Not long ago, I shared in a wedding homily that the vows we declare in front of God and our loved ones isn’t merely a promise to stay together. It’s a commitment to cleave closely to each other through changing circumstances—in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer . . . and with a screaming baby or sulking teenager.
One of the biggest changes a couple will face in the course of their marriage is parenthood. A study observed that a significant number of couples became less satisfied with their relationship after having their first child, and concluded that the quality of a marriage depends on how spouses adapt to their new role.
In the course of working with children and youths for close to 15 years, I’ve encountered many well-meaning parents who forget the natural order: it’s the marriage that comes before the child, just as the chicken comes before the egg (for those who don’t get the title yet). These parents can pour all their energy into making sure their children’s needs are met—but forget to meet their own needs as a married couple.
The Reality of Raising a Child
When a couple first brings home a newborn, there tends to be an initial period of intense closeness: marvelling at this miracle in their arms, they cannot help feeling an overwhelming sense of unity and purpose.
That is, until the reality of child-raising sets in.
When our son came home from the hospital, our daily routine as husband and wife completely upended.
Instead of enjoying leisurely meals together, we had to plan a roster to eat in turns, with one of us gobbling down our food while the other watched the fussing and fidgeting baby.
Instead of exercise, we got our workout from wrestling with a squirmy, slippery baby in the bath.
Instead of cuddling and watching TV together, we had to conspire to make him nap so that we could, too.
Instead of having deep and meaningful discussions, our conversations degenerated into task updates: “Have you washed his bottle?” “Yes.” “Have you bathed him yet?” “Not yet, after doing laundry.” “We’re out of diapers.” “OK, I’ll get some on the way back home.” And my favourite—“What’s that smell?”
Husband and Wife First
This might sound like a depressing scenario. But it can be the reality for many couples with a newborn. If couples choose to pour all their energy, time, and resources into their child and neglect their spouse over time, they might find themselves in a cold, passionless relationship once their child grows up and leaves the nest.
Fellow parents, remember that you were husband and wife first—before you became father and mother. And, you still are. You’re not just co-parents, but also spouses, lovers, and friends to each other. The needs of your child should not take precedence over the needs of your marriage.
Having a strong marriage is the bedrock of a stable family, and it is in this context that Ephesians 5:22–33 exhorts husbands to love their wives as Christ loves us, and wives to submit to their husbands in everything. It is a love and submission that mirrors the steadfast and joyful union between Christ and His bride, and which grows stronger with time, trials, and yes, even toddlers.
Remember that you were husband and wife first—before you became father and mother.
Just as time and effort is needed to nurture your child, you also need to invest time and energy to nurture your marriage. Consider pulling in grandpa or grandma to mind the baby or toddler so that you can have a weekly date with your spouse, even if it’s just spending an afternoon at a café, enjoying a walk in the park, or having a coffee and cuddle together at home.
These are great opportunities for you to talk, relax, and be a couple again.
Do Not Deprive Each Other
Aside from being intentional about dating each other, it is also important—to put it very bluntly—to have sex.
Some might wonder: Sex? How can we possibly think of sex when our child is crying for attention every 5 minutes?!
I get it—the wife is feeling sore all over, the husband is sleep-deprived (although not as much as his wife), dirty diapers are overflowing the bin, and the laundry is starting to remind you of the mountain ridges on Toblerone bars. That’s what you really crave—no, not chocolate, but running away to Switzerland.
Sex, however, is not merely a pleasurable activity. It is also one that helps to keep marriages intact. Paul exhorts couples in 1 Corinthians 7:3, 5 (emphasis added):
The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband . . . Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Making time for intimacy—with due consideration to the wife’s physical condition—is strongly encouraged, because our sexual and emotional needs are meant to be satisfied within marriage. Over time, marriages that lack emotional and physical intimacy can lead to frustration, dissatisfaction, and in some tragic cases, even unfaithfulness.
Of course, I’m not suggesting you rush back into it like rabbits. Most couples usually regain their intimacy fairly soon, but some let the ongoing stress and exhaustion of parenting become a permanent obstacle to being close with their spouse.
While it might not be easy to find time for intimacy with a baby crying for attention (and later, toddlers talking) round the clock, we can look for creative ways. For example, we could consider moving the child’s bed to another room, having intimacy while the child is asleep, or finding a relative to mind him for an afternoon or evening.
When the Baby Becomes the Idol
Aside from prioritising our spouse—even and especially—after baby arrives, it is important that we keep our relationship with God our top priority.
Over the years, I have seen many couples not only let their marriage deteriorate, but also let their relationship with God grow cold. It is an unfortunate irony that the baby they prayed for became an idol that took their affection and attention away from God. They stopped serving, dropped out from their small groups, and stopped attending church altogether.
While I understand the need to rest and reset, and that there can be seasons in life when we struggle between serving in church and serving at home, a glowing ember will grow cold and eventually extinguish if it is separated from the fire for too long.
It is an unfortunate irony that the baby they prayed for became an idol that took their affection and attention away from God.
When our son was just a toddler, my wife and I armed ourselves with toys and activity books, and resumed joining our small group meetings with him in our arms. When he became restless, we took turns to take care of him so that the other could engage in the discussions. And, when he was a little older and more independent, my wife and I started serving in church again after dropping him off at Sunday school.
We didn’t skip church or make him miss Sunday school because of things like tuition, exams, or other activities. Worshipping God in church with other believers, we would tell our son, was important, and we made sure not to contradict that by putting these things above God.
Whatever It Takes
My wife and I were not “model Christians”, especially at that point in our lives. But I believe that, by God’s grace, our consistency and service helped to root our son in church life, and to learn from our example. He eventually went on to serve in our church’s children and youth ministries when he was older.
As a Sunday school teacher, I teach my students that idols are whatever takes God’s place as the first priority in our lives. As parents, we also need to remember that idols can take many forms—including our pursuit of money, hobbies, and even our children.
Let us endeavour never to make our baby our idol, but to “be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them” (Deuteronomy 4:9).
Our Most Important Work
Raising children can be a huge bother, but children are never a bother. As American physician John Trainer put it so well: “Children are not a distraction from more important work. They are the most important work.”
Children are indeed our most important work, and one of the greatest blessings a married couple can ever receive from God (Psalm 127:3). As we cherish this precious time with our children, let us also treasure and hold dear our relationship with our spouse and our heavenly Father, who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift—including the baby in our arms and the spouse at our side.