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Your children get too much attention

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Darlene and Gregory Williams were newlyweds, they didn't fret about the clock. On any given night of the week, they would read aloud to each other chapters of Harry Potter or play Trivia Pursuit.

Fast forward seven years to a life orbiting around two small children, job changes and a 1,000-mile move south to Atlanta. Now when it's just the two of them, they collapse on the couch, more apt to watch ER than do anything interactive. They put off the romance, the bills and couple time until the weekend.

"The pace of life has just gotten incredible," said Darlene Williams, a stay-at-home mother. "During the week, we are just vegetables at night."

Sound familiar?

Very few couples turn off parenting and work obligations. Cell phones, computers, soccer games and two-career families whittle away our time. A child gets sick. A project at work is due. Piles of laundry - and Cheerios - are strewn the floor.

Something's gotta give.

And when faced with a choice, many are quietly checking out of their marriage during the week. A new book, Mira Kirshenbaum's The Weekend Marriage (Harmony Books, $23) gives a new moniker to the shift in dynamic.

But for the sanity of the marriage, many family experts believe couples need to focus on each other first. A growing chorus of voices is questioning our priorities.

Parenting expert John Rosemond is emphatic - the husband-wife relationship should trump that of parent and child. "Nothing makes a child feel more insecure than the feeling that his parents' relationship is shaky, that it might come undone at any moment," he says.

Writer Ayelet Waldman takes the debate one step further, saying she loves her husband more than her kids. It's a bold statement in a culture proud of putting children first. Waldman, a mother of four, first stated her belief in an essay in The New York Times:

"I spend a good part of every day: bathing them, combing their hair, sitting with them while they do their homework, holding them while they weep their tragic tears. But I'm not in love with any of them. I am in love with my husband.

"If a good mother is one who loves her child more than anyone else in the world, I am not a good mother. I am in fact a bad mother. I love my husband more than I love my children."

And while even the idea of picking one over the other might seem repugnant, Waldman's position raises the question: Do we have to choose?

Actually we do, all the time.

Consider Sally and Tom Oakes. They have two daughters, and for years, they have managed to stick to a family dinner ritual every night. Even if it's cheese toast and canned soup, they are together.

But the last time the couple went on a date? In January, they went to dinner at Ruby Tuesday's. And once, it took them eight months to go on a date to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

"We are the adults. We put ourselves on hold," said Sally Oakes, who is a pastor at Georgia's Flowery Branch United Methodist Church. "We figure we can wait a little while. The children are more important - and our job, out of necessity. It just sort of evolves."

Still, Sally said she and her husband, who is a jeweler, get along well, despite limitations.

Let's face it. Many of us have shoved aside a spouse's needs, figuring they can wait. Hungry children, waiting for dinner, can't.

"You can't compare two different kinds of love, but the most important thing to remember is you have keep your relationship with your spouse after the kids go off to college," said Kirshenbaum. "Children need to see love in action. Give your kids a certain minimum, but never neglect your relationship for them."

The average married couple (which includes stay-at-home spouses) had a combined work week of 63 hours in 2000, up from 53 in 1970, according to The American Sociological Association.

And the new Great American Weekend Study also reveals how more Americans try to recoup on the weekend:

44 percent of suburbanites think they have better sex on the weekends vs. 39 percent of people in large urban areas.

80 percent of Americans say being intimate with their spouse/partner is important to their weekend.

93 percent of Americans say relaxing with family is important to their weekend.

Often, however, the weekends are no more relaxing. That same survey found more than half of Americans spend more time doing things they have to do vs. what they want to do on the weekends.

Kirshenbaum recommends couples write down every errand and activity during the next couple weeks, and get out the scissors. Ask yourself: Do you really need that hair appointment? Can we skip this barbecue? Snip. Snip. Kirshenbaum stopped making her bed.

Experts say couples need to connect every day - whether it's a long kiss, a foot massage or 15 minutes of active listening.

Erik Fisher, a psychologist, added that parents shouldn't have to wait until the kids are in bed before carving out some alone time.

"Take 20 minutes and let the kids know this is Mom and Dad time," said Fisher, author of The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict (Greenwood Press, $39). "This teaches them that you value yourself and that you are taking care of yourself as an individual."

When Michael and Sherry Wilkinson had their second child, they slipped into a roommate relationship.

After their two children went to bed, Sherry took a bath to unwind. Michael, meanwhile, hopped on the computer and checked e-mails and got a jump-start on the next day. They would eventually intersect in bed about 11 p.m. They usually just turned off the light and went to sleep.

I am not happy with the way things are, Michael remembered saying. Yeah, we need to make some changes, his wife agreed.

Since then, two changes have transformed their relationship.

They are now always together from 10 to 11 p.m. They might play Scrabble or talk or cuddle and watch a sitcom. They also go on at least one date night every month.

"The personal connection is better, our whole quality of life is better," Michael said.

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