I love telling this story. I love every part of it – even the terrible part of needing to save our relationship in the first place. I love it because it is real and true and we learned from it.
There’s a much longer version to this story, of course. Every story about transitioning into parenthood comes with a longer story about the relationship and the people. It’s a unique journey.
It feels better to know I’m not alone in this. Many of the clients I work with are struggling through their own marital and relationship challenges after welcoming a new baby into their family. These are hard times for all of us.
I love telling this story of hardness because we all fall out of love a little after we have a baby. Research tells us that marital satisfaction declines in parenthood for all couples, even the really stable ones with planned pregnancies.
Which means we all need to find our own way to fall back into love. We need to find our own paths and stories. This is ours.
THE FIRST YEAR OF PARENTHOOD
When we first stepped into parenthood, it was beautiful. We transitioned into a mother and a father pretty seamlessly. Our love for each other and this new tiny human was intoxicating. We spent a lot of time snuggled on the couch, watching shows and pretzeled together as a new family of three.
At barely two weeks postpartum, my mom started babysitting weekly so we could have date nights. She drove two hours round-trip every week for months. I honestly think maybe this article could be about her – those date nights might have saved our relationship all by themselves.
When our daughter was around four months old, I started experiencing some really hard postpartum depression. This article isn’t about perinatal disorders but let me tell you – they really don’t help relationships. (If yours is struggling too, this is a terrific book to help you through it.)
My postpartum depression looked like sadness and anger and worry. I had an extreme amount of mom-guilt about almost anything that could be considered self-care. I also cried frequently, became easily irritable, and was overwhelmed leaving the house with our daughter alone.
I waffled daily (or hourly) between feeling totally normal and then lonely, desolate, and needy. These mood shifts were unpredictable and made me grieve what felt like my entire identity. It was crazy-making for myself and my partner. (If you are the partner, here is a great easy book made just for you to help you respond to all the hard waffling.)
As the months went on, we eventually found a new rhythm to life.
I had more normal days than hard days as I began to manage the postpartum depression that was trying to take over my life. For me, the antidote was a combination of a friendship with another mom whose daughter was the same age as mine (I met her in the Meijer check-out lane, can you believe it?), individual counseling, continued date nights, and support from my own mom. We were managing and life was good.
When our daughter was around 18 months old, we decided to sell our house and move out of the city. We thought we were pretty happy on a daily basis but in reality, we were just coasting in a stagnant pool of contentment. It’s amazing how much you can ignore.
While there were many parts of life that were wonderful, we struggled sometimes with grieving what we had lost. Almost every part of our lives had changed since before becoming parents – except our living room. What we did in the living room stayed the same for months and years. We sat and we watched.
Our household has struggled with addictions in the past, and during our early parenting era, our relationship was addicted to TV.
These next few sentences are hard to admit but they have to be said:
In most mornings, whoever was on duty for the baby would lay on the couch, turn on some Little Baby Bum on the TV, and listen to her cruise around the contained space until they felt awake enough to get up and parent. It could take hours.
We ate meals on the living room floor and couch as our table adopted a multi-tier layer of clutter.
In the evenings, we watched marathons of shows. We poured over Stargate SG-1 and Grimm – and then another 10 or 20 series I can’t remember. We spent literally 7 hours every night watching TV. Sometimes 9 hours. In one evening.
That’s somewhere around 50-65 hours a week just watching TV.
I’m not sure I’ve ever done the math on that until right now. It’s horrifying. Truly.
When we were home during the days, it wasn’t uncommon for the TV to be on from 8am until midnight. Even if we weren’t actively watching it during the middle chunk of the day, it played in the background. That’s 16 hours a day of Netflix. That’s too much. It makes me cringe.
I can’t remember the conversations about it but at some point in the house hunt, we agreed to try living without a TV in our new house. We needed a break. Our screen time felt overwhelming and addictive.
We knew it was too much and occasionally we would try to do something different with our time, but we kept returning to our shows. There was always some new series being advertised that looked enticing. And one episode turned into five because there were only a few seconds in between for you to turn off the TV before you got sucked into the next cliff hanger. It was a trap and we were falling for it every time.
The problem with the TV was a values-based moral issue. We didn’t agree with this much screen time for ourselves, our generation, or our daughter’s development.
We also knew we were missing out on so many opportunities for connection as a couple and as a family when we stared at the TV instead of at each other.
