Esther Perel on Why Marriage After Kids Is So Hard (and How to Fix It)

Esther Perel is a world-renowned sex and relationship therapist, but more importantly, she’s a gifted social observer and thinker. In her fearless pursuit of why, she’s unafraid to challenge assumptions. With her ability to straddle the logical and the emotional, she can unravel tension so artfully that to engage with her work is to be continually surprised. Her books are good for underlining in bright red pen.

When I was given the opportunity to hear her speak on a panel with reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks, M.D., for Plum Organics’ “Keeping It Together” campaign, I was sold before I even heard the topic: “how having a baby impacts personal identity, relationships and career.” Part of what makes Perel’s work so compelling is her international point of view: She’s worked with communities all over the world and has seen firsthand the way cultural norms pull the strings of everyday life. I was eager to see how that translated to the topic of raising children.

When it became a verb, parenting became a matter of culture rather than nature.

The talk was unsurprisingly fascinating. Among the topics Perel and Sacks explored were “matrescence” (a forgotten term meaning “the transition into motherhood,” which you can read more about in Sacks’ piece for the New York Times), why so many new mothers experience postpartum depression-like symptoms and what about our society reinforces parental guilt. I took notes so furiously, I felt like I was cramming for a test.

After the panel, I got to sit down one-on-one with Perel for 30 minutes, during which I stared at her, slack-jawed, nodding and holding my iPhone awkwardly aloft so my recorder didn’t miss an um. Our conversation wandered toward her experience raising her own children and what she and her patients with kids found most helpful in hindsight. (She checks back in with all her patients years after treating them to ask them what worked.) I found her tips so delightfully unexpected that I felt compelled to share them with you below. But first, a few quick thought-starters Perel shared on parenting in general (bearing in mind her focus is on American culture):

“Parent” used to be a noun or identity, but now it’s used as a verb.

“We used to see kids through natural stages, with parents as ushers,” Perel said. “When it became a verb, parenting became a matter of culture rather than nature.”

The modern model of child-rearing is not pro-parent but pro-child.

“The old philosophy used to be pro-parent. Now it’s pro-child, and it criticizes the parent. Now the parent has to learn to talk to the child, instead of the child needing to learn to talk to the parent.”

“On the long list of what kids need, parents who have an erotic connection should feature on that list.”

This was Perel’s answer to my question, “What learning has surprised you over the course of your work and changed how you think?”

Of an erotic connection, she says: “It’s not only good for you, but it’s good for the kid. If you are nurtured, you give your kid space for their own self-development, for their own growth. If you’re taken care of somewhere else, you will not burden your children. Every child knows the difference between you coming to hug them and you coming to take a hug from them.”

Below are six Perel-approved tips on how to maintain your relationship and identity after having children, particularly when they’re still young.

1. Believe you deserve to be connected with your self and partner.

This is more of a foundation upon which to do the next five tips: “Give yourself permission,” Perel says. “You have to actually believe you deserve this, for the same reason you think you deserve to get to the gym. And not ‘deserve’ as in a big sense of entitlement, but that you still exist! That your needs are important! And they are not all mediated through the children.”

(Perel gave an example I haven’t stopped sharing with friends: She rarely went to her kids’ sports games on Saturdays because she said she had her own things to do. “They had their activities and I had my activities.” When she asked her kids if they ever felt neglected because of that, they said they didn’t because they knew she had her own life and interests and because they did other things together. Perel suggests getting quality time in doing something everyone wants to do: “Why should all the activities of the weekend be dictated by the child?”)

2. Every two months, have a night out without a curfew.

Perel thinks it’s silly to always adhere to childish curfews just because you have children (and she suggests it’s one way parents lose their sense of independence). She swears there is something special to be gained by freeing yourself occasionally from those confines. “Either do it alone if you can’t have a sitter or find a relative who can stay the night and go together. … But find a way to do it and get back in touch with your aliveness.”

3. If you don’t have a community, create one.

A lot of Perel’s work focuses on the challenges specific to a highly individualized society that tends to isolate parents and overload them with responsibility. Since Perel and her husband raised their children in New York, away from extended family in Europe, they took care to create a sense of community by “throwing big dinners at the house.” They’d invite tons of people over on a regular basis: single, married, with children, without children. It wasn’t anything fancy, she said. “Anyone who wanted to bring their own children could bring their own children, provided they could sleep at the house.” Through this tradition, her kids created bonds with other adults they maintain today, and she was able to bring a sense of community into her and her husband’s lives that wasn’t entirely focused on the children.

4. “Fuck date night. When you’re exhausted? Have LUNCH.”

