Romance for Parents: Tips to Keeping Your Marriage Strong

By Susanna Hickman Bartee

It’s the end of another long day, you’ve just tucked your kiddies into bed and you have your mind on one thing: hitting the sheets. But you’re longing for some badly needed z’s, not hot romance. After putting in a 40-hour work week and whittling down that pile of dirty laundry, many moms and dads can barely make it to the end of a Dr. Seuss book, much less light some candles and put on some Barry White.

If you are in the midst of sleepless nights with a new infant, the exhausting days with a toddler, or the stressful evenings of keeping up with all the school-age activities, then you may actually laugh out loud at the thought of putting a little romance back into your life.

But with a little effort and creativity you can make it happen. In fact, you should. The healthier your marriage, the better off your kids will be. Dr. Phil McGraw, the best-selling author of Relationship Rescue and host of “The Dr. Phil Show,” says when it comes to their own future happiness in marriage, kids who grow up in stable, loving homes are far ahead of peers coming from broken or loveless homes. And it’s not just the future that’s at stake. Kids who see their parents enjoying a great marriage are better adjusted in the here and now. They don’t have the same worries about impending divorce that kids from unhappy homes have.

Maintaining a strong, loving marriage truly is the most important thing you can do for your children, agrees Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.

Once you are convinced that spousal romance is worth fighting for, it’s time to decide your battle plan. Here are some important things to keep in mind while upping your relationship romance rating from lukewarm to oh-so-hot.

Get a good babysitter. Certainly this is easier said than done. If you can’t afford a Swedish nanny and you don’t have a willing teenager living next door who does a dead-on impression of Barney, there are other possibilities. Get to know your neighbors and ask for recommendations. Or start a co-op with other parents who are desperate for a night out. Schools, churches and other places sometimes offer “parents’ night out.” A great resource in Albemarle is the University of Virginia Women’s Center. The staff there keeps an updated list of qualified baby-sitters on hand. Just call them at 434-982-2361 or visit Or place a classified ad in UVA’s student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily. There are lots of seasoned babysitters at UVA who can provide their own transportation and could use some extra spending money.

Get prepared to be strong. It’s almost guaranteed the “Mommy, don’t leave me!” moment will come as soon as your children realize you are going out for a good time and they’re not invited. It may be hard in the beginning, but it is a wonderful thing for children to learn that their parents are in love and like spending some grown-up time alone. Your children will feel better when they drive away for college someday if they know you two can cope without them.

Get a plan. If you don’t have a plan, you’ll end up running errands or going to eat at the same kid-friendly place you always visit. Use the opportunity to explore new ground. Make a list of new restaurants and check them off as you visit them. Or decide to peruse every art gallery in Charlottesville before the end of the year. Many galleries offer free wine and cheese receptions on the first Friday of each month. In the summers, Charlottesville offers open-air concerts on the Downtown Mall in their “Fridays After Five” series. One year my husband and I bought season tickets to a university’s cultural arts performance series. We saw things we would never have chosen otherwise. And though we didn’t thoroughly enjoy every single thing we saw, we never regretted going together.

Get serious about leaving the kids behind. It is very difficult to go an entire evening without talking about your children. That’s okay, but it’s worth trying to focus only on yourselves when you get the chance. Have you ever asked yourself what on earth you spent so much time talking about before you were parents? Maybe together you can remember and go there again.

Get a little cheap now and then. Even if money is not tight around your house, you’ll enjoy stretching your creativity occasionally by going on free dates. It doesn’t cost anything to stroll around the park and feed the ducks. Virginia is full of terrific hiking trails with romantic overlooks. And wine lovers are lucky to have so many nearby vineyards that offer free tastings. If you find a wine you like, splurge and enjoy a glass or bottle at a vineyard like Oakencroft, where you can relax on Adirondack chairs while your little kiddies feed the geese on the pond. You might also consider doing some charitable work. Helping the homeless may not seem awfully romantic, but serving a good cause together can forge a deep bond between you.

Get creative if you are stuck at home. When our babysitters are busy or we have a sick child, we put the kids to bed a little early with a story tape or a new book. Then we bake cookies and watch a video, or just curl up on the couch and talk about our grown-up dreams. One suggestion based on experience…wait until the little ones are asleep before you put the cookies in the oven. Otherwise you may end up with more company on the couch than you intended.

Get busy with the small things. Big gestures like flowers and chocolates are easy (but never unappreciated!). It’s in noticing what really makes your spouse click that you score romantically. When my husband offered to watch Trading Spaces with me instead of the war flick he rented, I glowed all evening. And he got an unsolicited backrub for his gallantry. One of my favorite ways to remind him he’s loved is to fill up his car with gas and vacuum out the inside. We also zap quick emails to each other now and then when we run across something we know will make the other laugh.

