Mistake-based learnings on how to enjoy bringing up kids while maintaining a happy marriage in a two-career household.
(Plus some notes on valiant-but-mostly-futile attempts to cram in personal recreation amid the allotted list of household duties and acute sleepiness.)
It’s nice to enjoy your life. (Strong opening Captain Obvious.) Yet my wife & I sometimes wake up on a Monday morning, talk about getting through the week and slip into routine as if there’s no actual life-living value coming our way until the weekend.
Buddhists reckon being in the moment is of great importance on 'the path to enlightenment'. They call it smṛti or sati, which translates as mindfulness.
My over-simplified-to-the-point-of-being-borderline-xenophobic understanding of it is that you enjoy the main course more if you focus on your chicken rather than wondering about whether there’ll be a chocolate option for pudding.
There’s definitely something to be gained from this mentality. How often has your mind been elsewhere when you could have benefitted from engaging with your surroundings? Whether it’s paying no attention to a conversation with your partner because you’re pondering a work situation; not fully relaxing to enjoy a film because you’re thinking through potential childcare options for a future commitment; or missing some interesting insights in a work meeting because you’re wondering who’d win a fight between a large grizzly bear and a medium-sized white shark in the shallow end of a swimming pool.
We all do it (except maybe that last one) and you don’t have to be the Dalai Lama to realise that we’d get more out of each day, and out of our lives in general, if we spent increased time appreciating what was happening now.
But that’s easier said than done. Especially if you’re stressed. And particularly if you’re concerned that your collective moments maybe aren’t shaping up to deliver everything you’d hoped for from life…
I’m ashamed to admit it, but there have been plenty of occasions when I’ve not made the most of time with my children because my mind’s been elsewhere. I love the kids, they’re the best little people I’ve ever been affiliated with, but I’ve got two big challenges with mindfulness:
i) I’m a planner. And without being safe in the knowledge that everything’s in-hand for the success of future moments, I have a hard time concentrating on this one. (And, yes, I generally ruin those future moments by worrying about the ones after that anyway.)
The only way I’ve found to avoid this is to block out a short time each day to plan whatever needs doing and make a list of the required actions. Then, for the rest of the day, if my mind starts to wander towards planning I can reel it back in… because I’ve already planned when I’m going to plan.
(Totally justifiable to speculate on how my brain hasn’t exploded yet.)
ii) I’m terrified of wasting my life. Whether it’s something genetic, something from my upbringing or just that I already threw away a significant lump on the TV show Lost, I’m often more aware of what I’m not doing than what I am doing. (And, when you’re working full time and have two kids, there’s a lot of stuff you’re not doing.)
This mind-set was making me quite depressed for a while. The solution I found was to identify exactly what I wanted in my week-to-week life so that time outside work felt well-rounded. My wife did the same. My list was:
- Plenty of time with the kids & quality time with my wife
- Dinner/drinks with friends at least every couple of weeks - Writing
- Sports & Exercise. Weekly football / cardio / weights. Tennis / hit some balls on the driving range / horse riding every few weeks (see Learned Wisdom #17 below)
Clearly the problem is finding time to fit everything in. Particularly as, after woring all week, we want to maximise our time with the kids during their waking hours. Realism had to bite, and get really good at skiing, improve my Spanish, learn rhythm guitar have been left on the shelf for now. Everything else on my list (and my wife’s) we are finding a way to fit in. Generally by getting babysitters in the evenings (e.g. we were surprised to find that, during summer, we can get a canter-out together from a local stable once-a-month in a Wednesday 8pm-9pm timeslot after we’ve put the kids to bed), but also by doing things like cycling the work commute for cardio a couple of times a week (so that I don’t have a weekend-time trade-off of be with the kids vs go running).
Knowing that there is space for my stuff in the weekly/monthly routine (even though some things aren’t even that frequent) means I worry about what I’m not doing much less.
Now I'm generally in the moment a bit more and I frequently, as Woody Harrelson instils to Jesse Eisenberg in the brilliant Zombieland, enjoy the little things.
(Not every tip for getting through life on an earth where zombies are the dominant species is as applicable to a life with children… actually, see LW #18 below.)
Obviously my life hasn’t suddenly become entirely populated by sunshine and lollypops – if I’ve got something stressful going on at work it’s hard not to have it dominate my thoughts that week – but when I’m with the kids I am finding it much easier to focus on just enjoying that time with them. And it’s dead nice.
#17: If you grow up proudly working-class in the North and find that anyone mentioning their enjoyment of golf or horse riding causes you to internally respond with “Oh f*ck off, f*ck off, f*ck off. F*ck off, f*ck off, f*ck off. F*ck off, f*ck off, f*ck off… F*ck Off”, then it’ll be a sizable hit to your rugged self-image when, upon actually trying these things, it turns out that you really quite like them. (You may have similar experiences with skinny vanilla lattes, the film When Harry Met Sally and exfoliating facial scrub.)