Perel says a slow morning and a long, lazy lunch is a true luxury when you have young kids. “Fuck the date night — especially the first year. You’re so exhausted, you have nothing left; you’re just doing it because you think you have to do it and you already got the babysitter.” If you have family or a nanny who can stay the night, plan around freeing up your morning instead. “Then go have coffee with your partner when you’re actually awake and alive and have energy to think.”

5. The “child care” is for YOU, not the kids.

Perel says that if you’re able to hire someone to help, “the person is not there to help you with the children — they are there to help YOU. You need an assistant. You need someone who helps you, who feeds you when you come home so that you can go and be with the kid and play and read.” She suggests thinking of anyone you hire as a parental assistant rather than someone to dote on the child’s every whim while you spin all the other plates. Of the former, she asks: “What kind of narcissists are we creating?”

6. Find small pockets of time for easy socializing.

Not every break needs to be a full day or night off. For example, “When you’re done with everything, go and have a drink with somebody in the neighborhood, even just for an hour.” Take turns. You don’t have to be with your partner all the time. Finding small ways to inject outside input into your life routine life will help you and your partner feel like yourselves. Plus, “you’ll have something else to talk about with each other because ‘guess what Joe just told you?’ You need input. You can’t only have input from the child. They will keep you on your toes, but only with input of the same kind.”

Do you have kids? Would you try these? What else would you add to or change from this list?

Collage by Emily Zirimis.

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  • Alex

    I don’t have kids but… love Esther! Would love to hear more from her!

  • Maggie Lanham

    So amazing you got to meet her, Haley. You’ve been espousing her wisdom for a while and what a great opportunity to just coexist in the same space! Congrats and thank you so much for sharing.

  • Abbie

    AHH yes to this! I couldn’t ask for a better combo than Esther + Man Repeller. Every one of these tips are spot on to me as a mother of two young boys–especially “give yourself permission”. Keep her wisdom coming!

  • Ah ah, I don’t have children, but I apply the “have long morning” or “date lunch” rather than date nights with my husband. I wake up early, at night I’m exhausted, my brain doesn’t work properly anymore. So I love going out for breakfast or taking my husband out for lunch.
    And we do offer to our friends with children to baby-sit while they go out. We want our friends with kids to keep an adult life and not worry about the cost of a baby-sitter. We have great time with children we love, and their parents don’t have to worry about anything. It’s a win-win.
    I love Esther, her podcast is so good.

    • Kerrie

      Podcast?! I need this in my life!!

      • Yes, it is called “where should we begin”. Season 1 (if I can call it this way) is available, and I saw that a second season is coming soon. It’s very good, we are following some of the sessions she had with couples. Even if the topic doesn’t seem to be of interest for you, it is actually always informative and relatable in many ways. Hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do 😉

  • Her perspective on parenthood honestly gives me hope that I actually COULD be a parent.

    • Kerrie

      ME TOO. Glad to see someone else feels the same way. This gives me so much hope…. as the current examples I see around me are so overly focused on the children they’ve forgotten themselves in the process. They are all so worried about making sure every part of the child’s life is perfect, and running their own life – the life they’ve created over 30, 35, 40 years – into the ground. This article is life.

  • Alexandra

    YES yes YES to everything Esther said. I’m a parent but not married, and I am lucky enough to have family who can give me time and space to have relationships and experiences outside of mothering. It has really helped me keep my sanity and i get to ENJOY my child more (because the days are long but the years are short, as they say).

  • Cassidie

    I am a mom and the idea of a lunch date is great! Babysitters are expensive but if you do a day date you could give your kids to another parent and they can play too while you have free time in the morning and day. I love it. And I love that not every activity has to be for the kid. It takes a lot of guilt away.

  • Kirsten

    Really great suggestions, especially the lunch date. And a nice reminder of how important it is to give yourself permission to actually enjoy any time you have off – something I have struggled with, even though I’m lucky to have in-laws close by who are happy to babysit.

  • Loved this! Pretty much everything is so spot on.

  • Rayane Abou Jaoude

    I don’t have children, but this piece was still fascinating. Definitely something to keep in mind if I do decide to have kids.

  • Toronto CS

    Every parent is different. Before I had kids I had always thought I would have lots of people over but when I had kids I found I was really, really tired a lot of the time. I also found a lot of people — friends and relatives — did not want to hang out with kids. My husband wasn’t around a lot, so I didn’t have another adult to lean on. That was partly the economics of the time (2008) and partly decisions we made, which had pros and cons.

    Different things will make different people happy. I perceive those early child years as grinding, but I did write a (short) novel. I made new friends with some “unusual” stay at home moms who were the only people in my area who would tolerate kids at all — and where I’m from these were kind of strange people really, but I learned about about a broader world from them (religious, or opposite, very left wing; attachment parenting stuff). I even continued having hot sex with my husband (it was like the fights drove it). So not everything was bad! But I felt at the time like I was spinning my wheels and losing myself.