Get dressed to impress. I have a rule that I must be showered, dressed and have at least a dab of make-up on by 10 a.m. Otherwise it’s just too easy to still be walking around in my flannels with bed-head at dinnertime. I do this even if the only other person over the age of 10 to see me all day will be my husband. And he occasionally dresses for church in that itchy sweater vest he knows I love. It’s nice to know that with a little effort we can still knock each other’s socks off.

Get him or her to look you in the eye. Remember that you have an intimate, known-only-to-the-two-of-you relationship and it’s sacred. When you are at a crowded party—or just around a table crowded with little people—glance over and give him a look that reminds him he’s the most important person in the room. Come up with your own secret signal that means, “Guess what I’d rather be doing right now?”

Get into each other’s heads. One of our favorite pastimes is playing “The Newlywed Game” with each other. Remember the game show when married contestants were asked details about each other, often revealing how little they actually knew? Pick a few questions and see how you do. What’s his favorite movie? What did she want to be when she was a little girl? What’s the first thing he would he do if he won $10,000,000? Which would she rather do—scuba dive or sky dive?

Get interested in each other’s interests. I was minimally athletic when we married, but took up running eight years later. Because we were never able to run together, my longtime-runner husband did not know much about my progress. When we entered a cross-country 10K team race together, he was astonished at my endurance. That finish line high-five was as romantic as any candlelight kiss ever was.

Get a really good sense of humor. Parenting has its miserable moments, but it has its hilarious moments too. And you are bound to end up sharing both kinds with your partner in all of this. If you can help each other see the humor in your lives, you are well on your way to creating a rock solid marriage. When my husband was able to make me laugh in the midst of a nasty stomach virus that hit our whole family at once, I realized all over again that I’d married the right man.

Get to bed at the same time. This is so easy in the beginning when you want to do everything together all the time. But once you add kids to the family, late night “alone time” is tempting for both of you. However, habitually going to bed at different times eliminates that wonderful moment at the end of your crazy day to simply relax in each other’s arms. And it’s hard to spoon when your partner is already snoring.

Get some candles and light them. Candles are wonderful little things. Turn down the lights, strike a match and you have instant romance. You also have dim light to camouflage the dust building up on the TV cabinet and a nice fragrance to mask the dog who really needs a bath.

Get dreaming. Build your dream house over and over again. Who doesn’t love to dream about the perfect home? It can be loads of fun to stroll around a huge home improvement store and make plans together. Maybe you want to build a bigger deck and he wants to remodel the master bath. It doesn’t really matter as long as you’re daydreaming together. If you’re really ready to put your relationship to the test, tackle a home improvement project on your own one weekend. You’ll definitely end up with some blisters, some memories, and maybe even a better backsplash.

Get going out with your friends. Yes, you read that right. Sometimes a little time apart is all it takes to refresh and re-energize one of you. Maybe it’s a monthly book club or an early-morning basketball game. Absence does sometimes make the heart grow fonder. And if your only interests are each other, then things will get boring very quickly.

Get growing. Learn something new together. There are endless adult-level classes offered in Albemarle. Imagine learning to express your deepest sentiments in another language. Imagine ballroom dancing like pros at the next wedding you attend. Imagine learning a new craft together. Remember the unbearably romantic pottery wheel scene in “Ghost”? That could be you!

Get it written in ink. Those special dates have to be a priority for you both. It’s easy to bump your beloved for an important meeting, an impromptu party, or that “I’m just too tired to go anywhere” feeling. But do it over and over again and resentment will build. Show your spouse his or her importance by guarding your time together.

Get sweaty. Doing something together that works up a sweat can be a blast. Dig out your bikes and go on a long ride—without having to stop for juice box breaks or to adjust anyone’s training wheels. Go for a jog—then race each other to the ice cream shop at the end. Take a kick-boxing or aerobics class together—you’ll get just as much of a workout from laughing as you watch each other try to keep up. Many gyms offer babysitting services so you can sweat it out with your sweettie.

Get started. What are you waiting for? Book a sitter, make your plan and start enjoying that fabulous person you fell in love with. Remember you were husband and wife long before you were father and mother and you’ll still be husband and wife long after those little darlings you made together are grown and gone.

Susanna Hickman Bartee still remembers one of the most romantic things anyone ever did for her—the time her husband changed a dirty diaper even after winning the rock-paper-scissors game.

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