Going on a bona fide date with my husband used to be as simple as making an Open Table reservation and taking a night off from the kitchen. But now that we have a pair of young children underfoot, getting out the door comes at such a steep cost — including the babysitter and the sky-high expectations — that the evening often feels doomed to fail before it begins.
After welcoming our second child last year, we redoubled our commitment to semiregular dates. We quickly learned, though, that we were no longer very good at dating. It turns out finding that swipe-right sort of person (which, hopefully, we’ve already done) is just one factor in creating a good night out. And my postpartum hormones were getting good at determining that every other variable was not good enough.
There was the fight over parking on the drive to one of Washington’s most romantic restaurants, which left us sipping cocktails through clenched teeth. And the birthday dinner reservation at a Michelin-starred eatery that was nearly derailed by a detour (Google maps was confused, not me!). Not to mention the night I forgot my breast pump and struggled to pretend I wasn’t in pain the entire evening (actually, that happened twice).
Instead of focusing on all the things that could go (and have gone) wrong, we decided to learn from them. After all, experts say married couples who go out monthly are less likely to split up. And those date nights are even more important once there are kids on the scene.
For starters, couples who have regular date nights have better communication and fewer conflicts. Trying new things together can foster the sort of closeness that can weather even the sleepless nights of early parenting.
Determined to stick it out, I started a “How to not ruin date night” note on my iPhone, where I’ve been jotting down ideas for the past year. Here are some of the tips I’ve gleaned, from both experience and experts.
Rarely make reservations. Reservations equal expectations, and parents don’t need any help conjuring up their next when-we-leave-the-house fantasy. Also, getting somewhere on schedule, in my experience, gets 15 minutes more impossible with each child you add to the family. Factor in the babysitter’s vague grasp of time, and the odds are stacked against you arriving on time for that reservation. Instead, go somewhere you won’t need one, at least most of the time.
Don’t go too fancy. Sure, you want to get dressed up. I get that. But the formality of a four-course dinner can feel a little jarring when you’ve only just brushed the spit up out of your hair (and not very well). Wear what you want, where you want, and you’ll blend right in.
Feel young again. Laugh. The best way to not miss the kids you left behind is to act like them (tantrums notwithstanding). Buying tickets to a local air guitar competition, on a whim, turned into one of our top dates this year. I had no idea strumming invisible strings was a competitive sport — and no one else in the room had to know we were faking being fanatics (and fake we did). Also in this category: comedy shows, sporting events and hitting the trampoline park without the kids.
Consider the day date. If you have semi-flexible work schedules or a long lunch break, this can be a great way to squeeze in a date. Meet your spouse at the picnic tables behind the office with a sack lunch and catch some vitamin D while catching up. Or spend a rainy Saturday afternoon letting the sitter handle the stir-crazy kids while you explore an art museum. Why are we always paying teenagers to watch them sleep, anyway?
Warm up to it. Les Parrott, a psychologist and author who founded DeepLove.com with his wife Leslie Parrott, says date night can be like a mini vacation: “Part of the joy is looking forward to it.” But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to switch gears, particularly after a long day or week of caring for clients and children. If it’s a work day, send a text that you’re looking forward to date night (romantic emoji and all). On weekends, don’t wait until the sitter has arrived to connect with your spouse. A can’t-wait-for-tonight wink — even over a sink full of dishes — can go a long way.
Cut costs. One of the biggest impediments to a steady date night can be the sticker price, particularly for the babysitter. Nancy Bynum, who lives in Cary, N.C., says swapping nights out with other couples has helped her and her husband, Brad, keep dates on the calendar — and on budget. The key is finding friends who don’t mind adding a child or children to their family for an evening (and whose kids you don’t mind watching, either). “This is only feasible,” she says, “if the level of effort is relatively equal. If you’re a parent of five, maybe don’t hit up your friend with one kid.”
Don’t talk about it. Finances, schedules or disciplinary tactics — or any other subjects that raise your parental blood pressure — are off the table. On these rare date nights, discuss your actual children sparingly, too. Instead, talk about the highlight of your week and your plans for the future. Even if you’ve been married for years, using an article you’ve both read or a fun personality quiz can spur new conversations.
After all, dating is still about getting to know someone. And there’s no one more worthy of that effort than the one you loved before having kids (and hopefully still do).