    Sometimes motherhood is just not controllable. The baby years were manageable for me but the early school years basically did break me. I had children with scholastic problems (learning disorders) and one child with health concerns. Older relatives suddenly needed my help and my husband was forced to change jobs and work longer hours. My kids didn’t have the luxury of thinking the world revolved around them! Life throws you curve balls.

    The one thing I would change if I could would be having faith in myself. I did a good job raising those kids through it all, but I felt like I was failing at the time. Also the novel I wrote at the time (while the kids slept or played — it was like I “needed” to write it) was actually good. I couldn’t get it published but later it helped me greatly in my artistic development.

  • Alexia

    One thing I’ll say as someone whose been stuck in weird positions with babysitting before—if you’re going to get a parental assistant, be clear that’s what you want! If you advertise you want a nanny/babysitters said individual is going to feel weird if they are then expected to prepare your meals, manage your schedule, etc, when they expected to be playing with kids!

  • Teawithonesugarplease

    Tip 1 Yasss I always used to get the evil side eye from other women at the kids activity drop off’s. Mostly I’m sure they were envious that my child didn’t need me to be glued to the side line and helicopter over them. So I could take some time to go have a coffee, read a book ALONE away from the kids for a few hours. When did the rule become a great mom is one who is constantly at their child’s beck and call all weekend??? My own mother wasn’t like that, she raised me to to her best ability and I’m doing the same for my own. They haven’t turned out bad and becoming pretty awesome young people. It’s great that MR is sharing thesse articles on their site. Tip 4 is great as I can never find a babysitter who is willing to look after 3 kids in the evening. So I have been doing lunch dates with the other half and we really enjoy it so much more. You have more energy and not exhuasted and just enjoy being with each other again (like it was before having kids!).

  • Leah

    This all sounds great in theory but I know I would/will have a hard time implementing it. I work long hours – if I went on a day date over the weekend, when would I see my daughter? She’s still little and has an early bedtime. She also wakes up early – which would make taking a night for myself with no curfew beyond exhausting and ultimately self-defeating. Also, down the road, I can’t imagine not feeling crippling guilt if I opted for a personal activity over supporting her at a game (most of the time anyway), even if I can recognize intellectually that I shouldn’t feel that guilt.

    • Lexie

      FWIW, my mother attended only three of my cross country meets when I was in high school, and it was fine! She has three other kids and a life of her own and she always asked me about how I did and made sure I got a good meal and rest the night before. No hard feelings here!

    • emilyg25

      Does your daughter go to child care? Send her there and take a vacation day.

    • guest

      I feel sorry for you. That sounds very limiting, and unecessary.

    • Emily

      As a mother, I completely agree with you. And it’s definitely not societal guilt…that’s completely unfair. I miss my daughter; I want to spend time with her – celebrating victories, playing games, watching her grow. It’s not guilt, it’s what I want to do. Also, I had a mother who missed a ton of my swim meets when I was in high school in I cared. A lot.

      • Leah

        Exactly. I want to spend time with my daughter and support her and share in her activities.

  • Kate

    My partner and I did pretty much all these things, and what ended up happening is everyone thinks we’re the coolest, chillest, doting-yet-relaxed, great couple, giving them hope they could actually have their own kids too, but our marriage fell apart. If I could do it over again, I would hunker down in the home and obsess over my family in the way families ought to be obsessed over, rather than saying we deserve our weekends and late nights and independence. I did like what she said about children knowing the difference between giving them a hug and coming to take a hug. That’s some truth right there.

    • LM

      the end of your marriage, sad as it is, may or may not have had anything to do with the way you chose to raise your family. i’ve seen many helicopter parents and couples “obsessed” with family life split up due to lack of sexual connection, money worries, a third person or even boredom. don’t beat yourself. you did your best.

    • MagJones

      Im sorry to hear that Kate. My marriage also failed after 9 years/2 kids but it was actually because of not doing what Esther suggested. Unfortunately I couldn’t work after having my first child (visa issues) and started focusing more on the kids, kind of overcompensating for not being a “working” parent anymore. Meanwhile, he had all the independence to work and do what he wanted and he took advantage of it.

      This advice works with good intentioned people who still have the family as their main focus. Self care is done because they know that by taking care of themselves, they’ll be overall better people for their family.

  • Deana

    This is good advice and my/our approach to parenting because it has helped us to maintain our identity. Yes, we are parents but we prefer to have our son (13) see that we also have a relationship and a life that doesn’t always include him. Just the same as we don’t want to feel obligated to join or watch all his activities. Not only does this not bother our son but he relishes the independence and loves the opportunity to fill us in on his life away from us. Frankly because they are hard to relate to I avoid the parents that are too involved with all things their kids do. It’s like they’re kind of not distinct from their kids.

