While setting out to write this piece about how to celebrate Valentine’s Day when the kids are home, I looked, as I often do, to see what others had to say on the matter. I found “sweet ways to celebrate with your kids,” “fun ways” and “crafty ways.”
I started to get that irritable feeling in the back of my neck and my face involuntarily went into a scowl, or a near-allergic reaction or something. This is not what I meant. I wasn’t looking for cheerful news. What I meant was, what happens when you want to go out on Valentine’s Day and the babysitter bails, or isn’t in the budget or one of your kids just threw up, and so your offspring — the tangible proof of your love — whether it be a whirling dervish toddler, a mouthy middle schooler, or angsty teenager are your dinner dates for the evening
How can you maintain some kind of connection, when your circus of a family has set up tents in the middle of it?
Then I remembered a story I’d been wanting to tell about that very question for a long time. It all started in a restaurant in upstate New York a few years ago.
Bear with me.
My husband and I, 25 years into our marriage, sit in a lovely outdoor restaurant enjoying the freedom that our children were happily elsewhere for the weekend. No one tugging at us, disagreeing with our plans, debating our food or music choices, no gnawing strain of their urgently felt needs. We were free! As we sit talking, enjoying our bento boxes, staring at the July gardens in full profusions of pinks and yellows in front of us and the purple mountains beyond, we become increasingly distracted by the scene going on next to us.
There is a couple with children, a boy and a girl, probably three and five years old respectively. The dad is talking to his daughter about what she will be when she grows up. The mom is engaging her son with a large collection of toy cars and trucks she had packed. As far as we could tell in our subtle surveillance, each parent was assigned to a child, and do not once stray from their post. Over and over again, the daughter tugs on the dad with her stories, the son tugs on the mom for her attention. Cartwheels are attempted, some straws and chopsticks fly.
Ah yes, we remember those days, those intense days of attending to your young children’s needs. We remember it, but we remember it differently.
We remember delighting in our children, but we remember something else, too. Sharing that experience with each other.
Not so much for this couple next to us. There were no knowing glances of delight or exhaustion, no silent communication that spoke volumes, no hands reached out to hold, no stolen kisses — no connection at all.
They looked perfectly happy, but as if riding on two parallel tracks, their happiness never crossed over.
Through an entire meal, dessert, and even a cup of green tea, the parents never made eye contact. Like watching a tennis match or a surgery that you hoped would go right, we kept rooting for those parents. Just share a smile at how adorable their kids were, a knowing glance that communicated how desperately they couldn’t wait to put them to bed just so they could have some time together.
You might be wondering why I am bothering to judge a family for staying rapt in the bliss of family togetherness?
But just stay with me. We don’t need to go the full Ayelet Waldman here and decide which relationship is more important. Let’s agree your relationship with your kids and your spouse are different. And they each need attention. With all the love and time and energy that the parents in the restaurant put into their kids — entertaining them, educating them, imagining their future — they forgot one thing: each other.
As an anxiety therapist by day and a parent by night, I know the fact remains that we have children in order for them to leave us one day and start lives of their own.
As much as that story seems to have a very long arc, eventually the day will come when it’s just you and your partner and the invisible threads that you’ve cultivated between you. While many days may drag, more years will fly, and the chatter, the antics, the backpacks and sports equipment spilling out in your front hall, the permission slips, all this will disappear. Children will grow up and away and then across the table from you will be just your partner. Now is your chance to make sure that this person will not be a stranger to you when that day comes.
So, back to the task at hand, patient reader, in this highly inconvenient moment with kids on the loose running wild through your Valentine’s Day there’s an opportunity to do one thing: look beyond the wonderful mayhem of your family circus that you created and look at each other. Truly, madly, deeply. This is a gift you can start giving to each other right now. It will be good for you. And because it’s good for you, it will be good for your kids, too. Connect today. And promise to deepen that connection with every day to come.
For this is where love lives and grows, encoded in your gaze, everything you need to know.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
©2016 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. A version of this post was previously published on Newsworks