remember us.

Lee Brown PhotographyOn Saturday night we met my friend Lee at the river preserve for our annual family photos. We wrangled the kids, stashed the car with m&m bribes and emergency extra clothes, and hoped for the best. Being a photographer myself, I had scheduled the shoot during the golden hour, which of course coincides with bedtime. Call me crazy, but I'd rather deal with meltdowns than bad lighting. Just like every year, I was quick to request photos of Brett and I as well. I like the reminder that our marriage is a separate entity, a force to be reckoned with. A few times throughout the evening, we strapped the boys in the stroller and ventured into tall grass just the two of us. For the most part, Everett and Carson sat and watched patiently, only occasionally crying out in boredom.

We tuned them out for five minutes and kept our eyes mostly on each other, purposefully and intentionally because even though we don't always practice this perfectly, we want our kids to see Us.

"Us" being Brett and Ashlee, husband and wife, two people who still love each other after almost eleven years together.

It would be easy to let these kids swallow us whole if we let our guard down. They are young and needy right now, and it would be easy to save everything marriage-related for after bedtime. It would be easy to let them interrupt every conversation, to let them leave toys in our bedroom, to let them be in every single picture.

It would be easy to let them destroy Us on some days.

If we want our kids to respect our marriage, we have to let them see our marriage. We have to let them see our date nights, see us kiss in the kitchen, see us fight and make up. The only way they're going to see Us is if we let them. Or, in the case of annual family photos, if we force them to watch from the sidelines.

Some days I think our marriage has never felt more difficult than it does right now. In this demanding phase of parenting two little kids, we have to fight for our marriage every single day---for quiet, for date nights, for intimacy of any kind. Our days are full and messy and exhausting and it's all too easy to give our marriage the leftovers, the 2% of energy we have left at the end of the night.

We deserve better.

Some people might think it's weird that we take family portraits every year, but I love documenting our kids at this age because they are changing so much. Last year, Carson was barely a peanut in my belly and now he's eating butternut squash from a booster seat. In twenty years, it will be nice to look back at these pictures and remember this year, the year that Everett turned three and said the funniest things, the year that Carson rocked his gummy smile.

This was the year we became parents of two and it was damn hard and exhausting as hell, but look at us. We survived, we relayed, we fought and made up 200 times. We made mistakes and apologized and forgave each other and slammed a few doors and offered grace upon grace upon grace. We argued at 3am, watched our boys become best friends, and basically became parents all over again. We re-examined our expectations, had our fair share of living room therapy, and learned to love each other a little bit better.

It has not been easy. Some days the pressure and tension in this house could blow up the moon. But even on those days, somehow---by the grace of God---we find our way back.

And this is why I always ask for photos of just Brett and I.

Because in twenty years, when we look back at these pictures, I will be glad that we stopped for five minutes to remember Us.

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when love is a relay.

For Brett. Puerto Vallarta-9

 

We are driving the same drive we have driven hundreds of times, 90+ miles from here to there, mostly freeway, always stop and go traffic through the city of Davis. It is gloomy and cloudy and the skies are every shade of grey, which is not fitting at all, actually.

It is Easter.

Everett starts to whine, and then cry, and in 10 seconds his face turns green and I know exactly what is happening.

"Get off, we need to pull over!" I yell, followed by a more peaceful, "It's okay buddy, you're okay, it's okay, it's okay."

Alas, we are too late, and chunks are flying out of his mouth.

Carson is screaming his head off, as he normally does during stop-and-go traffic. Brett flies across three lanes and we get off on the next exit. Farmland and a single gas station. That'll do.

We pull into a parking spot and it starts to rain (because sometimes life is like a movie).

Brett hops out immediately to tend to Everett and for the first time that day, I realize it is unseasonably cold. The wind howls and rattles the car back and forth, while my husband of seven years wipes vomit off our firstborn.

I un-click my seatbelt and unbuckle Carson, who is still screaming, and, as it turns out, is covered in spit-up himself.

"I don't suppose we have a change of clothes for Ev?" Brett asks.

"I think there's a sweater back there somewhere," I reply.

