of the biggest impediments to romance. Once again, get over it. You don't have to be totally comfortable with your postbaby shape, and you can keep working on making it better. But in the meantime, do yourself and your partner a favor and show your body some respect. For one thing, look at the amazing creation it's produced. "I feel better about my body now, despite the fact that I find my boobs laughable," says Kendall. "You're either going to find peace after having babies, or you're going to find the name of every plastic surgeon in town." Bear in mind, too, that complaining about your imperfections is a drag for your mate to listen to. So put on some nice undies, dim the lights, and keep your self-criticism to yourself.
Sex doesn't solve everything, but it sure can help. It's the one thing you do with your mate that you don't do with anyone else. And because it's a central part of what makes your relationship intimate, the lack of it has ripple effects all over your marriage. "When couples drop out of sex, they're often less willing to be playful, to laugh at each other's jokes, to sit next to one another on the couch, to be friends," says Weiner Davis. In other words, it's hard to have romance if you're not having sex.
Of course you're tired. But on your deathbed, will you wish you'd slept more or made love more? So when the merest flicker of desire crosses your mind, or your partner makes it clear he's interested, go ahead and take the plunge even if the planets aren't all in alignment. The fact is you don't have to be fully rested, perfectly toned, or exactly in the mood to do it. (You don't even have to do it -- just being naked together can be romantic.)
"How many people who jog really feel like doing it before they start?" asks Weiner Davis. "But once they get started, it feels pretty good. My husband and I have been together thirty-one years, and still, periodically, we'll look at each other over dinner and say we can't believe we made these incredible human beings. It's always a romantic moment."
You and your spouse have an intimate history together that you share with no one else. You had babies together. You saw them enter the world and grow. You watched each other grow into people who care more about someone else than about yourselves. By raising kids together, you're engaging in the most impractical, sentimental, and hopeful act a person can take.
It doesn't get much more romantic than that.