It had gotten so bad that I was noticing we could go a few evenings in a row without making eye contact. It wasn’t TV alone – my partner also played games on his phone or computer until we settled into our nightly Netflix party. We then would each stare at the television until bed time.
Since we hadn’t had any time to connect earlier due to our screen distractions, we would talk just before bed. Pillow talk. Which meant we were both tired and since we hadn’t spent any time aligning with each other’s mood and energy, we felt distant and disconnected.
It was a perfect recipe for flooding – every single night. (Read this article if you want to know about flooding and the never-ending fights that seem to go from 0 to 60 before you can blink an eye.)
Without real conversations, we never really understood each other and resentment began to grow. We were quick to be short with one another and our sex life, although present, was disappointingly low quality.
When we did have time out of the house to talk, we didn’t have much to talk about. Most of our time was spent observing other people’s stories instead of creating our own.
We also had forfeited every part of ourselves and our relationship that we originally fell in love with.
So we moved and we didn’t bring the TV.
HOW TO LIVE WITHOUT TV
We lived without TV for ten months.
In our very first two weeks, we struggled. We weren’t sure how to entertain a toddler for an entire day every day trapped inside a small house in the middle of winter.
We also didn’t know what to do with ourselves after she went to bed. Or in the mornings when we were all waking up. Or on the weekends when there was no work to go to.
We had to re-learn how to live.
Curious how we survived and what we did with all of that free time? 50 hours a week meant we were gaining a full work week plus overtime. That’s a lot of time to fill.
We got creative.
In the first week, we thought we had already tapped out our hobbies. My partner played endless hours of almost every stringed instrument, and I dabbled with reading, piano, and arts or crafts. I even knit all of our stockings for Christmas that year. Oh, and we listened to a lot of music. All kinds of music at all hours of the day and night.
It’s embarrassing to realize I have few memories of specific moments with my daughter from her earliest years. Even when we played with her, the TV was a backdrop. I think the multi-tasking made it so that my memories of here were diluted.
In our new house, playing was just playing. Maybe we had music on in the background but in the foreground, we were playing. We were on her level and all of our attention was with her. My memories from those 10 months are vivid, strong, and abundant. This is what is meant when people talk about living mindfully.
We created a fun ritual of listening to stand-up comedy routines during dinners and we even sat at the table to eat. To give you a sense of how far we had come, we had more laughs and eye contact in these 30-minutes of meals than we previously would have had in an entire evening (or maybe day).
Whether it was one of us with our daughter, the whole family of three, or just the two of us, we had some great physical contact. Our touch was loving and playful and ample. While technically we may have been touching while watching TV in our old house, it was absent-minded touch. This time we were intimately connecting. And I’m sure you’re curious if this means sexy snuggling, too… it sure does.
Remember how we didn’t have things to talk about during our TV era? In our new house, we shared fun stories about our days and what we were reading or learning or doing. We enjoyed conversations about new shared interests like musical theory and game strategies. We talked about what we wanted for our future and things about the world that scared us.
We had more time and motivation to meet up with friends in the evenings so we talked to them, too. We even talked to our daughter instead of letting the screen talk for us.
Because we suddenly were talking about real things for the first time in years (or ever), we argued. Having fewer distractions around allowed us more time to devote to honoring our relationship and ourselves.
We didn’t always agree but we learned how to have more respectful conflicts. We built a secure attachment between us that had never really existed before and doing that required a whole heck of a lot of vulnerability and openness.
We were no longer coasting through our lives. We were active participants which meant we had preferences and priorities and interests all our own. We no longer functioned seamlessly as one machine only interested in surviving and numbing. We now wanted so much more for ourselves. It was part of our ongoing process of differentiation and it was beautiful but often painful. We became more of our own personal selves and our arguments led to a richer, more loving and valuable relationship. Well worth it.
Yes, I hate to say this but we bragged a lot. We were so ridiculously proud of ourselves! We also could not say enough about how big of a difference it had made for our family. We were in awe, basking in the beauty of life without television, and we wanted everyone we loved to be able to experience the magic with us.
It was so simple and so accessible and we couldn’t believe it had taken us this long to figure it out. One of my favorite moments was overhearing my partner tell one of us his parents about our new life choices. He was bragging but then he said something like,
“This is the best thing we could have done for our relationship. We have never been this happy.”
