As a marriage author, educator, and mentor, I talk and teach marriage 24/7. But behind the scenes, I talk and walk motherhood (including grandmother-hood) 24/7. Let’s see…24/7 + 24/7 = … That’s right, either impossible or simultaneous—which is impossible. Or at least, I used to think so.

I remember for instance, the numerous times my husband asked me to accompany him on a business trip, or for just a day away, or even on an evening’s date. Acquiescing or appeasing him required all kinds of gyrations to line up the second string mommy-substitutes to cover home base. The choice and the process was, every single time, excruciating for me, not only because I was sure I was indispensible to the children (as in what would happen to them if something happened to me), but because no one could execute the requisite duties of mother and homemaker as well as I could…

…including my husband. I regularly critiqued or shut him out from childcare responsibilities and decisions under the guise of concern for him and for the children—even as I sagged like an outclassed weightlifter, and even as I decried to myself and to my friends how little support I was receiving from the partner who I wouldn’t let partner.

Because, really, who had time?

Parenting is a busy business that leaves one little time or energy for partnering with someone else. I was so busy, so spent; I rarely took off my Super Mommy cape. Even in the bedroom. (Besides, when every mommy-minute counts – it’s far more efficient to wake up in uniform and hit the ground slogging!) I can see myself now: wrinkled cape catching in the car door or tumbling into the toilet bowl; lifting or swirling dramatically when I felt the need to fly off the handle or throw my weight around.

I couldn’t have come across as very attractive back then; yet, as I recall, it was my husband’s fault there was little romance in the relationship. (Who gave him permission to cast off his Super Husband cape anyway?)

When did my attitude toward parenting and partnering change? I’m not sure the exact the day, but I do know why: tough times…really tough times. As is often the case with a crisis, my priorities necessarily shifted, and I began to see the interplay between my husband, our children, and myself in a new light. With time, study, and introspection, it became clear that although raising children optimally was a beautiful and honorable thing, it was not meant to be a one-sided arrangement, and it could not be the only, or even the ultimate, expression of my womanhood.

Equal if not pre-eminent, was my responsibility and opportunity to purposefully craft a relationship with my husband of legacy proportions; a partnership, a romance that would immeasurably impact our descendants in the first generation as well as all those to follow…

…which meant of course re-organizing my life: learning a whole slew of new skills focused on marriage that would help me become a bit more dependent (a more willing partner), so that my children could become more independent.

I had to learn, with the help of exemplars and mentors, that balancing motherhood and marriage isn’t a matter of two tributaries coming together to create a river; it is instead, about recognizing my marriage as the river itself: the mainstream, into which, and from which, all family relationships flow. Watching my husband, for example, mature into his best self under my appropriate influence—and observing his loving response to me because of that—had far more impact on our children’s happy maturation than all my cape-swirling and lone weight-lifting ever did, no matter how well-intentioned.

Yes, it took a while (and a near-divorce), but I finally and just-in-time-comprehended (reaping all the stellar benefits anticipated and promised)—the most important secret to a thriving family:

a thriving marriage.

Here are the exact five steps I took long ago to improve my relationship with my husband. They led to our grand marriage today, and consequently to not only better relationships with my children, but to their ultimate outcome as beautiful, successful adults:

  1. First, analyze with intent where you and your husband are in the quality of your relationship. Where are you now in comparison with where you expected to be at this stage of life? Would you classify your marriage as troubled, good, or great? Where will your current relationship dynamics lead you to years from now? Where will they lead your children?
  1. Second, if you think there is more trust and intimacy to be had (even if you’d classify your marriage as satisfactory), ask yourself how important experiencing that new level of love is to you. Since the only aspect of your partnership that you have control over is yourself, how much of your heart, your time, your energy, and your resources, are you willing to restructure or reconsider? How much is it worth to you? (I can help you make that evaluation through Your Power to Succeed in Marriage.)
  1. Third, begin a quest for information and mentoring. Significant, lasting change rarely happens in isolation. Researching the experts is helpful, but bonding with living exemplars/advocates who will be there for you for as long as it takes is a must when it comes to something as uniquely complex and personal as marriage. Develop a hunger for information. Connecting with a community of like-minded women who believe in marriage and in your marriage, is also a major plus. That is why I founded Wife for Life University, which serves women worldwide in this way.
  1. Fourth, patiently apply the principles you are learning (along with the strategies, attitudes, and behaviors) bit by bit, one by one, line upon line. Though you need to live in the moment to enjoy life, the long-range vision of what your marriage can become must be your ever-present guide. Expect both breakthroughs and setbacks. The secret is to keep going.
  1. Fifth, keep a journal of your progress. Include the triumphs as well as the frustrations so you can purposefully build upon or correct them. Your written reflections will be invaluable not only to you in the present, but they have the potential to educate, reinforce, and inspire the marriages of your posterity. (Motherhood AND marriage win!)

This post originally appeared on The Power of Moms: A Gathering Place for Deliberate Mothers.