What Happens to Marriage When Babies Stop Being Babies?

And what happens to you?

by Stephanie Kaloi


I was twenty-four when I gave birth to my son, and now in 2016, I’m a thirty-one-year-old with a seven-year-old kid… and I have recently found myself with a whole lot of time on my hand. It’s not just me. My husband is experiencing the same thing. We regularly find ourselves meeting in the kitchen and sharing a pot of coffee, wondering what exactly happened to the tiny being who needed us all of the time, and what exactly it is we’re supposed to be doing with ourselves as he grows up.

Even Toddlers Grow Up

We had been married for two years when our son was born. In fact, at the time of his birth, our total relationship age was two years, four months. Basically, our marriage was a curious toddler just beginning to understand and explore boundaries, when suddenly we were wholly responsible for a tiny, precious life. Like a lot of toddlers, we had to learn the rules of the road the hard way, and it turns out that parenting a young child while nurturing a young marriage is quite the challenge. Add to that the fact that I felt like hell any and every time I chose my marriage over my kid—meaning I rarely gave myself the wiggle room to make that choice.

But now, seven years later, both our marriage and our child are well out of toddlerhood. And seven, as it turns out, is a really fascinating age for a child. For us, seven has meant a new sense and degree of independence and autonomy for our son. As it is, he spends several hours each weekend at a friend’s house, and rarely tells us much about what he gets up to there. He’s a storyteller and is quite happy to play and create on his own in his room, the living room, or the backyard while we’re in another part of the house. He used to loop us into this time more often (and does still invite us to watch his many, many live action trailers for the films he creates in his mind), but now he needs us less than he once did. In fact, he prefers if we’re not paying much attention at all.

Empty Nest Syndrome (With A Full Nest)

What I don’t read or hear enough about that often is what happens to the life of an individual, or rather, two individuals, once their children start to age. Sure, there are plenty of articles about empty nest syndrome floating around online, but I’m not talking about my third child heading off to college when I’m in my fifties. I’m talking about my only child beginning to legitimately grow up and not need us to be constantly around like he has, while I’m in my early thirties. You know, early empty nest syndrome.

Of course, I know: he’s only seven, and likely has several more years of needing us ahead of him. I also hope that, to a degree, he’ll always have a need for us in his life. I want him to be wholly independent and capable of navigating life, but to enjoy having us around. What I have been surprised by is that since our child is seven, and there aren’t any other children scurrying around underfoot, my husband and I suddenly have a whole lot more time together just as… us. You know, those two people who dated and got married so quickly—those two people who were, once upon a time, not parents and living each day for one another? We’re trying to find out if those two people are still synced up and still invested in living their living their lives together.

Reader… I remembered I Married Him

So far, it seems like we are still on the same page, but it’s early yet. The same way that I sometimes take a step back and bask in watching my son’s life unfold, I now hope to take a step back and bask in the glory of having a lot of time to spend with my partner, and just focus on him. We share plenty of interests but we also don’t, and while my husband is always game to watch Grey’s with me, watching TV together isn’t usually our thing. We’re tossing around ideas for hobbies we can cultivate together: Salsa dancing? A YMCA gym membership? Actually being able to sit down side-by-side on the couch and read books for an hour in the middle of the afternoon (my fave)? All of these are what I used to dream about being able to do while in the thick of raising a two-year-old, and now that the time is available, it feels exciting, but also overwhelming.

When you become a parent, the world tells you that parenting is all-consuming. And sure, for a while it is. But I think somewhere along the way we both kept behaving as if parenting was a completely active thing for us, and these days we’re not required to be on point every single waking (and sleeping) minute. Now it’s time to rediscover who we are and what our marriage is, and it turns out it’s pretty scary to ask your partner, “What did we used to do together?” It’s scary to realize you might not… remember. Like so many things that come with life, just when we thought we knew what we were doing, we realized we don’t.

What Would I Do In A Room Of My Own?

And while my focus and biggest interest is in cultivating a stronger relationship with my husband, I’m also actively cultivating a stronger relationship with myself. When my son was small, I sometimes felt like I had to fight for the right to do anything that was just for me. I felt the weight of societal expectations of motherhood keenly, especially so when he was young. Now that he’s aging, it at least seems like it’s more socially acceptable for me to travel alone (y’all, the Facebook drama I used to get about taking two- or three-day trips by myself, even when they were work-related…). Fewer people raise their eyes when I talk about not spending my days constantly chasing my child, and no one seems to think I’m failing my kid when every conversation I start isn’t about him. So I’m taking this extra time and really committing myself to pursuits that make me feel more alive… like starting that collection of short stories I’ve had brewing in the back of my mind keep consistently putting off until, you know, I have more time.

Empty… Next?

