My Trick for Maintaining a Healthy Marriage In the Midst of Toddler Chaos
My wife and I have twin toddlers. Here's how we keep the stress of raising them from ripping us apart.
It’s a cruel trick of nature that children take such a toll on the relationship of their parents. Just when a couple needs to be at their most united, their most compassionate, and their most forgiving, along comes a tiny stress machine whose demands are so unrelenting, so anxiety-inducing, that parents have little energy for each other’s needs.
With this, the very thing that was supposed to rubberstamp a couple’s permanence – “look how committed we are, we’ve made a human!” – can become its greatest threat, chipping away ruthlessly at any weak spots. And when there are two babies? Well, that threat is even greater.
My wife and I have twins. And although the strains experienced by twin parents are similar in nature to those with just the one baby, they are dialed up to 11 and played on loop. In the early months, sleep deprivation elevates your existence to almost hallucinogenic levels – the carousel of feeding, changing, burping, sterilizing, inexorably grinds on and on, day and night, seemingly without end. And there’s little leeway to give either parent a break, because there are two babies and, usually, only two of you.
The stress worsens when the toddler years arrive and your children, now tiny people, start having extremely strong opinions about what clothes they want to wear and what toys they want to play with. (Hot Tip: it’s always whatever the other twin is wearing or playing — and, of course, the exact replicas you bought to avoid this situation are never good enough.) Add the extra financial pressures and it’s no surprise many multiples parents struggle to keep their relationship from crumbling. In fact, research by the UK’s Twin and Multiple Births Association (TAMBA) found that 28 percent of twin’s parents get divorced, compared to 24 percent of other parents. It takes a toll.
My wife and I already had one child before our twins came along so we thought we had some idea what to expect. But it was like stepping out of a light summer breeze into a hurricane. At particularly bad times we’ve both openly expressed that we’d quite like to leave, not each other, but the situation. We’ve joked about being dead. Not like, dead dead, just dead for a week so we could have some uninterrupted time lying down. We’d be on a slab in a morgue, but think of the peace and quiet.
Surviving as a couple in this maelstrom is as much about determination and a sense of humor as romantic gestures. Like two war-weary infantrymen in a foxhole, my wife and I often look into each other’s eyes and say “we can’t let them break us”, before returning to the fray.
How have we handled it? Well, it comes down to this: My wife and I try, not always successfully, to accept that we won’t necessarily react as we’d like to in extreme situations. That we’ll snap, darkly mutter obscenities, and wonder why the other one is so utterly useless when he (or she, but it’s usually me) forgets to bring wet wipes to the park, forcing us to scurry around gathering leaves to scrape across our beloved children’s behinds. Or when I purposely take my time at the cheese counter in the supermarket, while my wife deals with a double meltdown in the baked goods aisle.
We accept that these grievances aren’t a true reflection of how we actually feel about each other. They’re a product of a shit moment, so keeping them in that moment rather than letting them fester and gnaw away at the foundations of our relationship seems like the best way to go. The flip side of this is reminding ourselves how we do, actually, feel about each other, when the intense pressures of twin parenting are stripped away. And that means carving out child-free time.
One baby becomes your life; twins consume it. Finding a minute or two for each other seems like a decadent irrelevance. But it’s not. We’re lucky, both sets of grandparents live nearby and give us regular breaks. We might use this time to sleep, or have sex, or stare in wonder at the mountainous pile of laundry that, no matter how many loads we do, seems to never shrink. Other times, we’ll go out, just the two of us, to check that everything clicks back into place. That we still make each other laugh. Spending a night away is the holy grail; our kids are so much more loveable when they’re in a different zip code and can’t literally come between us at 3 a.m.
When our family isn’t around to help (I know, who do they think they are?), my wife and I make sure to carve out little moments to regain ourselves. Even sharing 10 minutes hidden in a cupboard, listening to the chaos raging in the house outside, and giggling like teenagers who’ve dipped into their parents’ drinks cabinet, is enough to lift our spirits.
It’s a matter of accepting the calamity while maintaining the initial spirit of our relationship. And how ever you have to rearrange your working life to make sure you’re both around at the most difficult, exasperating times of day will help prevent one or other of you from losing their mind.
That’s what we’ve been aiming for, at least, and what everyone should aim for, twins or not: that in the really early years neither of you loses it too often – and that you don’t lose each other. Anything more is a bonus.
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