Maybe today find yourself in that crazy busy time of life: raising toddlers. It’s that endless flow of diapers, trying to get kids to sleep properly, picky eating, piles of laundry, their boundless energy and so on and so forth. The question is: how do you even begin to create time and energy for your marriage in this stage of life?
I understand how this stage goes — dealing with the frayed nerves and seemingly endless to-do list that comes with having young children, while juggling other responsibilities like careers or the ever-increasing needs of elderly parents. And it makes sense that you’re reading this post because you know that the strain that this stage can impose on marriage is significant.
I’m glad you’re being proactive about it.
Understanding the Toddler Stage of Parenting and Marriage
It’s worth covering the typical scenario so you understand that your reality is normal and common and so you know you’re not alone.
This is often called the “Sandwiched” stage of life because in addition to caring for young children you may also be caring for parents. So you’re stuck between the two. Or even if your parents are able, the same issues apply.
We went through this a little younger but many people in this stage are in their mid 40’s, both are working full time, have 2 young children living at home, are also caring for 2 aging parents (usually with activities like shopping, transportation, housekeeping and money management). They spend about one working day a week caring for elderly parents, with the wife usually spending a couple more hours per week than the husband in this role[i].
This can definitely be a difficult time. Research shows that there are a number of possible negative consequences, including:
- Greater instances of depressive symptoms in both husband and wife [ii]
- Greater conflict between work and home life[iii]
- Higher rates of burnout[iv]
- Decreased ability to save financially, such as for children’s college fund[v]
- Difficulty finding time for yourself/spending time with your partner[vi]
- Difficulty maintaining a social life due to having to be constantly “on call”[vii]
Many sandwiched couples feel like they are caught in a “tug of war” with their time and energy being pulled in different directions. Often couples find that their own health suffers (in terms of getting enough sleep, time to look after yourself properly etc) and you end up putting your parents/children’s needs first[viii].
So there’s a LOT going on. Lots of activity. Lots of responsibilities and only a finite number of hours in the day!
Busy Doesn’t Mean Your Marriage is Doomed
We’re going to talk about some specific coping strategies in a minute but I just wanted to stop and address this issue of busyness.
First of all make sure you check out episode 114, where we specifically look at the question, is it possible to have a hectic life and a happy marriage?
What you need to know is that just because your marriage is busy and you don’t have as much time for each other, that doesn’t mean your marriage is doomed.
I just want to make that point because it’s very easy to get into the place of seeing yourselves not have time for each other and starting to give meaning to that lack of time that is not actually valid. For example, you have less and less time, so you start to interpret that as your husband not caring. Or, your wife is always tired and exhausted so you start to internalize the belief that she isn’t interested in you any more, you’re not attractive, or whatever. And the reality is that your spouse’s views of you or the marriage probably haven’t changed at all — this is just a busy phase of life!
But when you have these destructive beliefs starting to form, confirmation bias can kick in and then your brain is starting to gather evidence to confirm the belief. So the more you start to think something, the more you start seeing evidence for it and the more you end up believing it to be true.
I think sometimes it’s good just to stop and give our heads a shake and say, “No, this is normal. This is how this stage of life goes. I don’t need to take our distance personally or see it as rejection.” We still care for each other deeply, we have a common mission, we’re in this together, it’s just a phase where it’s much harder to experience the same kind of connection we’ve had in the past.
And I think it’s important to have a conversation about this with your spouse and confirm out loud (as in, verbalize this, don’t assume s/he already knows) your commitment to your marriage, to each other.
Toddler Stage Survival Guide
That conversation is an excellent preface for beginning to work on deliberate coping strategies that you can do together. And to help you with this next part, we’ve created a detailed bonus guide for our much-appreciated supporters. It is 7 pages and it takes you through the steps of scheduling, prioritizing and planning as a couple so that you can find as much time for each other as possible, make sure you are sharing workload fairly and striving for common goals.
Coping Strategies for the Toddler Stage
A study from 2008[ix] sent surveys to 309 couples in this phase of life. They found that these couples used three main coping strategies, two of which were helpful and one which was not.
1. Seeking emotional support. This can be from friends but can also be from parents. The study shows that even while you care for parents on a practical level, the most well-adjusted sandwich couples were still able to receive emotional (and financial) support from their parents when needed. Parents of sandwiched couples can also be useful for providing childcare. Drawing on this resource is helpful if your parents are available.
2. Prioritizing tasks. This is about staying organized and sharing duties between both spouses. If you can adjust work schedules or take advantage of benefits available to help with this phase of life then that is a great idea. It may be worth considering your short and mid-term options in terms of career to position yourself for this. For example, would it make sense to take a lower paying job with greater benefits, or a job closer to home so that you have less of a commute during this time? Just be creative with exploring your options.
3. Social withdrawal. Many couples would withdraw from their friends and family due to simply not thinking they had time for them. It is very easy to get entirely wrapped up in the demands of life and then when you finally have free time to just collapse on the couch and veg. Now we all need downtime but if you really find yourself devoid of interactions with friends and your wider family circle then this social withdrawal is likely to become an unhelpful coping strategy.
Think about it this way. This is a time to appreciate and make good use of your support network, not become isolated from it. So just take a moment to check in with yourself on that and see if an adjustment there would be helpful.