#18: A surprising amount of things that are good rules for surviving a post-apocalyptic zombie-ruled world are equally applicable to surviving life with small children. For example:
- Be swift and vigilant on the toilet. Something could burst in at any moment
- Come to terms with the fact that you may never see your friends again
- Always carry antiseptic wipes
- Get used to eating fast, you’ll most-likely have to move quickly very soon
- The putrid smells you encounter every day can be lessened if you breathe through your mouth
I just spent 15 mins folding and putting away clothes. It wasn’t awesome. I would have rather done something fun for that quarter-of-an-hour and let the heap on the landing grow for a couple more days. However, tidying-up the clean washing (within specified post-drying timelines) is a job I signed up to in The Anderson Peace Treaty of 2010. Before that, a lack of appreciation for each other’s priorities was causing a few household skirmishes…
Despite my natural tendency for a bit of cosy mess, I have always put effort into ensuring my children grow up in a nice environment, free from e coli, strangle-hazards and potential falls-from-height. However, in the early days, my wife would have described my contribution at home with words like "lazy", "self-centred" and "f*ck-knuckle".
Essentially, there was a sizable gulf between my view of acceptable commitment to house work and my wife’s perception of the required efforts.
This was largely because, while I was still merrily oblivious, she had recognised the extent to which our non-child-based leisure time was restricted by having a kid alongside a career each.
Her earlier acceptance of this was probably because women are forced to start coming to terms with constraints and sacrifices the moment they get pregnant:
No alcohol/pâté/rollercoasters> No energy > No lean torso > No comfortable position to sleep in > Huge physical trauma > No break from being the dedicated nutrition-facility for a small human
… whereas a man’s journey over that same period tends to be:
Gain designated driver for nights out > Get 2 weeks off work (It's little wonder we're a bit behind at first.)
When my wife’s maternity leave was over, we divided the household chores roughly in half and both kept largely on top of our stuff. However, maybe due to some maternal nesting instinct thing (or perhaps because it’s pretty standard to not want sh*t strewn all over your house), it became clear that my relaxed attitude to clothes-putting-away was really infuriating my wife. And I couldn’t understand why she wanted to spend all our free-time ration doing chores instead of enjoyable stuff.
Eventually I came to terms with the fact that there just is a load more stuff to do in the house. It still feels like Norris McWhirter should be appearing to verify my record-breaking stats on weekly volume of garments returned to wardrobes, but I get why the amounts are exponentially higher than when you’re just a couple. (Post-birth, not only are there all the baby’s little costumes, your things also need washing more frequently due to constant non-specific baby-engendered soilage.)
It only takes a couple of day’s neglect before our house starts feeling like the inside of an arcade 2p drop-down. So, until we earn enough money to employ a maid or (ideally) a team of trained cleaner-monkeys, I should probably keep trying to deal with my little jobs before I have a work-out or sit down to watch telly. But, on the flip-side, my wife also recognises that, to avoid going mental, there’s got to be a reasonable point each evening where we both stop and relax.
Learned Wisdoms #15: If someone at work says you look "a little bit tired and out of shape", complaining about this to a woman who’s carried a human for 9 months, pushed it out of her vagina, been up in the middle of the night breast-feeding for 6 weeks and can no longer go for a run without a-little-bit-of-wee-coming-out is not a strong move. (The scene ends badly, as you might imagine, in a cavalcade of anger and fear.)
#16: In the division of house-hold chores, put the bins out is generally a good one to pick. It’s perceived as a high-value deliverable, but actually only takes a few minutes.
However, if you live in a suburb where foxes frequently rip open bin bags and scatter the contents all over your garden, you may want to think twice about signing up for it. Particularly if your wife is a good negotiator who can easily make a strong case for pick up the disgusting bin-mess that’s covering the entire lawn being an implied sub-task of bins out.
I opened the fridge door the other evening to get milk for the kids. A bottle of soy sauce fell off the top shelf and smashed on the floor. The spatter pattern (I watch Dexter) extended to the vertical surfaces on all 4 sides of the kitchen. And out through the open door, right across the lounge to the sofa*.
Not ideal. But this was a notably-positive moment for me because my subsequent train of thought was, “Oh. That’s a bit rubbish. I suppose I’d better clear up before something macabre happens involving all this broken glass and those fast-approaching small children.”
What I didn’t think was, “Why the f*ck does my f*cking wife always leave tall f*cking jars on the shallow f*cking top shelf of the f*cking fridge door? What the f*ck is f*cking wrong with her? F****CK!”