I console Carson with a two-minute nursing session. Brett stands in the rain, droplets staining his shirt, and changes Everett out of his barf shirt into the spare sweater. Both of them hop into the front seat, across from Carson and I.

And we look at each other and we laugh because there was nothing else to do but laugh. Everett chimes in with a giggle, and Carson smiles. The car rocks ever so slightly with the wave of the wind while raindrops pelt the windshield.

And we sit there, parked at the gas station on Easter Sunday, all four of us huddled in the front seat, limbs crammed together, listening to the rain and trying to ignore the scent of vomit permeating the car.

This is our life.

***

I've been thinking about how my marriage has changed since having our second baby. We are more tired, of course. There is more laundry to do, more dishes, more baths to give, less of us to go around. We are in man-to-man defense mode most of the time.

You take this kid, I'll take that one. You feed this kid, I'll feed that one.

There is no break, no time to sit, no time to relax. We are always doing something: feeding kids, changing kids, bathing kids, cleaning up spit-up, cleaning up pee, cleaning up toys, cleaning up yogurt, you get the idea. It's ironic how much time we spend cleaning, given that our house is a complete disaster on most days.

We split the responsibilities as best we can. We negotiate time away and we negotiate the chores and we try very very hard not to complain.

Do you want to do dishes or bedtime? Do you want to do baths or laundry? Do you want to go grocery shopping or watch the kids?

It's a cycle, and it never stops. We're two ships passing in the night, half asleep with blue-eyed children in our arms. We're learning the ins and outs of our own exhaustion, our own debilitating frustration, our own shortcomings as parents. We're learning to read each other better, to understand the different types of tired, to notice the I-can't-do-this-anymore looks on each other's faces.

Right now, parenting feels like a giant relay race with no end in sight. We're simply running different stretches at different times, but the race never stops. We're taking turns and running till it hurts, until we need a break, until we're running so fast we can't breathe. And then, when we simply can't go any further, when our knees are about to give out, we tag each other.

Tag. You're it. 

And then it's my turn and I'm running and I'm not stopping and I'm pouring the Cheerios and cleaning up the yogurt and breastfeeding and trying not to yell. I'm behind on everything: work, e-mails, gifts, thank you's, meal planning, laundry, 40 pieces of unopened mail. I'm reading books and doing finger puppets and changing diapers and giving time-outs and I'm going going going with sweat dripping down my face, heart pounding out of my chest, and then it is 6:07pm and my knees are about to give out.

Tag. You're it. 

And then he's running and he's not stopping and he's wrestling and playing catch and tickling baby feet and giving baths. He's exhausted from his day, his job, his stress, the overwhelming burden and privilege to provide for a family of four. He's warming bottles and reading more books and doing dishes and he's going going going, fire in his lungs, and then it is 8:24pm and his legs are done.

Tag. You're it. 

And somedays we have barely said anything to each other aside from hi, how was your day, it was fine, how was yours, it was fine, the kids did _____ and it made me laugh and the kids did _____ and it made me angry and I'm so tired, are you tired? When will we not be so tired?

We ignore the piles of mail, the to-do's that aren't done, and opt to collapse on the couch instead. He finds the Netflix binge du jour while I set up my breast pump and we watch TV with the familiar sound of milk filling bottles in the background.

We go to bed too late, as always, he sets the alarm and I turn on the oscillating fan, and our bodies melt into the mattress side by side. We rest, for just a moment, before the next stretch of running, which comes only a few hours later at 3:02am. Every single night at 3:02am I get up and start running, because it's my turn, while he dreams until 6:47am, and then it's his.

Back and forth, round and round, we're on the hamster wheel that never stops. We're learning to love each other in stolen glances, in midnight whispers, in hamstring stretches and water breaks. A lot of the time it feels like we're parenting separately, running separately, resting separately. I never knew co-parenting could feel this isolated, this exhausting, this lonely in our own house. It feels like we're running in two different directions with two different kids, doing two different things, only stopping occasionally to check in with each other: are you okay?

We're seven months in and I still feel like we're in survival mode, like this is harder than it's supposed to be and we never have enough help and how is my baby still not sleeping through the night? I think a lot of people would say that the transition from zero kids to one kid was The Hardest but my truth is the opposite---zero to one was a breeze compared to this. And zero to one was not a breeze. I think about all the families with three young kids, and four young kids, and five young kids, and I'm just dumbfounded. How are they not drowning?

