How one man keeps the romantic spark alive after having children

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  • School runs, broken sleep and late-night trips to A&E – having children changes everything, notably your relationship with your other half. Writer Ben Machell shares his experiences and the secret to long-lasting romance

    I met my girlfriend at work almost 13 years ago. She was standing by the fax machine looking bored and gorgeous, and that was that. We were both in our early twenties, which meant we could spend year after year being idly young and in love, wrapped up in each other, alternating between angsting over the sheer depth of our emotions and going on dates to Wagamama. I’m sure you know the drill. Perhaps you’ve done it yourself.

    Then, four years ago, we had our son. Not long after that, we had our daughter. Suddenly, we were in the trenches, which is where we still are today, doing our best to balance the practical and emotional demands of parenthood with the demands of our jobs and of existence in general. Within a short space of time, we went from dossing around in beer gardens to taking our son on late-night trips to A&E with flea bites.

    I am not complaining. We are fiercely protective of the life we have carved out, and we both bust a gut to make it work. But there is a necessary trade-off. When it was just us two, our relationship was everything. Now? It’s somewhere near the bottom of our priorities. Long romantic walks? Evenings of whispered sweet nothings? No chance. Sorry. Got to scrub crayon marks off the walls.

    It sounds brutal. But it’s also, in a counter-intuitive way, deeply romantic. Putting your relationship in a sort of cryogenic freeze – suspended romance‚ if you will – takes serious faith. We both know we have a job that needs doing – raising small children – and we trust that we will come out the other side. If either one of us started to feel hurt that we are no longer the centre of each other’s worlds, the whole project would topple. So we suck it up.

    Evenings of whispered sweet nothings? No chance. Sorry. Got to scrub crayon marks off the walls

    This doesn’t mean we’re now affectionless automatons. But grand, sweeping gestures have been replaced by moments of micro-romance: the funny conversations we have on Gchat, usually laden with eye-roll emojis, that we don’t have time for IRL. Or the beer and Deliveroo crash-outs on the couch, when we know we don’t have to cuddle and reaffirm our love but can just enjoy the brain-dead intimacy.

    When you think about it, the clichéd stereotype of romance that you buy into during those first flushes of a new relationship – hearts, flowers, public snogging – is very selfish. It is, fundamentally, about having someone all to yourself. But as you progress, and particularly if you end up having kids, you come to terms with the fact that having someone to yourself is untenable. Your definition of romance has to bend and change in line with your circumstances. Case in point: despite the fact we barely have any time alone, my girlfriend never grumbles when I go off to play football every week. She encourages me, and that, to me, is a genuine act of love.

    The trick is to make sure you can transition back to a place where you are able to lavish more time, attention and affection on one another. And the good news is that we’re getting closer. Last week, our son voiced an interest in staying the night at his grandparents. If we can convince his sister to tag along, then our possibilities are endless. We’re almost out of the trenches.

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