I attended a departmental dinner on campus with Aaron last night. It was really lovely— good food and wine, great table conversation, eloquent speakers—but the best part of all was having dinner with Aaron… and none of our children.
Look, we love our kids, we really, really do, and it is also a treat to be able to enjoy a meal without having to monitor table manners, cajole reluctant eaters, clean up spills, or hear (uttered in rapid fire and at full volume): “More milk, please!” “Oops, I dropped my spoon!” “He’s kicking me under the table!” “Is there any more food I like?” “He touched me!” “Can I have a tissue?” “I need to poop RIGHT NOW!” “Are we having dessert?”
Today is the 274th day of the year. In that time, Aaron and I have had dinner together without our children exactly 6 times. That’s 266 family dinners to 6 date nights. The first three were legitimate nights out: I bought tickets to a series of symphony concerts and for each of the three we hired a babysitter, drove into the city, ate dinner out, and attended the concerts. It was awesome. I loved it. I hoped at the time to make it a monthly tradition for the entire year.
But then we came to the stark realization that we could not sustain this pace at this point in our life. For the time being, everything we’ve got needs to go into paying our mortgage. If there’s enough extra, hopefully we can get a new washing machine one of these days or fix our broken back gate. It’s not sexy, but it is what it is.
So, the next three “dates” weren’t quite: in late March, we hired a babysitter to go couch-shopping and eat Chinese food with my mother-in-law. In late August, my sister watched the kids while Aaron and I attended a (mandatory) soccer coaches’ training and then went out for sushi. And then last night, my sister watched the kids again while we attended the departmental dinner.
I know that this is not an uncommon situation for families with young kids to find themselves in. I am sure there are plenty of couples out there who never get any dinners out at all, and certainly not without their kids. And I am also sure there are also plenty of people who would love to have the “problem” of having to stay home night after night with their three healthy, growing children.
However I also think that Aaron and I owe it to each other, to ourselves, to our marriage and to our children not to get totally lost in our roles as parents. We need to step away occasionally and remember who we are on our own. And we really need to spend time with other adults.
Since regular babysitters are not a possibility, we have gotten creative in ways to work around this obstacle and still meet our needs:
Solo Time Away for Me: Once or twice a month, I leave Aaron and the kids on their own and head out to have dinner with friends. Aaron comes home early from work and does an amazing job of cooking dinner, feeding the kids, bathing them and putting them to bed. Somehow he always manages to get them all asleep earlier than I ever do when I am on my own, and leave the kitchen cleaner, too! I love every part of my evenings out. Even the train ride into the city is a treat– I relish just sitting there and reading a book ALL BY MYSELF. One thing I worry about is that I might be a little frenetic in conversations with my friends once I finally get to dinner… OTHER ADULTS! FRIENDS! YAY! I HAVE SO MUCH THINGS TO SAY! AAAAAHHH!!!
Solo Time Away for Aaron: This is one we are working on. Sometimes Aaron misses family dinner because he has to work late, but that does not truly count as “time away”– sure, he misses the dropped spoons and spilled milk, but he’s missing it sitting in front of a screen, writing frantically, trying to cram as much work in as he can while still making it home in time to read to at least one of the kids before bed. He used to go to play music with some guys on Sunday afternoons, but soccer season put an end to that: he and I are coaching both Wyatt and Duncan’s teams this season and at this point in his career, he doesn’t have time to coach two soccer games a weekend and also go play music. Really, at present Aaron’s only chance to socialize with other adults is at academic conferences and the very occasional dinner out with a friend.
Taking Turns Accepting Invitations: For a while we were just turning down every invitation that would require us to hire a babysitter. Recently, we have started taking turns accepting these invitations. One of us will go out while the other stays home and holds down the fort with the kids. Sure, it would be more fun to go out together, but going out one at a time is much better than never going out at all.
Sunday Dinners: A month ago, we started hosting Sunday dinners at our house. My sisters and their husbands come over, bringing our sweet baby niece and contributions toward the meal, and we hang out for an early dinner and some sort of post-dinner entertainment– making music or playing a game or just letting the kids watch a movie while we talk. It is a great tradition. We get to interact with other adults we love and our whole family benefits from the time together. I am usually embarrassed at the state of the house– I always have this hope that I will surely have the house meticulously cleaned and organized by next Sunday, but it never happens… and it is good for me to see that nobody cares.
The 10PM Rule: All the things above are great ways to socialize while working around the expense of childcare, but what has made the most profound difference for us as a couple is the decision to spend the last hour of our day with each other. Most nights, by 9:30PM the kids are all sound asleep. It used to be that we used this evening time to get work done– catch up on emails, clean the kitchen, write, etc.– but in the past couple months we have decided to set this time aside for our marriage. By 10PM, the computers are closed, the housework is abandoned, and we spend an hour with each other before bed. It is not a night out on the town, but it is a wonderful thing for our marriage; a daily practice that keeps us in touch with each other and reminds us why we got married in the first place. Sometimes if Aaron has a lot of work to catch up on, we have to skip a few nights here and there and each time, I find that when that happens, life is not quite as rich.