I have to believe that this is a phase, that this too shall pass, that pretty soon things will click into place and parenting two young children won't feel so stressful and chaotic and physically draining. But the truth is: I really miss running together. I miss parenting side by side.

We'll get back there, eventually, I think. I hope.

For now, I just need to keep reminding myself: even though we're not always running at the same time, we're still running the same race, and we're on the same team, chasing the same prize, and damn---there's nobody I'd rather relay with than him.

puerto vallarta.

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Messy buns and sunscreen every day; dresses and date night makeup every night. Tacos. All the tacos. Chips and salsa galoreRoom service every morning: coffee and eggs and french toast and bacon and more coffee.

We read books. We ignored the jellyfish warning and swam in the ocean. We danced in the pool and enjoyed dinners without negotiating a grapes to grilled cheese ratio. And for five days and four nights, I remembered. I remembered what it feels like to be lazy, to be spontaneous, to be free, to be romantic. I remembered how wonderful it feels to put on a dress and spend thirty minutes applying makeup and hairspray to look good for my husband.

It was a vacation. A real, true vacation. The kind where you come home and you're happy and well rested and (most importantly) tan.

In the end, we were ready to come home of course. You can only be away from your child for so long before you start to miss them so much your insides get tangled. And on the fifth day, our insides were tangled. We boarded the plane still smelling like sunscreen and held hands during takeoff. "Happy anniversary," he said to me.

And a happy anniversary it was.

Here's to our seven years of marriage, our ten years of love, and decades of adventures ahead of us.

_________________

We recommend:

AccommodationsThe Westin Resort & Spa in Puerto Vallarta

Beach reads - Unbroken / The Rosie Project / The Opposite of Loneliness / Still Writing / Dad Is Fat

Wearing - Purple dressDate night LBD / Peony maternity swimsuit

_________________

p.s. This week I'm chatting on Elise Gets Crafty about work/life balance - listen here!

p.s.s Republished one of my favorite shorter blog posts on C+C this week, read it here.

what i've learned after a decade of loving him.

Where my heart resides-2 Brett and I have officially been together for ten years.

!!!

To write about this decade seems trite, because I know I cannot do justice with words what my heart would say about all the things I've learned, all the mistakes I've made, all the ways I continue to be surprised by Brett and the fact that he wakes up every morning and chooses to love me before pouring a bowl of cereal and turning on ESPN.

It's amazing, really, to love and be loved by someone for ten whole years. 

I've witnessed our love grow from infatuation to the kind of love where you see someone for who they really are---faults and all---and still love them in spite of those flaws. I can remember a time where I thought Brett had no faults at all, and he probably thought the same of me (maybe not, mine are more obvious). It was short-lived of course, in those few months and maybe even years leading up to our wedding where we basically thought the other person was perfect in every way and aren't we so lucky to have found each other?

I think we had been married for exactly two weeks when I realized just how imperfect Brett was. He probably started noticing my faults on day two of marriage because let's be honest: I was real selfish back then.

Our first year of marriage was hard. We argued a lot, bickered a lot, gave each other the silent treatment a lot. I slammed a few doors and cried somewhat regularly. I'm sure some people would say that maybe we weren't ready to get married at the ripe ages of 21 and 25 but to them I say, who is ever really ready to get married? What human is ever truly prepared to dive headfirst into selflessness and sacrifice?

We survived the first year. The second year was better. We adjusted to living together and created a routine that mostly revolved around frozen yogurt and reality TV shows and conversations about expectations. I learned to give him space when he came home from work and he learned to listen without giving advice. He accepted the fact that I never replace the toilet paper roll and I got used to the way he always gets water in the toothpaste cap. I vacuumed, he took out the trash, we each folded our own laundry. He helped me make this blog. I baked him chocolate chip cookies.

The hard thing about getting married young is that you're not only promising to love someone for the rest of your life; you're promising to love the person they will become for the rest of your life. 

