Thanks to mother of three Chantal Below for sharing her thoughts on the importance of spending time together these days, even in front of a screen.
As a couple, we used to go the gym on Saturday mornings and idly maneuver machines before we rolled into brunch or a movie matinee. We’d wander grocery store aisles in tandem, pondering what we might collectively cook for dinner. We once zip-lined in Costa Rica and wine-tasted at a Chilean vineyard.
And, we used to watch television with such commitment that critics feared for their jobs. Top Chef and Project Runway dominated our reality show viewing, 30 Rock filled the comedy slot, and favorite dramas ranged from The Wire to Friday Night Lights. During our Lost addiction, we’d sneakily agree to three episodes on a school night and go to bed far too late pondering the fate of Kate and Jack.
Our marriage never felt stronger.
Now, we’ve got three kids. The closest we come to visiting a gym is jumping on our basement spin bike for a (guaranteed interrupted) 30-minute session. Cooking now requires assembly-line-like-precision to ensure dinner is plated before hunger-induced tantrums take hold.
I knew that having children, especially three of them, would change things. I anticipated a moratorium on dreams of seeing the Acropolis up close. I traded some of my dreams in for an indescribable (and at times irrational) joy I get from being a mom. But, I held tightly to an unexpressed commitment: our television viewing habits wouldn’t change.
We’d still tune in to Francis and Claire’s struggle for power because our cost-free ritual (no babysitter or visa required) happened after our kids went to bed. Easy. We could retain a piece of our former selves as we over-analyzed the characters we consumed and sought to understand.
But, as each new child entered our world, things did change. We began delineating which shows belonged to me, my husband, or both of us so we could efficiently keep our TV consumption at a competitive level. On nights where he worked or played basketball, I entered the worlds of Parenthood and The Good Wife. When I worked or grabbed drinks with friends, he embraced The League and Daredevil.
Game of Thrones and Narcos: reserved for us both.
The nights of shared TV show watching decreased in regularity over the years without much thought, similar to the way unloading our dishwasher twice daily became normal without notice.
With one kid we watched a shared show 3-4 times a week. Once our third baby arrived, a once-weekly viewing ritual felt like a mystical phenomenon.
We gradually faded into a new normal: I doubled down on This is Us and he on Jessica Jones. But, some unrest simmered beneath the surface.
On a recent Tuesday night after we tucked our kids into bed, finished dishes, made lunches, cleaned up stray LEGOS, attached shipping labels to three Amazon returns, located that missing library book, inventoried the fridge for tomorrow’s dinner, polished off that well-deserved second glass of wine, and signed the field trip form – we sat on our living room couch at 10:09pm and I suggested, given our inability to summon any mental reserves for meaningful conversation, we start Episode 1, Season 2 of Narcos.
My husband had the look of a defeated and beleaguered war veteran as he mumbled something under his breath. I pressed him to speak up, and heard a half-hearted, “I might just read and go to bed.”
I took a deep breath and found myself accessing some hidden, fairly unpleasant emotion. Then, I proceeded to lose my shit in a verbal tirade.
“We are a couple who watches television together,” I insisted. “We watch large quantities of high quality television together. We watch in silence, with lights dimmed. We don’t check email or shop online so we can be fucking present with each other. This ritual is the last goddamn vestige of any weekday impracticality we indulge in together and we thoroughly enjoy it. That’s who we are. If you want to read, go and read. But if you do, know it’s a strong indicator that our marriage is faltering; it’s a friggin’ canary in the coal mine. First we stop watching TV together, then we stop talking to each other, and then we become strangers inhabiting the same house wondering why we ever liked having brunch together in the first place.”
My husband went quickly from defeated war veteran to terror-ridden hostage victim in the span of my 43-second monologue.
Cautious and confused, he reached for the remote and logged onto Netflix.
It takes neither an experienced therapist nor Brene Brown to tell me that “it wasn’t about TV.”
What TV symbolizes in our household is the easiest thing to do together that we enjoy. It requires no physical stamina, logistical negotiations, nor abundant savings account. In our house, TV incites memories of a less scheduled and less practical past, which renews and re-connects us for a 56-minute interval. And most importantly, amid the daily responsibilities of our existence, it is the most effortless way to say to each other, “Being with you matters.”
Many of us parents give up, for a time, on the hopes of an Adonis-like physique or a Thailand trek with a toddler in favor of soccer sideline chatter and local library visits. There’s good rationale for that; a 14-hour flight with an 18-month old is terrorizing to all involved. But many of us couples also seem to give up on those subtle, easy, simple ways to communicate with one another that: being with you matters. And, when we give up on these things consistently over time, it feels as though we’re slowly giving up on each other. And when we give up on each other, life together becomes lonely and much less lovely.
My urge to all couples with young children in the house is not to watch West World and Fargo, as compelling as the dramas are. My urge is for partners to identify what simple, familiar efforts message that your partner, and your relationship, and your past matter. Then, in an effort to prevent emotional distance or an emotional tirade from your loved one, pick up your version of the remote and, in spite of fatigue or distraction, watch the episode in the dimmed light on a Tuesday night.