Commentary: Not easy but parents could use dining-in for two for needed couple time
After weeks of dealing with the kids at home and a year of this dreaded COVID-19, mums and dads should carve out quality time with each other, says mum June Yong.
SINGAPORE: When news that two can dine in broke, my husband and I looked at each other with a raised eyebrow and then a smile.
We’ve been stuck at home for the past two months, with the supermarket or nearby hawker centre as our only “date” venue. I've been yearning to get out and indulge in our ritual of tucking into an intimate meal together.
This is very likely an after-effect of having spent nearly six weeks with the kids, factoring in two weeks of home-based learning (HBL) prior to the mid-year holidays.
Having to cope with the energy-sapping project of keeping them engaged and entertained under one roof is enough to drive even the best of us crazy.
But maybe this also points to something deeper within ourselves, a collective desire to steal away from the hustle of parenthood and rediscover each other once more.
HARD TO SPEND QUALITY TIME WITH YOUR SPOUSE WHEN KIDS ARE HOME
It’s not impossible to do this at home. But I have found it hard to focus on my husband when there are clothes to be folded, dishes to be washed, and children to be minded and eventually packed off to bed.
We have arrived at a natural division of labour in the pursuit of parenting efficiency, even if the home, which resembles a war zone, betrays none of that effort. And after a long hard day at parenting, the brainless distraction of Netflix and Disney Plus can be a welcomed thing.
The trouble is once the screen is turned on, all manner of conversations tend to get shut down. And by conversations, I don’t mean a running commentary of everything the kids did today, as much as that tends to dominate parental communications.
According to marriage therapist Marni Feuerman writing on Very Well Mind last September, it is the deeper conversations that form the glue that holds a couple together. “It's critical that you talk about the highs and lows sprinkled throughout your week. These topics may be from outside interactions with others or something specifically between you and your spouse.”
In such hazy days of the both of us working-from-home and finding no clear line between work and family, this can be an exceptionally tall order. Home is no longer a mere space of rest and family time but also a place of vocation.
If we leave things to chance, the stars stay misaligned: When I feel like talking, he could still be in work-mode. And when he’s relaxed, I could be chipping away at some assignment.
THE PARENTHOOD CHALLENGE
To be fair, couples have experienced these struggles long before COVID-19. The arrival of a baby really changes the dynamics of a household, writes researcher Matthew Johnson of Binghamton University in a 2016 commentary in The Guardian.
In our first year of parenthood, it was even harder to get away. My own head was often filled with baby-related worries – is she going to struggle to get down for her nap? Is there sufficient milk for her?
By the time I was ready to shift mental gears and focus on my partner sitting in front of me, we had to wear our parenting hats again.
Young parents spend the bulk of their energies figuring out their child, and barely have any leftovers for their spouse at the end of the day apart from muttering a quick “goodnight” and “remember to buy diapers tomorrow” as they sink into their pillows.
It is not surprising that longitudinal research built on decades-long data has found the marital relationship often suffers once kids enter the picture.
The rate of decline in relationship satisfaction can be nearly twice as steep for those with children than for childless couples. If the child has a high-needs temperament, the resulting stress is often amplified.
The state of perpetual tiredness and tension can lead to the marriage feeling more like “a functional partnership than a romantic partnership,” describes Elizabeth Scott, wellness coach and author of 8 Keys to Stress Management, in a commentary on Very Well Mind in March.
(She felt a sense of "despair" each time she had to breastfeed. But there’s one thing that made all the difference in this difficult journey, this new mother says on this week's Heart of the Matter podcast.)
CREATING SPACE FOR STRESS-REDUCING CONVERSATIONS
Just as full-time workers know the importance of taking restful breaks, especially after a stressful period, parents need to recharge too. Couples who don’t invest in the most significant relationship of their lives may find their children paying the price.
Children benefit from growing up in a happy and stable family environment, as research has consistently shown. Compared to their counterparts raised in high-conflict or divorced families, these children fare better physically, emotionally and academically.
With travel currently out of the equation, a weekend staycation or a leisurely meal outside might be the next best thing.
I recall a couple of years back when we were experiencing parenting struggles with one of our kids. It was an extremely stressful period.
But one weekend, my husband and I had the chance to take some time off and have brunch at one of our favourite cafes.
We rekindled our love of connecting with each other, we could give each other our fullest attention and we remembered why we had kids in the first place: Because we were in love and wanted to share our joy with an expanded family.
I also took the opportunity to vent my feelings about the difficult situation at home. I can recall vividly how I felt: Acceptance, not judgement for whatever negative emotions were spilling out of me.
That brunch date gave us the space to engage in stress-reducing conversations, enabling me to return to our children with a renewed sense of hope and optimism.
Such “get-aways” to return the husband-and-wife role to its rightful place could well be a fortnightly ritual of sipping tea at your local coffee shop and doesn’t have to involve an expensive, Michelin-starred restaurant or a full-on staycation.
Often, all it takes is enlisting the help of grandparents for two to three hours, or getting a trusted friend or neighbour to watch the kids.
START INVESTING IN YOUR FUTURE
We live in particularly anxious and troubling times. It’s all too easy to project all our affection onto the children, and allow our lives to revolve around them.
But all the more we need to keep our eye on the prize: Our children cannot be the raison d'etre of our marriage.
They are deeply and intimately a part of it of course, but not the sole reason – not least for the fact that they will eventually grow up, leave, and start families of their own.
We don’t want to find out 20 years and an empty nest later, that there is nothing but a ghost of a relationship to hang on to.
So start small but start now. Make couple time a priority and plan it in your schedule. Remember the reasons why you chose each other at the beginning, and you will more likely be there for each other at the end.
June Yong is a mother of three, a freelance writer and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.