I'm sure this goes without saying, but my 18 year-old self and my 28 year-old self are quite, quite different. Brett's 22 year-old self and 32 year-old self might as well be completely different people. Together we have morphed into new, grownup versions of ourselves: chasing dreams, succeeding and failing, experiencing identity crises every other year. We've lived out our entire twenties together, and how strange and wonderful it has been to do that as a team.

Together we have bought and sold a house, made two babies, and set up life insurance like a couple of responsible adults. We've traveled to Greece and New York and Las Vegas and Hawaii and learned how to share space in the same suitcase. We've experienced life and death and everything in between and learned how to love each other through the peaks of our greatest moments and through the trenches of devastating grief. Our marriage has survived every arrow thrown between us, thanks to God's grace and living room therapy (and real therapy once or twice).

We've witnessed miracles together, watched two pink lines appear on two pregnancy tests together, and cried together as our first son entered the world. We've watched each other become parents---an experience that at times, feels otherworldly.

We've seen our brightest mountains and darkest valleys in this decade, but when I think of the past ten years as a whole, I see mostly love and hard work. Because despite what you see outside this house, behind closed doors it is hard work to love someone every single day for ten years. It is hard work to put on a smile and ignore that crusty plate over there and apologize and forgive and stay up until 2am talking about your relationship when your relationship needs to be talked about. It is hard work to offer grace again and again, and again, and then again.

We are learning as we go, and it's safe to say that over the course of a decade, we've learned a lot. I've learned that sometimes you need to go to bed angry, despite what everyone told me before I got married. I call BS on that advice and offer the following instead: sometimes you need eight hours of sleep and the perspective of a pink sunrise in the morning to realize just how ridiculous that fight was. I've learned that our fights are rarely ever, ever about the dishes, they are always about Something Bigger than dishes. I've learned that appreciation---verbal and otherwise---go a long, long way in marriage. You cannot say "thank you" enough. You cannot say "I love you" enough. You cannot show your partner how grateful you are for their existence, their help, their support, their unconditional love, enough. The act of expressing appreciation is limitless, and yet there is always a shortage.

I've learned that marriage exposes you, brings sin to the surface, and forces you to confront all the things about yourself you'd rather keep locked away in a sock drawer for all of eternity. I never realized how hard I was to love until I married someone who loved all the rotten, selfish, stubborn parts of me.

I can think of a lot of things I've done right in this marriage, but I can think of more things that I've done wrong. Maybe Brett can say the same (you'll have to ask him).

But despite those wrongdoings and mistakes, despite the arguments and slammed doors, despite the harsh words we have said in times of anger and desperation, at the very core of our relationship, there is still love. There is friendship. There is hope and affection and honesty. I hate to oversimplify it, but sometimes simple is best.

Ten years later, in its simplest form: we still love each other. We're still standing in the kitchen with our hands intertwined, our toddler in the high chair and another baby kicking in my belly. We're still laughing at each other and laughing at ourselves and dreaming big dreams for this family of ours.

And as I look around the room before he leaves for work, with crumbs littered on the floor and a stack of unopened mail sitting on the counter and all of the exhausting adultness of our lives so very prevalent, I cannot help but smile and be grateful for all it.

Here's to another ten years, Brett. Thank you for choosing to love me every day. Thank you for leaving me the last of the milk, for putting gas in my car every Tuesday morning, for fixing my blog every time it needs to be fixed, for picking up Chipotle when I cannot fathom cooking, and for the million other tiny things you do for me. I love you today, tomorrow, forever.

a summer picnic.

Summer picnic | where my heart resides-1 Summer picnic | where my heart resides-2 Summer picnic | where my heart resides-3 Summer picnic | where my heart resides-4 Summer picnic | where my heart resides-5 Summer picnic | where my heart resides-6 Summer picnic | where my heart resides-7 "If a June night could talk, it would probably boast it invented romance." - Bern Williams

Two weeks ago, Brett and I set out on our June date: a gourmet picnic at Soil Born Farms. I took Everett to Whole Foods that afternoon and splurged on pasta and good cheese, my two favorite things. Brett and I had the whole place to ourselves, which was a nice surprise. We set up camp at a picnic table, and talked about baby names and swim lessons for Everett and our upcoming trip to Puerto Vallarta. It was nice. Peaceful. Quiet.