I used to worry that as our son grows up and away from us, it would create a hole or chasm in our marriage that we wouldn’t know how to fill. Likewise, even as I was focused on making sure my kid knows I am also a person outside of being his mother, I beat myself up with questions about whether or not that concept would wreck him.

But up until recently, I hadn’t spent a lot of time reminding myself that a marriage is about two partners, not two parents, and that nurturing that partnership is what keeps it strong. The way I see it, as married partners, it’s only up from here. The next step is finding out how high we’ll climb.

Stephanie Kaloi

Stephanie is a photographer, writer, and Ravenclaw living in California with her family. She is super into reading, road trips, and adopting animals on a whim. Forewarning: all correspondence will probably include a lot of punctuation and emoji (!!! ? ? ?).

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  • Ashlah

    Thank you for writing this! There are so, so many posts and articles out there about the baby years (which makes sense given it’s such a massive and obvious transition), and it’s way too easy to only think/obsess about the baby stage when thinking about becoming a parent. My husband and I share anxieties about what life will be like with a baby/toddler who constantly needs our attention, and I think it benefits both of us to get reminders that that time is just a phase, and that later stages will probably be way more fun, or at least come with more free time (and different types of challenges, as outlined here). Lately I’ve been trying to actively imagine what life will be like with an older child, because it sounds like such a fun stage, and I like to remind myself that having a kid isn’t just about caring for an infant forever.

    • raccooncity

      All Joy and No Fun covers all the stages and is a great book. If you haven’t read it, i recommend.

      • Ashlah

        I have read it, and loved it!

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  • Charlene

    We’re right in the thick of the hard years right now. Our tiny human will be one next week. It’s been a tough year for our relationship. Already I’ve forgotten what we used to do together. Now, I’m both excited for when we have more time again and worried we’ll find we don’t recognize/know each other anymore because we’re finding it so difficult to stay connected now.

    • Julia

      Oh, I hear you. It’s so hard. I honestly underestimated how challenging it would be to stay connected with my partner now that we have a baby!

  • Julia

    As the mama of a three month old, I can’t tell you how many people have said to me some variation of, “HAHA ENJOY GETTING YOUR LIFE BACK IN 18 YEARS.” Which, yeah, right now it does feel like my husband and I will never have time to ourselves again as a couple, I’ll never get a full night’s sleep again, I’ll never have “me” hobbies again, etc. While we’ve still got several years to go in terms of being wholly needed by our son, it’s refreshing to read your perspective from the middle ground! Looking forward to the comments.

    • emilyg25

      The one-year mark was a huge watershed for us. We figured out how to balance our careers and our home life as well as one can, we figured out our little guy, we felt like we could breathe. He’s just 1.5 now, so still quite dependent on us. But we feel like we have our lives back. Or at least we’ve settled into new, fuller lives.

      • Totally. As much as we feel bound to the sleep/meal schedules of our 18 month old, there is more sleep, and more time to us. And I finally feel okay leaving her with her grandparents for date night. We did it early on, but now i’m actually comfortable/suggesting it.

  • savannnah

    My mom and I just spoke about this middle ground from 8-12 where it seemed like my sister and I really pulled back from my parents in terms of our independence and capabilities. But then we got really needy again, in completely different ways than when we were younger, as we navigated middle school, boyfriends and lots of tough conversations about friendship, bullying, relationships and the future. It may not feel like a straight match away from you and your partner after all but a more complicated dance.

  • Mary Jo TC

    I really needed this today! Thanks for writing it!

    (so says the girl on maternity leave, who just discovered a new level of IDGAF that may be only available to moms of 2, as she wore sweatpants, a ponytail, slippers, and her husband’s T-shirt, 4 days unshowered, to drive her minivan through two drive-thrus to pick up Rx and a milkshake).

    I imagine, though, when I have a kid who’s about 7 and more independent, needing less attention from me, able to do some things for himself, that is the time when I’ll feel pressured by family, school, the kid, to sign up for ALL THE ACTIVITIES. Which would mean I’d be just as stressed and harried and have just as little time for myself and my marriage as now, when I have a toddler and a baby, it would just be a different kind of stress, involving less potty training and more driving. I firmly intend to set reasonable limits on these kinds of commitments, but I wonder how others have stood up to this pressure?

    • Lizzie

      Just replying to say that I give you a long slow standing ovation for the glory of your IDGAF. Every time someone so deeply DGAFs, a beautiful unicorn gets its Pegasus-wings.

    • stephanie

      OH SO: we are WAY into drawing the line on this kind of thing. It’s important to note that our kid home schools, so that automatically takes out some of the scheduled nature of his day. He does have out of the home activities extremely regularly (multiple half day things with other kids twice a week), but as for activities… we keep it light, and he gets to pick. He does theatre (his choice), piano (his dad’s choice, but he likes it), and that’s it. We don’t do a million things, and it’s one of my worst nightmares to go from basketball season to soccer season to baseball season to hockey season an on endless loop. It is HUGELY important to us that our kid gets a lot of free time, especially because his home schooling is fairly rigorous (he’s 7 and technically in first grade, but currently working on 2nd and 3rd grade stuff). I think you just have to know your kid(s) and know what your family can take. We prioritize peace of mind, being outside, and boundless free time for him to just be and create and tell his stories.

