As a social worker, Julia Pryce thought she would be immune to the stresses that a new baby brings to a relationship. "I've read all the books and know what we need to do to prevent problems from occurring in our relationship," explains the Chicago-based mother of a one year-old. "But after Clara was born, the sheer amount of work we need to do at home, combined with all the attention Clara needs and the strain of us both working full-time, have really taken a toll."
It's not uncommon for your relationship to get placed on the back burner after kids enter the picture, acknowledges Carol Lindquist, Ph.D, author of "Happily Married with Kids". "The dynamic in a marriage changes drastically because your priorities shift from yourself and your spouse to your child," she says. That's especially true in our age of helicopter parenting, where parents worry that not enrolling Junior in every available art or tumbling class will mean a rejection from Harvard. "But the best gift you can give your children is to have a happy marriage," says Lindquist.
Here are her tips for getting back on track -- and staying there.
Sweat the Small Stuff
Grand romantic gestures, like whisking your loved one away for the weekend or nabbing a table for two at the latest hot spot, were great in your dating days but not as feasible post-kids. Luckily, it's the little things that make a big difference in a marriage, says Lindquist. Taking the time to brew your wife's coffee in the morning makes your spouse feel loved and appreciated.
Not sure what to do? "Create a 'care list,' outlining what your spouse already does that makes you feel cared for," she says. You might find tasks (like keeping the cars in good condition and paying the bills on time) are the new forms of flirtation. If you're coming up short on these free tasks, create a list of all the house chores and ask to re-assign them. The goal is to appreciate the small ways you both take care of your family.
Go Beyond Date Night
"Research shows that trying something new or engaging in new experiences together, makes you feel more connected," says Rachel Sussman, a licensed clinical social worker who focuses on marriage and family counseling. "Instead of going out to dinner, enroll in a class together or take up skiing." When you do spend time together, try and make it a kid-free time -- complete with talking about things besides your daughter's latest basketball game or son's homework problems. Yes, you might need to find a date night sitter to make this happen, but a few hours learning and laughing together can make the hourly fee worth every penny.
"Make sure you're having fun with your spouse," says Sussman. If it's too hard to completely disconnect from the kids, set a specific amount of time - around 10 minutes - to get all the talk out of the way and then move on to other topics. "You need to see your spouse as someone other than just a parent all the time," explains Sussman.
Take a Tech Break
Chris Bonanos, a magazine editor in New York, will often receive a text from his wife while they're both at home. "And we live in a one-bedroom apartment," notes the father of a two-year-old boy. He's not alone: Many spouses communicate by text or email even when they're rooms apart. It only becomes problematic when the technology cuts into quality time, says Lindquist. Too many couples go out for date night and spend the entire evening on their smartphones, checking in with work or updating their Facebook status. "When you're having dinner or are out as a family, it should be a technology-free time," she says. "Not only will it bring you closer, but you're modeling great behavior for your kids, showing them that time together is more important than what's on your phone."
Every couple fights -- even happy ones. "It's how you fight that's important," says Lindquist. "It's important to maintain a sense of humor even when arguing, and never say anything that's personally disparaging to your partner." This is especially important if you're arguing in front of your children. "It's fine to disagree, but you want to make sure you're not too confrontational or negative," she explains. If you're talking about something difficult, try taking your spouse's hand, or make sure to maintain eye contact. "Touching or laughing during a fight helps keep things from escalating," says Lindquist.
Keep the Bedroom Baby-Free
It's a sad truth: Nothing kills a healthy sex life more than having kids, when suddenly sleep becomes the more important priority to many over-worked and exhausted parents. It may be inevitable but it's not forever -- and there are important steps you can take to keep your sex life as active as possible. "My number one rule is to keep your room baby-free," says Sussman. That means no kids sleeping in your bed, and no toys that'll suddenly start beeping or blaring when you're in the middle of getting some nooky. If possible, keep your room a TV-free zone too. According to an Italian study, couples with a television in their room have sex half as often as those without.
Julia and her husband Heri are making an effort to keep their connection strong. "We make sure we have some Clara-free time together, even if it's just during our morning commute when we try and talk about other things," she says. They even found an overnight sitter so they can go away together. It's not perfect, and it takes work, but Julia knows it's worth it. She says: "When we take the time to be together, the quality of our life together, and our life with Clara, is just so much better."