Today is the ten year anniversary of our first kiss. It's crazy when I think about that number.....I'm 28 and have officially been with Brett more than a third of my life.

You can expect a sappy post soon. Don't say I didn't warn you.

p.s.  our love story

romance in the little things.

Ahhhh, Valentine's Day. Our church has graciously offered childcare tonight so we're heading to Chipotle sans toddler. Nothing says romance like side-by-side burrito bowls, amiright?

(To be fair, we have fancy dinner reservations tomorrow night. I'm going to shave my legs tomorrow.)

I've been thinking about romance this week, and how my definition of that word has changed over the years. When I was 21 and freshly married and mostly naive about life, romance meant Big Things---candles, flowers, fancy cocktails, fancy food, shiny presents. I had high expectations about everything under the sun and wanted to feel special all of the time, but especially on Valentine's Day.

Today, at 27, romance looks a little different in our house. We are raising a toddler, and we are tired. Sometimes romance looks like eating ice cream cones on the couch and watching three episodes of Breaking Bad while one of us falls half asleep. Sometimes I light candles while we do that to distract myself from the eighteen toy cars strewn all around us.

Make no mistake: we still have romance. It's just in the little things now.

There's romance in the way he always puts gas in my car, or says "go write" when he knows that's what I need. There's romance in the way he proofreads my blog posts and tells me that I'm the best writer he knows.

There's romance in the way he puts his arm around me during church, and in the way he looks at me when I'm all dressed up. There's romance in the way he compliments my not-that-great cooking, and in the way he picks up Chipotle on the nights I can't even fathom making dinner.

There's romance in the way he pulls our car around to the front of the church when it's raining, and in the way he always lets me have the umbrella. There's romance in the way he offers to watch an extra toddler so my friend and I can go to barre class together when her husband is out of town.

There's romance in the way he leaves notes on the kitchen chalkboard, and in the way he never takes the last of the milk. There's romance in the way he always gives me the good seat on the couch, the one with the best view of the TV. There's romance in the way he says "I love you" the morning after a big fight, and in the way he kisses my forehead before he leaves for work.

There's romance in the way he cares for Everett while I'm in Africa or at a writing conference, assuring me over and over again that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

There's romance in his support, in his encouragement, in the way he wraps his arms around me while I'm standing at the kitchen counter. There's romance in the million little things he does for me, in the million little ways he cares for me, in the million little things that I don't have time to mention here. There is romance in our house every morning when we wake up and choose to stay married to one another, for better and for worse.

And today, I guess I am simply grateful for that. I am grateful for romance in the little things, and grateful to be married to a man who spends 365 days a year loving me as best he can.

That's really all I can ask for on Valentine's Day.

Well, that and burrito bowls.

living room therapy.

This post was published with Brett's permission and blessing. There are many parts of our marriage that need and deserve privacy, but we have agreed this part of our story is worth sharing. Thank you, as always, for being respectful with your comments.

WMHR"When my dad died, it's like a part of me died too."

I could see the sadness in his eyes, all the way from the other side of the living room. My legs were tucked tightly underneath me on the couch and tears began to sting my eyes. It felt like we were in therapy, minus the therapist.

Confession after confession, we laid it all out on the coffee table.

"I feel depressed," he told me.

"I feel unloved," I told him.

Round and around we went. Accusations, explanations, apologies---back and forth, back and forth. We were both tired. Tired of fighting, tired of arguing, tired of giving each other the silent treatment.

"This isn't us," I said. "We are better than this. We're Brett and Ashlee!"

The air felt raw and vulnerable, bold and desperate---each of us determined to make the other understand. He wanted me to extend more grace; I wanted him to love me better. We slowly confessed our shortcomings and recent failures. He was withdrawn and distracted; I was irritable and bitter. He was in a hole and needed someone to pull him out; I was invisible and needed someone to see me.

Grief is something I know very little about, yet it has creeped into every inch of my home, my marriage, and my life in the past year and a half. It has been all consuming at times, and barely there at other times. But no matter what day, what hour, what conversation, what fight, it is there, permeating the air like a soft poison, crippling each of us in slow motion.

