“I just don’t feel that spark with my husband any more. Who knows what he is feeling because we never talk much beyond ‘what’s for dinner,’ ‘what happened at preschool,’ or ‘how did it go at work.’ At night when we could be together, we are so fried that we just go to bed. I read, he goes to sleep, and after awhile I turn out the light. We used to feel so good about each other. Does that feeling come back? Can you lose a spark forever?”

It is so easy to conceive a child, and so hard to provide strong and lasting care. I think it is even harder to stay in love.

The Price of Parenthood

Just parenting itself is very difficult. The larger task of making a family – earning a living, maintaining a marriage, juggling schedules, managing a household, etc. etc. – is even harder. In the best of circumstances, parenthood strains mothers, fathers, and marriages. And if circumstances are not the best, then the extraordinary work of family-making can damage the health of individual parents and tear marriages apart.

In order to raise children with the greatest possible love and skill, three things are vital. First, mothers and fathers must take care of themselves and each other so they have something to give their child. Second, they must work together. They must find a way to parent consistently, share the load fairly, and solve problems and conflicts. Third, it is best if they stay married and provide a model of a strong and enduring love.

Besides a child’s needs, parents have needs and wants of their own. Mothers and fathers need ways to parent well without killing themselves in the process, ways to solve the pressing problems that stress themselves and tear marriages apart, ways to keep alive the spark that drew them together in the first place.

The Flame and the Wick

A quintessential image of romantic love is candlelight. Candles contains a lesson about staying in love. The lovely flame that lights our lover’s shining face is wrapped around an everyday bit of boring blackness, a wick, humdrum – and absolutely essential.

The fire of romantic love can sustain itself for a while, but over time there must be a wick, a foundation to an enduring love. The foundation of love between parents consists of skill and well-being in two areas: Self and Team. Self and Team intertwine with a third circle – the Couple. Together, these three circles are the foundation for family.

Self, Team, and Couple

Self is the domain of the individual parent. It includes everything we do, think, and feel, as well as our physical and psychological health. Team is the territory where mothers and fathers must work together (or fail to do so). This includes what they think of each other as parents, how they work out problems, and how they share the load. Couple is the realm of the loving heart. This domain includes friendship, romance, and sexuality. It is the territory of being “in love with” the man or woman one married, beyond being co-managers of the family enterprise.

These spheres are intimately interrelated. If a mother or father becomes physically or psychologically worn out or even unhealthy (Self), she or he will probably have less energy to work things out with the other parent (Team) and have less to bring to the intimate relationship (Couple). It is a cliche with broad implications: tired parents have little interest in sex . . . or conversation, or difficult negotiations about the daily business of schedules, budgets, and what to do when Johnny tells Susie that she looks like a pig.

Or if two parents disagree about parenting practices, or have a hard time cooperating in solutions to the everyday problems of families (such as around schedule or money), or have resentful feelings about not sharing the load fairly (Team) – then each individual parent will be that much more stressed (Self) and the negative feelings from the breakdown in teamwork will make it harder to be friendly, loving, romantic, or sexual (Couple).

And if there is a cool distance between spouses, or ongoing harsh and critical talk, or no time for their own relationship, or little romance and sexuality (Couple), then the reservoir of goodwill, compassion, and love which couples need to solve problems (Team) will be drained, and individual parents (Self) will not be fed by their intimate relationship and supported by it through the difficult tasks of parenting.

Positive Cycles

Because these three spheres are connected, the bad news is that problems in one sphere affect the others. The good news, though, is that when good things happen in one sphere they cause good things to happen in the others. For example, a parent who exercises regularly may feel less stressed (Self) and as a result be more patient during conflicts with a spouse (Team) and feel happier in the intimate relationship (Couple). If mothers and fathers make agreements to share the parenting load more evenly (Team), then individual parents will be less fatigued (Self) and resentments about inequities in the workload will not spill over into the bedroom (Couple). Or if a husband and wife arrange to go out together by themselves once a week or so (Couple), then each is likely to feel a bit more cared for and restored (Self) and also friendlier and more civil at times when disagreements used to get heated (Team).

When parents want to bring back the spark, they are often advised to spend more time together. I think that’s great, but if the foundation is shaky (Self and Team) then the benefits of going out will be limited. It may be fun to hear about ways to spice up your love life after children, but not very useful when you feel hurt by your spouse or you’d really rather sleep.

A Gift to Yourself and Your Valentine

This Valentine’s Day, perhaps a good gift would be to talk about how you can take better care of yourselves and each other. If you are really brave, you might agree on a time (not Valentine’s Day!) when you can talk about being better teammates, about how you can treat each other with more respect, speak more civilly, cooperate and compromise more, and negotiate more effectively.

The “how” of caring for parents and working better as a team is pretty straightforward. I have written much on the subject and would be happy to speak with you as well. Many other counselors, including those at the A.P.P.L.E. Family Center, are knowledgable in this area. The key to parental well-being and teamwork is thus not techniques but rather intention followed by sensible work.

When your foundation is solid, it often takes very little to bring back the spark. You were in love with each other once. There was a time when seeing each other made your hearts beat faster. You can feel that way again! Clear away the muck surrounding your wick, straighten it up, and then light a little flame and watch grow ever brighter and hotter.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.