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.
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.