The loss of Brett's dad has affected our marriage in ways I never expected, and changed Brett in ways I never saw coming. We will have a good day, a good week, a good month, and then suddenly out of nowhere, grief hits our house like a hurricane. And much like any other Californian couple, we don't even know how to prepare for those.

As we sat in the living room with broken hearts, struggling to pick up the pieces surrounding us, I was struck with a startling realization.

I couldn't save Brett.

And he couldn't save me.

We each wanted so desperately to be healed, to be loved, to be made whole in some way, but we were both looking at the wrong person to do that for us. We were both looking for a Savior, something we were never going to find in each other.

And I guess that's the most freeing and challenging part of marriage. You want your spouse to be everything to you, but in fact, they are only capable of so much. When you look to your marriage for the type of healing and love that only a Savior brings, your spouse will always, always fall short.

So here we are, two weeks after our living room therapy---still a little broken, but in tact, like a softly cracked windshield. We are leaving each other silly notes on the kitchen chalkboard and sharing candy hearts on the couch. Day by day, word by word, kiss by kiss, we are still figuring out how to love each other through grief and loss. It's the hardest thing we've ever had to do, the greatest challenge our marriage has ever faced, and all I can do is thank God that we're not alone. I thank God for being our Savior when it's obvious that we can't save ourselves. I thank God for our marriage---for this beautiful, imperfect, indestructible bond that is full of opportunities to forgive and redeem.

Because this marriage, our marriage, is teaching us more about grace and love than any other experience this side of Heaven.

***

"A cord of three strands is not easily broken." - Ecclesiastes 4:12

for gene / one foot in front of the other

a year of date nights.

a year of dates-1After you have a baby, the general idea of "date night" changes, and I mean that (nicely) in every way possible. Date nights used to be spontaneous, affordable, and revolve around conversations that didn't include Thomas the train and questions like, "On a scale from 1-10, exactly how runny was the poop?" Things are different now, and it's okay that they're different, but let me be clear: THEY ARE DIFFERENT. 2013 was our first full year as parents, and with that year came a lot of change, a lot of shifts, a lot of readjusting our priorities and expectations.

Last year I learned that it's incredibly easy to let your marriage sink down to the bottom of the priority list when you have a needy toddler in tow.

It was, to be quite frank, not the best year our marriage has seen.

But that's the beautiful thing about hope and a new year, right? You take what didn't work in 2013, and you fix it in 2014. For us, that was date night. Last year we could go weeks on end, months even, without a single date night. There were always a hundred excuses: we were tired, our babysitter wasn't available, we couldn't agree on what night or what restaurant, we were still tired, we didn't really feel like it, the month was too busy, blah blah blah.

I was determined to change this in 2014---for the betterment of our marriage, for the betterment of our parenting, and for the general betterment of our individual selves.

Because I believe in date nights.

I believe in setting aside time to focus on each other without a baby in the room. I believe in making time for baby-free conversations, for red lipstick, for dinners that don't involve grilled cheese and sippy cups. I believe in making room for dreaming together, for laughing together, for telling secrets and holding hands. I believe in showing your children that your marriage is important and a force to be reckoned with.

I want Everett to see us go on dates, to see us kiss and wrap our arms around each other. I want him to see us get dressed up and leave the house together with smiles on our faces. I want him to witness our marriage as a separate entity from him.

I want Everett to know that as much as we love him, we loved each other first.

Because of this, because of All These Feelings, I decided to make a year-long commitment to date night. For Christmas, I gifted Brett with A Year of Dates -- one planned date night per month in 2014. We're going to take a painting class and go to a basketball game and see movies and go bowling and learn how to swing dance and go rock climbing and eat corndogs at the state fair. WE'RE DOING IT. ALL OF IT. In 2014.

We are taking back date night.

It's not too late to join us. We're only ten days into January and there is plenty of time to plan your year of dates. Can't afford a babysitter? Ask grandparents or trade babysitting with friends. Can't afford fancy dates? Plan non-fancy ones instead. Whatever your excuse is, I can assure you: making time for your marriage is always energy (and money) well spent.

Here's to quality time, a little bit of romance, and maybe even some good ole fashioned making out in 2014!