Tips For Coping with the Sandwich Stage
The same study suggests a number of good ideas that couples can use:
- Making time for each other and for themselves
- Obtaining practical support with caregiving, such as from workplace support or other family members. We had relationships with people like around us who could give us a little break for a date every now and then.
- Having a job with a higher degree of flexibility. Reduced or variable hours can be a great help so it’s worth asking your boss if this is possible.
- Actively seek emotional support from friends, co-workers, and family. You could also consider joining a formal support group as it’s good to chat and connect with other parents at school or church who may be going through a similar situation.
- Re-evaluate priorities and consider cutting down on some activities. I think this is a big one. If you really do find yourself too busy to get everything done, it could be time to look at your schedule and see what can be altered or cut out. This week’s bonus guide will help with that.
- Plan ahead and be prepared for emergencies. We didn’t do this, but it’s a good idea. Have a plan in place for an unexpected event so that they don’t totally floor you. If you can save up some financial resources to give you that buffer against unexpected costs then definitely do that.
- Maintain a sense of humor. This is always important! There’s real magic to being able to step outside of your own eyes and see the funny side of whatever ridiculous situation you find yourself in.
Other ideas that the research identified:
Support from your spouse: being intentional and deliberate about looking after each other and making time for each other is a coping strategy used by well-adjusted couples. Research by Steiner[x] looked into this by conducting in-depth interviews with sandwiched couples. Here’s one specific quote from a woman who cared for her parents/children: “We are very good at saying, what could I do to make your day better?” I think we used to often ask, “How can I help?” Little things like that can show your spouse that you’re right there with them and willing to take some of the strain.
Finding positives in the role. “The majority of the mothers were able to find joy in their sandwich generation caregiving roles.[xi]” Women interviewed were able to find joy in becoming closer to their children/parents, in feeling needed/valued, in seeing it as a learning experience, and seeing the growth in their children as a result of their care (for example children being able to have regular contact with grandparents and learn about looking after older adults).
Faith matters. This builds on our previous point. Speaking from the research side, the existential theory suggests that finding meaning in the care you are giving and seeing it as significant and meaningful helps prevent burnout, even if you are working long hours in difficult circumstances[xii].
Theory aside, seeing the challenges of life as having a purpose — not just being an unfortunate cataclysm of events — is going to help you be more at peace with the reality of your current stage of life. For example, you have all this activity going on, raising your children. It probably feels like chaos and looks like chaos! But seeing that activity as more than just semi-organized chaos — seeing it as your investment into the wellbeing and development of your children, and taking the perspective that God is also invested in this process and is blessing this stage of life, is going to shift your whole perspective on things.
Of course, praying your way through this, reliance on God, faith in Him and asking Him for help is going to help you create and maintain this perspective[xiii]. In previous episodes we’ve looked at how important it is to pray together as a couple, as this helps you take a Godly, long-term view of your present situation and really brings you together as a couple. I’d say this is doubly important in the busy or difficult times of life.
We all need to know that God is at work and interested and involved in the raising of our families. Our busyness and stress aren’t just the random hardships of an uncaring society–they’re part of God’s plan for your life, and for the lives of your children too.
So there you have it: make sure you become a Patron today and pick up the bonus guide for this episode. You’ll also get access to the dozens of other guides and bonus worksheets we’ve created to help you build a thriving passionate marriage as well.
The stresses of parenting and looking after elderly parents will affect most marriages at some point. Maybe you’re already well aware of the difficulties of this stage of life, in which case I hope the tips and ideas we’ve suggested are useful in helping you stay on top of things and continue to find the joy in your marriage.
Or maybe you have all of this to look forward to 5 or 10 years down the line, in which case I’d say it’s never too early to start building these positive practices into your marriage. If you get good at prioritizing and being organized now and learn to rely on each other and set up a good social support network and all the rest of it, then all these good habits will be properly entrenched by the time the hectic life stages arrive, and you’ll be far better prepared to face them.
[i] Margaret Neal and Leslie Hammer, ‘Working Couples Caring for Children and Aging Parents: Effects on Work and Well-Being’, Personnel Psychology, 61.1 (2008), 205–8 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2008.00111_4.x>.
[ii] Neal and Hammer.
[iii] Neal and Hammer.
[iv] Ayala Malach Pines and others, ‘Job Burnout and Couple Burnout in Dual-Earner Couples in the Sandwiched Generation’, Social Psychology Quarterly, 74.4 (2011), 361–86.
[v] Vicki L. Bogan, ‘Household Asset Allocation, Offspring Education, and the Sandwich Generation’, The American Economic Review, 105.5 (2015), 611–15 <https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.p20151115>.
[vi] Lisa Marrs, ‘The Sandwich Generation: The Challenges of Caring for an Elderly Parent and Raising Children’ (CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, LONG BEACH, 2011) <http://gradworks.umi.com/14/93/1493146.html> [accessed 4 April 2017].
[vii] Allison Steiner, ‘The Lived Experiences of Sandwich Generation Women and Their Health Behaviours’, Theses and Dissertations (Comprehensive), 2015 <http://scholars.wlu.ca/etd/1722>.
[ix] Neal and Hammer.
[xii] Pines and others.