It’s tempting, and dangerous, to throw your entire identity into parenthood.
I sat across the table from my husband as we squandered yet another date night not knowing what to say to one another. It had been this way ever since our first child born nearly two years prior. We would get out every once in awhile, first thrilled by the possibility of a little alone time as husband and wife, then daunted by the task of talking to one another about anything but our kid.
It had been this way since our first child-free outing, when our son was still an infant. We went out for a quick dinner, at the sort of place where you order at the register and take your food back to your table. I had read articles that told me it was vital to use this time talking about something other than our new baby, who had suddenly consumed our lives. This was a time to rejuvenate our romantic relationship. We had never had a problem carrying on deep and interesting conversations, but that night I found myself burying my face in my food, staring out the window, realizing I didn’t have a damn thing to say.
It was a lovely night, the kind that should have warranted a walk downtown, talking about our dreams and our future. Instead we opted for a movie, drowning out the panicked voices in my head telling me that part of our relationship’s foundation had crumbled beneath us the moment our son entered the world. He was the future we had talked about. He was the dream that had come true. He was the crux of our life together, and it made me wonder: what now? what was left?
I was consumed by thoughts of the baby when we were away from him, especially in those early months while my hormones still raged unpredictably. After opting for a quick lunch out while my mother watched our newborn, I found myself openly sobbing over a sandwich for no reason other than missing the baby—who was all of five minutes away. My body yearned to be close to him. Any relationship outside of our mother-and-child bond seemed impossible to nurture. Motherhood ate up my love and affection like an insatiable beast, leaving nothing but skeletal remains for my marriage.
Even as the hormones evened out and our son began to grow more independent, our relationship continued to flounder. We still loved each other, yes, but it was hard to muster the time and energy needed to express that love. The joint efforts of raising a child left us both exhausted. The days spent breastfeeding and tending to the baby’s emotional and physical needs resulted in me feeling “touched out” by the time my husband returned from work. There wasn’t enough of me to go around, and as we added a second child to our family, this became all the more true.
We felt obligated to help one another at home, to surrender ourselves to the constant demands of parenting, at the expense of our own interests and identities. I rarely went out alone or with friends, always feeling guilty for leaving my family in pursuit of my own pleasure. And because of my unhealthy attitude toward nurturing my own identity, I resented my husband whenever he went out. I felt entitled to his help whenever he wasn’t at work. As a result, we never had anything to talk about because our kids had become the center of our entire identities.
It wasn’t until we began to give one another the freedom to grow apart, indulging in our own unique passions and hobbies separately, that we were able to rekindle the intimacy we’d lost. Living on top of one another was not a recipe for a happy marriage. Still, it was hard for me to accept that I shouldn’t martyr myself to motherhood. It took some coaxing and stubborn insistence from my husband that he wanted me to leave to do my own thing. I began attending a writer’s workshop with old colleagues from my university, which only met once every three weeks. Each time I returned I could tell my husband was worn out from the kids, but he insisted that I keep going. In fact, he encouraged me to do more. I started going out with my friends, attending events, occasionally going for a run in the evenings.
It didn’t take long to realize that my sense of self had been the vital ingredient missing in our relationship. As I regained my footing in my own interests and hobbies and friends, I found myself feeling more fulfilled. I was happy, and I wanted that same happiness for my husband. I encouraged him to go back to mountain biking and occasionally going out with colleagues after work. The leap back into ourselves was uncomfortable, but I knew it was necessary.
We began scheduling more date nights instead of lying to ourselves about our schedules being too busy, or our children being too unruly for the babysitter to handle. Now, I no longer fear the uncomfortable pauses of not know what to say to my husband, because I am aware of my personhood beyond the microcosm of motherhood. I am able to look beyond the day-to-day care of our children and give myself room to live, dream, and envision our future. Parenthood is still exhausting, still consuming, but it is not the end-all of who we are. I know now that allowing ourselves space from both our children and one another is the best way to bring us closer in the long run.