On the day my whole world flipped, I had a visit from a good friend. Still in the hospital awaiting a final cancer diagnosis on my son, I was anxious to talk to another mom who had been down the path I was heading. I distinctly remember standing in the hallway with her, watching my son through the door, needing her to speak first because all my words were gone. When she did speak, her one piece of advice was not about cancer or my child... but about my marriage.
I’m pretty sure my facial expression was as blank as my mind. This was not the advice I was expecting or, honestly, what I felt I needed at the time.
I would love to tell you I accepted her wise council. That I gave it some time and deep thought and came up with a plan to keep my marriage as a top priority, even when faced with a life crisis.
That’s not exactly how it went.
The exact moment my son’s diagnosis was confirmed, I made a subconscious decision to focus solely on my kids—taking their well-being and health to the top of my list and all other things, including my husband, myself, and my marriage, to the very bottom. At the time, it made perfect sense to me. I was in crisis mode and had a limited amount of bandwidth. Cancer and parenting three young kids used up all of me. I’m not super proud of it, but I figured my husband and I were the grown-ups in the situation, and it was our job to sacrifice for the good of our kids.
This new focus was confirmed to me as “the right choice” the first time my husband and I tried to go on a date after my son’s diagnosis. It’s funny now, but at the time it reduced me to tears. It had been months since just the two of us had been out—and those months had been filled with chemo, steroids, side effects, and sleepless nights. The most common conversation centered around how many pills we had gotten our son to swallow that day. Romantic stuff for sure.
We decided to try ONE night out. Just for an hour. We chose a spot super close to home, and we covered all the bases, including favorite babysitter and lots of ice cream as bribery. We arrived. Sat down. Looked at the menu. Read the menu items a total of four minutes before the phone rang. A steroid meltdown was happening at home, and we couldn’t in good conscience leave someone else to deal with THAT. So, with one longing look at the menu, we left. It seems like a small thing, but it was such a defeating moment at a time where I was saying goodbye to so much of what was normal. I remember thinking nights out, dates, and even adult conversations were done for the foreseeable future. It felt like one more huge loss. It felt too hard, and it felt permanent.
Thankfully, it wasn’t. I can’t even take the credit, although I would love to! My sweet husband did not feel as I did and did NOT decide to put all things on the back burner. He was determined to keep some important things front and center, and at the same time, he was overly patient with my new set of priorities. As time went on—and the realization that this journey was measured in years, not days, set in—I was forced to acknowledge that my plan of putting all things on hold would not work. There was too much to miss.
As I am writing this, I am in my 22nd year of marriage, my 21st year of parenting, and years removed from the days of needing babysitters. I am in no way an expert, but I have learned a few things.
There will always be something—stuff you can choose to put ahead of your marriage. If you are a human, you have stuff. If you are raising humans, you have more stuff, and if your family is facing a health or any other crisis… you see where I am going. There will rarely be times when all the stars and planets align, and you have unending free time to do nothing but dote on your significant other. Don’t wait for a time that isn’t coming. Make space in spite of your circumstance, in spite of being tired, in spite of feeling you have nothing left to give.
Let go of what your “normal” is with regards to dating your spouse. For at least a year after the above incident, Eric and I were simply not able to do our usual date night of a lingering meal at a restaurant. We went for simpler plans—dinner after the kids went to bed, take out on the porch... simple. I had to stop thinking that a date means leaving the house, babysitters, and someone taking my appetizer order. Bonus: this might bring about new and different date ideas you would never have considered.
Try and keep the big picture in mind. When things are not okay in your family, it’s hard to think it’s ever going to be right again, but it WILL be one day, and you will want your best self ready for it. If I had followed my initial thoughts and waited until things were normal, I am not sure what our marriage would have looked like after walking our son through three years of treatment. I am thankful we figured out how to adapt to our new normal and to prioritize our relationship before it was too late.
And now, with our sons growing up and leaving the house one by one for the next stage of life, our marriage is reaping the benefits of the space we made for it, both in and out of crisis.