  • Thanks God for a voice of REASON!!!

  • Karen

    As a parent of two little girls, I totally appreciate this pro-PARENT attitude! Our culture has shifted, and I feel we now give too many “rights” to little kids. I also think if you’re a fellow parent reading this article, we should bear in mind there are very distinct “seasons” of parenting, and these seasons have different requirements – ages newborn to three is very distinct (so far for me) than ages 4-6 (that’s as far as I’ve gotten!). In the past year or so, as my girls are no longer toddlers, I have been able to get “back to me”, and it’s been a wonderful feeling (for example, at home the girls can do their own thing long enough so I have time to do my own thing). I’m not sure I need to practice all six tips here, they may not all be appropriate for my current “parent season”. But I think the overall theme is important – don’t forget about you, nor your spouse. After all, if you’re run ragged, how can you even BE a good parent?

  • Evon

    I am so glad my amazing wife share this with me. As a Rabbi who councils many couples (Pre-marital and marital) I am excited to incorporate these ideas and tools into my work. Of course, I’m excited to tap into them for my family and self too. However, the ‘Man Repeller’ umbrella publication, regardless of the ideas behind it, make this important piece inaccessible to so many men, dads and dads-to-be and that’s disappointing…

    I do thank you for bringing Perel’s work to the fore and accessibly so!

  • ApocalypsoFacto

    Have a kid, he’s 11. Married for almost 20 years. This is how we run our family and IMO, it’s the only way to do it and not hate your life, hate your spouse, secretly resent your child, and have all kinds of other issues. We don’t revolve our lives around our kid. We try to give him the best experiences we can, but he’s not running the show. We can’t allow that, because:

    A. Giving kids control of adult lives is actually scary AF for them; kids need/want boundaries and they really don’t want to be in control. They want to know you have the steering wheel and are making good decisions, not just giving them whatever makes them happy in the moment.

    B. A lot of families we know go into this martyr mode, “we’re sacrificing ourselves for the children” and then they do things like drink too much on the weekends and start fights, yell at each other, at the kids, etc. Believe me, when you’re doing something “for the kids” and you resent the hell out of it and passively-aggressively display your resentment in destructive ways – your kids can tell you’re not happy. And they blame themselves.

    C. Our child is wonderful but one day (pretty soon, actually) he will grow up and move away and we have to have something left of our marriage when he goes. I have to still know who my husband is and feel connected to him. I also need something for myself – my career, my friends, etc. Otherwise, when he moves out what am I going to do? Lie on the ground and cry myself to death because he was my life and now he’s gone (and P.S., that’s what kids do – they grow up)? Doesn’t sound appealing.

    This advice was given to me by another mom when I was pregnant and I’ve given it to many other moms in turn: there is no one right way to be a mother. The right way is the way that enables your child to be happy and healthy, and enables you to be sane. The moms that completely subsume their lives into their childrens’ lives – that’s not healthy. And it doesn’t work long-term.

    • Toronto CS

      I just want to say in reply to point C that life is long and things change. I totally subsumed myself into my family because of my children’s learning disabilities, then one child’s health problems, then elderly relatives needs and finally the demands of my husbands’ career (which he was driven in not only by voluntary ambition but also the scary grind of the economy at the time). But even though you can lose yourself you can find yourself again! My kids are teens now and my husband and I finally have time and it’s wonderful! I feel like a teenager again; I feel like I am exploring the world again. Life is so big. To parents everywhere: please don’t worry that if you put yourself last for a time you can’t get yourself back again.

  • Cris Costalda

    LOVE THIS. Thank you!

  • jen

    TRade a few hours of baby sitting with a friend. Take a nap, go shopping or sit and read.

  • Yes yes yes to all of this! I always tell friends who are thinking about having kids but feel unsure: Give yourself permission to do it 100 percent ON YOUR OWN TERMS. It’s totally possible to make being a parent work for YOU. Call in whatever help you need and can afford. Cut yourself some slack. If you want to do it, don’t let fear of ruining your life hold you back.

  • Verhanika

    I’m always curious what her take is on parents who work different shifts or have an additional burden. My husband and I largely can’t have time off from parenting because when I get home in the evening, he’s at work and it’s me and our toddler. And on top of that, he’s dealing with fighting cancer, so I can’t shift childcare later so I have a break because he’s so much more tired than I am. Which is significant because I am tired. I adore Perel’s work, so I’d want to hear how she offers advice to parents with more than the typical burden of parenthood and dual-income households.

  • Jackal

    Such good advice, but I’m mad that people need it! Watching parents in the wild, there seems to be almost no middle ground between ‘I’m mad that these little dolls I bought aren’t doing exactly what I want when I want at all times, how dare they,’ and ‘I have no idependent existence, these future serial killers are my entire life.” It’s very depressing.