These days, parenting can feel like it encompasses every single aspect of your daily life as a human. As 2020 approaches, now more than ever before parents need a village of support, gallons of coffee and a good sense of humor to get by. You know what modern parents don’t need? To be told that on top of doing their damn best raising their kids, working their jobs and generally being alive/functional/healthy humans, they ought to also be vigilant about getting a babysitter and leaving the house with their co-parent on a weekly basis. Can we please stop saying that parents need date nights in order to be healthy?
The last time my husband and I went on a date night in which we hired a babysitter, made dinner reservations and promised to be dirty birds (wink, wink) was so long ago, I’m pretty fuzzy on the details of that last tryst with freedom. Because currently, our spare time is absorbed by the needs and goals of our kids — from school to playdates to sports and weekend plans. It all leaves us fully booked, broke and drained.
Date nights?? They’re just not a priority for us as we navigate the exhaustive first years of parenting.
Julia Hochstadt, a New York City- and New Jersey-based psychotherapist, agrees that date nights shouldn’t always be a priority.
“For new parents and veteran parents alike, ‘date night’ and the pressure to be and feel connected can oftentimes have the opposite effect and can feel like a burden. For some, romance or closeness might not fit with a stereotypical image of such ideals,” Hochstadt tells SheKnows.
But our shared lack of time and interest in romance doesn’t stop the chorus of mom blogs, websites and media that obsessively remind couples like us that carving out alone time for parent date nights is not just critical; it’s conventional and expected. All that well-intended advice to seek alone time with a partner might sound like the prudent thing to do in order to feel like a “healthy” couple, but at what cost?
“Sometimes, the way we think other people judge how we spend our time can lead us to change our behaviors,” Hochstadt points out, “not for ourselves, necessarily, but for the others we think are judging us. And like everything else, no two people are the same, and what makes someone happy is different for everyone.”
If “self-care” in the form of date nights becomes yet another thing on an endless to-do list, then it isn’t going to be therapeutic and relaxing. Quite the opposite; that socially routine date night is going to be one more cause for stress and burnout.
Hochstadt tells SheKnows the stress to couple correctly according to societal expectations can add an unfair level of stress to the already stressful role of parenting.
“I like to encourage my clients not to ‘should on themselves,’ [which is] when we do things not because we want to, but because we feel like we have to or should. It can zap all the pleasure or joy out from it, even when the intention is to be caring for ourselves,” she says. “Frankly, at the end of a long day with young children, sometimes the only thing a parent can muster the energy for is falling face-first into bed.”
Listen, I get it. As a culture, we prize the idea of holding onto some form of independence, separate from the demands of parenting, and it’s a valid argument that we should not let mom guilt stop us from having fun. Ten thousand memes about the dread of buying a minivan demonstrate that fear of losing ourselves completely to the roles of Mom and Dad. But is it helpful, though, to tell parents what to do and how to do it when it comes to coping with parenting’s very real toll on a relationship? No.
So, what if decompressing and reconnecting as a couple looks less like dressing up for fancy drinks and more like falling asleep on the couch while trying to decide what to Netflix?
Not all date-night activities sound like bliss to everyone. One person’s dream date could be another’s nightmare. That said, Hochstadt has some great tips for finding your groove as a couple that doesn’t have to include elaborate plans — or, you know, the expense of a babysitter and fine dining.
“Things that require little time or money that may help a couple feel close include a walk around the block together, cooking together, having a living room picnic, playing board games, throwing a spontaneous dance in the kitchen and even silly kid activities like building a pillow fort,” Hochstadt explains.
She’s right. Reconnecting doesn’t always have to be elaborate. The other day, I spent 20 minutes scrolling through Instagram and laughing at memes with my husband while we waited in line to get the oil in the car changed. We had a fabulous time, and it required no effort. It required nothing more than us enjoying being together and taking advantage of an otherwise mundane afternoon.
Perhaps, as we grow older and our children become more capable of their own burgeoning independence, my husband and I will expand our vision for what “alone time” can entail. But the bottom line is: We get to decide what will keep our relationship healthy and strong, based on our own needs and desires as a couple — not based on some trending ideal on a lifestyle guide for modern happiness.
A version of this story was originally published in January 2019.