By Karen Duncan
We are social creatures. We live to connect with others, to love and be loved. We develop our first meaningful relationships with our families and then move on to friends as the world opens up to us. Our early relationships, when healthy, help us learn to build confidence and trust until, eventually, we create a loving connection with someone who becomes our life partner.
When you first meet your partner, he/she becomes your priority. You savor long talks and loving gazes. You take time to dress up. You rearrange your schedule and try to spend every waking moment together. Then, as so many have done before you, you start a family.
The Crying Stage (of Parents)
Flash forward 9 months… You are no longer just a couple; you are parents. Parents of a beautiful little one who is completely dependent — day and night, night and day, day after day after day after day. You become a caretaker, a role model. Life shifts and priorities change.
More times than not, your partner gets pushed down the priority list a little – okay, a lot! Life shifts so much that, one day, you realize your loving gazes have turned into glares, as you stare in disbelief while your partner pretends not to hear the wails bellowing in the dark. Dressing up means getting out of your pajamas and giving yourself extra bonus points for making it through the day with your shirt on right-side out. You rearrange your schedule for the sole purpose of finding time to sleep, and every waking moment is spent navigating a developmental stage that, once you master it, morphs into the next one.
It is easy for a couple’s relationship to get off balance when they become parents. That can be stressful, and what kind of example does that set for the children? As parents, we are our children’s most important role models. We set the example they will eventually follow. Infants are masters at sensing energy, and young children are keen observers. Both absorb how we are feeling. If we are stressed, they become stressed. They learn from everything we DO, not say.
Couples who don’t make meaningful time for one another begin to drain their relationship until it is no longer healthy. They tend to bicker and become resentful. And children quickly pick up on that. It is imperative that couples make time to enjoy each other’s company and reconnect often. Not only will it nurture their own relationship, but it will set the example of what a happy, healthy relationship looks like, which is exactly what children need to see in order to learn to develop meaningful relationships for themselves.
Learning to Walk (Again)
Date night is the perfect solution! Try not to feel guilty about leaving your little one occasionally. Every time you make time for your partner, you are sending your children the unspoken message: This relationship is important to me, so I am going to do whatever it takes to keep it strong and healthy.
Tips to Get Your Child Date Night Ready
Children don’t always buy into the idea of you leaving for a date night and sometimes use every trick in the book to sabotage your night out!
Stay strong. You are the leader of your family. It is absolutely critical that you remain in control, even when your children jockey for that position. As your family’s leader, you need to be honest and fair. You should be a great communicator who sets expectations high, but still within reach. Your word needs to mean something, and your children need to know they can trust what you say. That is why staying kind but firm (especially when your children are emotional) builds a safe, healthy family.
Teaching your child to separate from you and to trust others is a gift you give them. Remember, when your children learn to successfully separate from you, they will gain confidence in themselves and learn to trust others. Because of this, they will have an easier time making friends and handling situations for themselves. Isn’t that exactly what you want for them? With some preparation and a little time, the anxious stage of separating is manageable, short-lived and, believe it or not, rewarding.
Before you plan a night out, practice little separations throughout the day. Evaluate your child’s development on a regular basis. Because, at first, your job is to meet your infant’s every need, you may not notice when he becomes more capable. Pay attention and promote your child’s growth. Children can handle separation, even if they don’t like it at first. If your child tends to be clingy, it means they are securely attached to you, which is wonderful. They’ll just need extra practice when it comes to separating. Step out of the room for a minute or two, even if your child is crying and wants you near. Validate his feelings by saying, “You want me to stay right here, but I have to get something/do something. I will be back in a minute. You will be okay while I’m gone.” Go out of sight and come back in a minute, just like you said. Continue to practice small separations like this periodically throughout each day.
Make sure to connect with your children before leaving and give them something to look forward to the next time you’re together. On a night you will be going out on a date, spend time with your littles in advance. Snuggle and read books. Sit down in the playroom and let your child lead you in play. Have a dance party. Run an errand together, if you have to, but stay present and express gratitude that you are lucky to have your time with each other. That way, when it’s time to leave, you can say something like, “We were lucky today. We got to spend time together doing __________. Now mommy and daddy need to spend time together. The babysitter will be with you, and you will have fun. We will be together in the morning. We can make Mickey Mouse pancakes for breakfast.”
Take photos and have them available while you’re gone. Since being separated is difficult, take photos of you and your family having good times. Print them and place them in a photo album that the child can take out during the time that you are gone. With your encouraging words playing in their head and visual photos to look at, your child will have an easier time tolerating your absence.
Do not sneak out. Always be honest about leaving. ALWAYS say goodbye, but keep your farewells short. Make your goodbye a ritual by incorporating a butterfly kiss, special handshake or funny hug. NEVER sneak out. At first, saying goodbye may make your child cry, but if you just disappear or sneak out, when she realizes you are gone, she will be confused and scared. She will learn to be afraid that you could leave her at any time. She will not trust you. Also, repeated, unsuccessful attempts to leave are not fair to anyone and will send the message that you are not confident in your decision to leave your child. If YOU are not confident, why in the world should she be? As a result, she will cry and cling to you constantly. Instead, send out positive vibes, smile, go through your ritual and, then, leave.
Do not underestimate the power and importance of date nights. They will keep you and your partner connected, and help you to teach your children to become more confident and trust in others. Date nights done right give you an advantage and help you build a stronger, healthier family.
About the Author: Karen Duncan is the creator and director of Shayna’s Village at the Roth Family JCC of Greater Orlando. She has been a passionate teacher of parents and children for over 25 years and has recently created Homegrown Happiness to help support parents on their journey through parenthood. Follow her on Instagram @homegrown.happiness.