This was significant progress because, as it turns out, once you throw work and then family pressures into the mix, a happy relationship isn’t something you can take for granted…
We met at the start of the twenty-first century on the same graduate programme at a company in Nottingham. Two years later we got together (me having reached into my bag of pick-up techniques and pulled out ‘twenty-four months of awkward flirting, general inaction and fading self-respect’). And we were very happy. We had 5 fantastic years - courting, getting married, travelling & working around the world, getting pregnant. Enjoying both the adventures and the mundane times because we were deeply in love and living them together.
When our little girl was born we went through the standard-issue 3-4 months of sleep deprivation, but having our first child was amazing and we loved finding our way together. Things started to get difficult when my wife went back to work after 10 months. Suddenly a daily routine was:
Wake up > Dress, feed & drop-off our daughter > Rush to work > Work all day > Rush back to pick up our daughter > Bath her & put her to bed > Log on and finish any outstanding work > Cook tea and finally sit down together at 9:30-10 > Realise there’s still other chores to do > Spend our evening’s conversation bickering about who needs to load the dishwasher/tidy up the pile of shoes that’s starting to restrict lounge-to-kitchen movement/put away the clean washing so we can actually utilise our wardrobes rather than rooting through the clothing alp on the landing/etc… [repeat to fade]
Living in this situation we became constantly grumpy with each other. Even at the smallest of things. (Something’s amiss if you’re shouting stridently at the person you’re supposed to love because “Glee didn’t magically delete itself off the Sky planner, did it?”.) And as our emotional intimacy deteriorated, the physical side went with it… There’s that adage that if you drop a sweet into a jar for every time you have sex in the first year of a relationship, then take one out every time subsequently, the jar would never empty. That sentiment was starting to become true for us (though, in reality, the jar would actually be empty within 20 mins due to unfortunate confectionary-related self-control).
After about 18 months of this, on a night out with friends, an oriental man on the front desk of Karaoke Box stated that we had “a very distant relationship for a husband and wife”. If a total stranger can see that in the time it takes to pay for a session, order some drinks and enquire about borrowing a tambourine, then it’s definitely time to take action…
The first thing we tried was getting babysitters more frequently so we could go out together once the kids were asleep. This was a positive thing eventually but as an isolated first step it really didn’t help (see Learned Wisdom #13 below). We had to take more basic day-to-day action.
A key thing was both making extra effort to keep on top of our side of the household chores – more to follow on this subject in the future (how tantalising is that?) And then came a surprising turn…
I listened to the abridged audio book (because the first of the 12 recovery steps from rubbish-concentration-span-ism is admitting you have a problem). It felt a bit bellyaching, mollycoddled rockstar to be taking self-help guidance from a bloke who’s been on Oprah, but we went with it and very quickly it helped identify behaviours that were driving a wedge between us. Plus the first three of the seven principles had some obvious-sounding-but-surprisingly-effective steps that helped us rebuild the intimacy of our relationship…
1.“Enhance Your Love Maps”. Talk more to understand your partner’s interests and aspirations. Asking open ended questions really helps. (My opening effort was, “If you could have any coffee, with any syrup, from Starbucks, Nero or Costa, what would it be?”. My wife’s initial shot was, “How would you like our life to be in the next 5 years?” Hers was better.)
2.“Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration.” Focus on the things you love about your partner and try to respect/appreciate their differences. Say “Thank you” and “I’m proud of you”. Key note is not to assume they know what you think - you have to say it. (We’ve been making an effort to do this for a while, but my wife still seems to assume I know she thinks I’m well dressed, great at the sex, and able to enrich all conversations with vaguely-relevant film/TV references in a way that is charming and not-at-all annoying.) 3.“Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away.” Listen to your partner when they want your attention. Engage and be enthusiastic. (Even if they seem to be telling you about their day in real-time…)
It felt unnatural to be having conversations or consciously responding in a certain way because the book said so, but very quickly things that had felt prompted started to happen automatically and, over time, our positive sentiment towards each other has returned. We enjoy each other’s company again – at home, as well as out over candle-lit dinner. And it turns out that having intimacy in a relationship is a pretty solid basis for romance and upgraded bedroom-based passion.
When something stressful happens now we don’t immediately look to blame each other. We try to accept what we can’t change about each other and focus on all the positives... for example, I'm pleased to say that my catching reflexes are now awesome, and getting better with every trip to the fridge.
Learned Wisdoms #13: Surprisingly enough, spending more time alone with a person you don’t get on with doesn’t make either of you happier.
You know the Thunderdrome “two enter, only one leaves” idea out of Mad Max where people with differences head alone into a confined space? That.
#14: If you know that your wife loves to receive the Hotel Chocolat tasting box every month, that’s good love mapping. If you make sure it always arrives just as she’s due on her period, that’s prodigious & uncoachable relationship-mega-flair.
* which is dark brown – smartly picked with realistic expectations of life in mind