      • Unhip in Brooklyn

        I’d love to read a post or two on your homeschooling experiences and thoughts!

        • stephanie

          I have many many thoughts on it! This is our first year and we started out very rigid and orderly and are now half unschoolers so… it’s been a roller coaster, but fun! I’m not sure if I can work it into something for APW or not, but we’ll see. :)

    • Eenie

      Not a parent myself, but I think my parents did a really good job with limiting activities. They wanted to expose us to a creative activities (musical instrument) and sports. When I stopped enjoying piano, they let me quit. When my brother loved soccer, he did soccer year round including travel soccer (it was a commitment for my mom with all the driving). Your kid is only going to have so much passion for things, so let them decide! And if it turns out they don’t like something, they don’t have to keep doing it. Plus, you may also like doing/watching the activity! My parents attended all but three of my brother’s college soccer games because they enjoyed watching him play that much. And they were both heavily involved in scouts when we were (we all lost interest at different ages). My parents also really liked games, so we were the pokemon and star wars card playing family. Did my six year old brother win any tournaments? Yes, yes he did, putting a 35 year old man to shame with his own deck full of ewoks.

      • mimi

        I grew up as the oldest of 5 siblings and my parents basically limited us to one or two activities at a time (such as one sport and one music thing or scouts). They still had a million things to keep track of, but they seemed to enjoy it, and similarly went to nearly all of my sister and two brothers’ college lacrosse games.

    • I read the other day that Michelle Obama’s kids have/had one activity each that they chose and one activity that she chose. Not sure if that is true or not, but I think the idea of one kid-selected activity and one parent-selected activity was interesting…

  • Kara

    On a somewhat similar note, my husband and I don’t have kids (and I’m in the childfree camp). Lots of our friends and family have kids in the 0 – 6 yrs range, and we’ve seen how the parents of the kids interaction ebbs and flows as the kids have grown.

    However, I’d like to add if you hate being pregnant, ~9 months is a long time to be pregnant. If you hate (or highly dislike because people may not like that strong of a word) dealing with an infant/toddler, 3 years is a long time to deal with that. So forth and so on.

    Yes, people say “they won’t be babies forever”, but you truly have to consider all the stages kids with go through–not just the most immediate, and how that will impact your relationship with your spouse.

    For someone without kids, it’s nice to hear that you’re getting “your” lives back because it seems like people don’t ever talk about this aspect.

  • emilyg25

    I’d like to put in a plug for early bedtime. Our guy goes to bed at 7 (it was 6:30 the first year!). It’s a bit tough during the week because we get home at 5:30, but it gives us nice quiet space in the evenings to talk like adults and reconnect.

    • My 18 month old (!) goes to bed at 7:30 (although she’s been pushing it back lately). But my husband goes to work at about 7 pm. So the time after that is mine. I wish it wasn’t the only time I had to clean, make lunches, and I wish I wasn’t so damned tired, but it’s mine. Unfortunately, I miss my time with my husband that much more.

  • Is it terrible to say that I am so looking forward to this time? As much as I know I will miss the endless kisses i can plant on my 18 month old’s cheeks, I can’t wait for a little more freedom, a little more communication, a little more engaged play. I know that will come sooner than 7 but, maybe I’m just not a “baby” person.

  • In month six, I desperately grasped for straws with friends who had kids around ages 6 to 8, and breathed a sigh of relief that some of them get a bit of time back at that age. Much earlier than I had expected, though still a long ways away.

    It’s so important to remember we’re partners and not just parents, but it’s a little harder to make room for that at this earlier toddler stage.

  • Rachel

    A little different situation. I have an almost 10 yr old. My husband and I just got married a month ago, been together 5 yrs. So for him, he jumped right into those middle age parenting roles. There are plenty of sleepovers and things that my daughter is doing away from us that allow us to be able to go out to dinner and drinks on a Fri night. Or catch an adult movie..
    My husband has no children of his own and would like one. I am worried that he has no idea what life will be like while I have gone through it. I know how stressful babies are and how much of a time suck they are.
    I wonder if my husband thinks it will be like how it is now with my near 10 yr old… But I look forward to it also because I will have a partner instead of doing it on my own.
    Right now this age is pretty awesome. We get some alone time and we are able to do a lot of things together as a family that aren’t soo childish. We also have some pretty great family dinner discussions as my husband and I reflect on being a preteen and compare it to my daughter. When your son is in the other room just have a quick make out sesh at the kitchen counter. That’s what we like to do.