In hindsight, we were probably really annoying. But it was all true and it was real. Our enthusiasm for our new values-based lifestyle couldn’t be overstated.
When friends talk with us about making food from scratch, we joke about how I made everything from scratch until we started dating. It’s mostly true. But in this new TV-less time and space, we started making all of our food again. We became less processed and overall more conscientious about our meals.
We watched movies.
Don’t worry – we wondered if this was cheating at first, too.
Occasionally we would rent a movie from the local Family Video or rent something from the library and watch it on our laptop. We do own binders full of movies but somehow fell into a new tradition. We knew that wanting to watch something was a special occasion for us so we turned it into an intentional event.
I have to admit these were some really fun times – but not the watching of the movies. I don’t actually remember any of the movies we rented and I have no memory of watching them (except mother!, no one could forget those crazy two hours and we can’t get them back, either…).
I do, however, remember almost every shopping trip to Family Video. They were almost dates themselves. In fact, there was so much anticipation and build up for them that they might have helped recreate some of our new-found passion by simulating our early dating days.
We left the house.
I know it sounds crazy but we even left the house. It was winter and we bundled our daughter up to play in the snow. We pulled her in a sled and took her to adventures around town. We also started going on more dates again.
We played games.
Oh boy, did we game. So much gaming. We had always enjoyed tabletop gaming but in our no-Netflix days, we got really into it.
If you aren’t familiar, tabletop games are a fun niche of games that take board gaming to a whole new level. They are strategic and creative. They often involved set-up and collaboration. They have backstories and characters and exciting art. They can be played on a board but can also be card games, dice games, or role play games (like D&D).
Our most favorite during those months (and probably even today) is Too Many Bones. Honestly, we maybe played that game for 3 hours a night every night for months. It’s like a modern TV but with more communication, teamwork, and eye contact.
FALLING IN LOVE… AGAIN
We fell back in love during those ten months. We danced and sang and laughed and kissed like we hadn’t in years. We were connected emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and sexually. It was amazing.
After 10 months, my partner wanted to bring the TV back in to the house so he could play a Playstation game with his brother who lives out of town. It created a little tension because I wasn’t ready to end our honeymoon phase. But we had a great track record with managing our TV time and I chose to trust our new togetherness.
We decided to allow the TV back into our lives because it no longer had the power over us that it once had. We now had spent ten months living our values and honoring connection with those who mattered to us. Ultimately, we chose to use the TV as a channel for that.
Those ten months had taught us how to guard our time and recognize that it was precious to us. We not only said no to TV in those months, but we also said no to social engagements we didn’t care for and friendships that weren’t fulfilling to us.
And above all, we learned how to say yes to each other and turn towards one another.
We remembered how great it was to date again and we found new joy in exploring dating as parents in our own living room – mostly through board games and music.
We hear about cleanses all the time. People talk about strange diets of only juicing or drinking lemon cayenne water or grapefruit juice or no carbs or only carbs. I believe our relationships need cleansing, too.
My partner and I now choose to use our TV seasonally because we know that we need a cleanse every year. We allow the TV into our home during the winter months and then spend our summers reconnecting and strengthening the family culture we are trying to create.
Essentially, we fall in love every year all over again.
Oh, and we have not allowed Netflix back in. I’m not sure we ever will.
HOW TO CREATE YOUR OWN RELATIONSHIP CLEANSE
1. Identify your values. What do you want for your relationship and your family culture? What do you want to model for your children? How well are you living according to these values right now? I love Courtney Carver’s question of “Wouldn’t it be crazy if we…?” from her amazing book, Soulful Simplicity.
2. Create a game plan. If your question is, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if we…?” – how do you get there? Get specific and get real.
3. Start, restart, and start again. It took us far too many wasted hours and weeks (literally, 50 hours every week for months) to get motivated enough to make a change. For us, starting, restarting, and starting again was part of the process. Don’t give up.
4. Get drastic if you have to. Sometimes we need to swing the pendulum all the way over so we can find a balance in the middle. It was helpful that we moved into a whole new environment to start without our TV. It made it feel exciting and fresh instead of like a punishment. So if you need to change your dining room into your temporary living room to make it possible, go for it. I’m a big fan of go big or go home.
It feels good to start living closer to your values – and it feels even better to be able to fall into crazy stupid love while you’re doing it.