Does Parenthood Mean You're Grounded?

couple at dinner sipping wine

My niece and her husband just had their first baby, so I sent them a restaurant gift card, with a note: "Use this. Soon. Just you two."

I know what I'm talking about.

After our first child was born, 16 years ago, Frank and I didn't head out alone for six months. The first time we did, we were called home by the babysitter six minutes into a movie. In the six years following, we didn't fare much better.

There were reasons, of course—a miscarriage, finances and, finally, a second child. But by then, we'd become so accustomed to never going anywhere alone together, it hardly seemed to matter.

But it did.

Family togetherness is terrific, and taking kids along on every outing helps develop their social skills and manners. But spending so little time alone with one's partner leaves a married couple adrift. My husband and I drifted, not exactly apart, but a middling distance from the strong pull of that center core that holds a couple together, a center that once held us tightly, in lust, in love, in proximity to one another's minds and spirits. 3 Zen Ways To Keep Connected After Having Kids

But it seemed logical to not go out as much. Our earnings had declined as I stepped down from full-time business owner to part-time consultant to occasional freelancer. Free child care was scarce—his parents urged us to save by staying in, mine lived across the country, and I generally refused to consider any teenaged or non-relative sitter. Then there was the attachment issue I had helped created. Our first son practically considered me his conjoined twin.

Excuses, all of them. We had convinced ourselves that we were simply being responsible parents. In actuality, we were being irresponsible, doing a poor job of modeling a fulfilling marital relationship. As Frank later pointed out, our sons never got out from under the parental gaze, didn't see their parents get dressed up for one another's benefit, weren't getting the message that their parents' private relationship was something worth nurturing.

Most of the blame, I think, was mine. It makes me a little nauseous to recall how often Frank suggested we go out, while I replied that we couldn't (the baseball dinner), or shouldn't (Budget! Snow! Both of us might die in an accident on the way to the restaurant!). The good thing about a decent marriage is that, most of the time, it's not too late to change. At some point, our children no longer required sitters, finances were slightly better and we had to ask ourselves: What are we waiting for? How To Be A Mother, A Wife—And Yourself

Dating my husband, which for so long had seemed like a luxury, a selfish act, suddenly, or I should say, finally, revealed itself for what it was: mandatory marital maintenance.

Our dates now are tame outings—dinner, a movie, even shopping for something other than groceries—but they occur at more regular intervals, and are planned with intention. The kids seem happy to see us head out and, if we waver, they say, "You should go!" Some of that is surely about what they plan to do while we're gone, but sometimes they still request an overnight at Grandma's (where care-giving roles are now somewhat reversed but food flows freely). How To Take Date Night From 'Meh' To Mind-Blowing

I also sense in them a greater intangible awareness in the way they regard us as a couple. Yes, every dating dollar spent is one less in the college fund, but we're investing in something else—we're showing our sons a long marriage in which both partners still love, and get to hang out with, each other.

For too long, we pushed our luck. But we were lucky. Our center held.