My oldest son, Charlie, is five years old. And up until this year, that’s about the same amount of nights my husband, Jody, and I have been out since his was born. You can hold up one hand and wave, or smack somebody upside the head, with that amount of quality time.
There have been other dates, sure. But not date dates, not real outings where we make a dinner reservation at a place that does not have paper menus and we split a bottle of wine and talk above the glow of a real, non-electric candle. Instead, we have supplemented with a few hours out to a matinee while my mom played Sudoku quietly in the living room on her iPad and the kids napped. We narrowed it down to Oscar-nominated only. Anything less is a precious waste of time.
We’ve also done “fancy lunch,” which is not a thing. Fancy lunch is where you go to the really nice Italian or French restaurant, the kind with the low lighting and brick walls hung with paintings by local artisans, and order three courses, and drink the wine, and pretend it is dinner. The problem with fancy lunch, however, is that eventually you have to leave and it is only three in the afternoon and you walk blinking into the afternoon sun only to go home and put on the parenting pants again and cook dinner and read bedtime stories when all you want to do is take an aspirin and crawl into bed.
But it’s not marital incompetence that winnowed down our dating life. It was something else altogether. For the first two years of parenthood, it wasn’t possible to go on a date at all.
After being born at thirty weeks, our tiny nugget of a son came home from a three-month NICU stay with a tracheotomy, suction machine, and oxygen monitor. You can’t just hand over a pair of latex gloves and oxygen tank to the 14-year-old babysitter down the street. When he was that medically fragile, I wasn’t even sure I should be allowed to take care of him. What business did I, a high school English teacher, have suctioning phlegm out of his throat hole (the non-medical term we used for his trach)? But I got used to it and was good at meeting his needs. Looking back, I’m actually quite proud of those few nights we did sneak away and the piecemeal afternoons we stitched together in the middle of the medical circus that was our house.
It wasn’t until two years in, when he did not need the trach anymore, that we took ourselves out on our first date. We trusted my mom to watch over him. Who better than Grandma now that the monitors and sterile water and feeding tubes had all been packed away? We snuck off to a vineyard and drank too much wine on a hillside strung with lights to the sound of crickets and live music.
And then we got pregnant with twins.
It turns out even grandmas can’t take care of twin infants and an older brother who is, while medically stable, still not mobile. At this point, Charlie did not yet have his wheelchair and nobody could get him to eat but me or a trained professional, his feeding therapist. Instead of dates, Jody and I took a lot of afternoon walks in those days in between feedings and diaper changes and sleeps. We’d walk circles around the block, airing out our bodies and our grievances. It was therapeutic, but not necessarily bond-building.
One night, over a romantic dinner of peanut butter and jelly and Wheat Thins, at 4 or 9 or midnight, whenever the kids did not currently need us, Jody turned his head and the glare from the television caught his beard. It had gone totally gray. When had that happened? It could have been yesterday or a year ago. I hadn’t properly looked at him in that long.
“Hey.” I poked him with my toe from where I sat at the other end of the couch. He “hmmm-ed?” through a mouthful of peanut butter. “We have got to get out of this house. You and me. Without kids. In real clothes. After dark. For at least two hours.”
This wasn’t a revelation. But saying it aloud over the sound of Veep in the background made it actionable. The kids were older, old enough, and I was a seasoned enough parent in the special needs crowd to know the divorce rate for couples who didn’t make time for each other. We had not been allotted an easy hand, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t make it what we needed it to be.
I did some local networking. I whispered over Facebook, quietly and formally without any of the angst I really felt. Did anyone have a babysitter they could recommend for someone in our situation? And then I ended up pilfering the best teacher at our son’s inclusive preschool. Her name is Rose. And her number is sacrosanct. And she now comes regularly so we can flee into the night.
We’re averaging about once a month now with these nights out. And considering that’s 11 times more than our previous yearly average, I will take it.
Last week we went to a wedding, which is the best kind of date night—free dinner and drinks and dancing and cake. It has been ten years since I was a bride, but I danced harder and we stayed later than any other couple on the floor. We’ve earned it.