The Amazing Survivor Race Challenge: Parenting Edition

February 17, 2009

Babies are hard on a marriage.

It’s sort of ironic, really, seeing as babies are so often understood (rightly or wrongly) to represent core bonds of a life partnership, but still: for every measure of centripetal force that they exert upon a relationship and bind partners more closely, babies exert a half measure – maybe more – of centrifugal force, pulling those partners away from their center. It’s true. If I understood Newtonian physics well enough to explain it fully, I would, but I don’t, so just trust me on this: babies bring couples closer together and pull them apart in a million teeny tiny and not so teeny tiny ways, and the yank and tug of this phenomenon can exert an uncomfortable pressure upon a spousal partnership.

Pets do not have this effect, I’ve noticed, possibly because you can just put them out in the yard when they start to get difficult. You cannot do this with babies. When caring for babies gets difficult, you can only turn to your partner (if you have one – I cannot begin to address single parenthood here, other than to say that I have NO IDEA how people do that. Superheroes, seriously) and negotiate some means of coping and hope to hell that you can figure this shit out together. So when the moments come – and they do come – when you realize that you are not figuring this shit out together – that you’re either not figuring it out together, or you’re not figuring it out, period – it can be hard. You can put it down to lack of sleep, to lack of alone time, to sheer exhaustion, but it still feels the same: you’re struggling. And you’re not always struggling together. And in those moments when you’re struggling apart… those moments feel isolating. Lonely.

The first baby isn’t – I don’t think – as hard on the relationship as the second: with your first baby, the novelty of the situation can cause you to overlook or ignore the fact that you and your spouse are almost never together alone, that you almost never sleep, that your romantic dinners for two have become mac-and-cheese for three, that your bed has become the gathering place for a tangle of toddler and toys and cats. The first baby can be a great romantic quest, like backpacking together through Europe – full of all variety of trials and discomforts, but nonetheless an adventure, one that is full of new experiences that you are sharing! Together! So who cares if the hostels are crowded or you’re eating bad food or the pack on your back is crippling you with its weight? You’re having an adventure together, and it is awesome.

But when the second baby comes along, you’ve been there and done that and sent the postcards and you’re just not as open to feeling romantic about this whole journey as a quote-unquote adventure. The novelty has worn off. The hostel conditions – the noise, the squalor, the bathroom shared with too many other, messy people – no longer represent adventure, and their effect on you – sleeplessness, disorientation – is harder to bear. You’re still thrilled to be doing this again – you love so much about this journey – but you’re older now, and more tired, and the sleepless nights and bad food wear you down so much more quickly and so you look at each other and you both wonder why the other hasn’t booked you into a plush hotel already.

And this is where everything – including the extended travel metaphor – breaks down, because there are no plush hotels in New Parentland. New Parentland is not a backpacker’s Europe; it’s not even the outer reaches of the former Soviet Union, where at least they have beds and a limitless supply of vodka. New Parentland is more like a deserted island. It’s survival conditions, no matter who you are, unless you have the means and the foresight to have brought an entourage that will attend to your basic needs and forage for your food. There’s no straightforward solution to your discomfort here; there are no resources beyond what you can gather and/or jerryrig together. Neither you nor your travelling companion has it within their power to make things easy. With the first child, if you’re lucky, this is like Blue Lagoon: you’re so enthralled with the romance of the situation that you don’t care that you are – figuratively – wearing loincloths and drinking out of coconuts. You might even find that kind of thing sexy. But by the time you’re on baby number two? The loincloths are starting to feel scratchy and you’re sunburnt and sleeping on the sand is making your back hurt and that other person is eating your coconut, dammit. You are on Survivor: Child Island and it’s only a matter of time before you turn on each other.

My husband and I haven’t turned on each other (*knocks wood*), and we wouldn’t reverse the steps that brought us here to our own, personal Child Island. We find pleasure in this place; we bask in the sunshine here. But still: we find it challenging, coping with the hardship. I find it challenging. Once the chores are done and the children are tended to and this place falls silent, I am so exhausted, so spent and worn, that I want only to crawl under the blankets and escape – with a book, with some Ativan – and rest and I know that he experiences this as a withdrawal. But then I – perversely – resent him for experiencing it as withdrawal. I’m so tired, I tell myself. This is so hard. He should get that. I tell him that this is so hard and that I am so tired and he tells me that he is tired too and instead of feeling sympathy, I feel frustration. It’s harder for me, I think, and the resentment starts to burble. And then I catch myself and tell myself that hard is hard is hard and just because I have spent whole days and nights on my own wrangling our two creatures and lived to tell about it doesn’t mean that he can manage the same thing and in any case he gets up at night and first thing in the morning with the baby, right? And then I think, maybe if we just had some time together, just the two of us – or better, what if I had some time for me, just me, alone, and THEN we had some together just the two of us ?- but then I immediately think, why doesn’t he make that happen? Why must it be ME?

And then I worry us about turning on each other. I worry about even considering the possibility that we might turn on each other, because once upon a time – in the carefree days before we embarked upon this strange and wonderful and impossibly challenging journey – I would not have imagined for a second that we could turn on each other, that we could be anything other than perfect allies. (This is the tragic innocence, to borrow another pop culture analogy, of couples on the Amazing Race; the bluster behind their bold claims, before running a single step, of being a brilliant team, of knowing that they’ll work together perfectly, masterfully, that they will, as a unit, dominate the race. This bluster invariably end in shouts and tears in the empty corridors of this airport or across the field of that Road Block challenge, and we the audience murmur, from the security of our armchairs, that we knew that they would fall apart and, also, that wouldn’t happen to us.) We are allies, my husband and I, we are, but that I doubt our alliance for even a second weighs upon me heavily, presses the air from my lungs.

It weighs upon me, because how could I feel any doubt? He is wonderful, my husband, really wonderful, and I love him so much and am so, so lucky to have him as my partner. But, still, also, there is this: I am tired, and I want to be carried, just for a little while, just until I get my strength back. And this is where the doubt resides: in my fear that he might be getting tired of carrying me, that although I know he will give me his last coconut, he might resent doing so. That I might resent his resenting doing so. That that resentment might build, and that we’ll end up yelling at each other across the crowded airport corridor that is family life or turning on each other in our own personal Tribal Council. That I want a day off, alone, just by myself, just taking care of myself, more than I want a day alone with my husband – and that I want him to want that – hurts my heart, in a way, because I do want time alone with him, just me and him, with no children attached to our bodies and no cries ringing in our ears, time to reinforce our alliance, our team, so that we can continue to endure the challenges of this island, this race, this reality, with grace and humor. I really, really do. I just need to be rested first. I just need to be carried for a while, or allowed to stop and rest.

We’ve come this far together. We know that our alliance, our partnership, is the key to everything. Our alliance, and maybe a few naps, some liquor and an all-expenses-paid holiday somewhere warm, with soft beds and babysitters and, yes, coconuts.

That’s all.

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    { 114 comments }

    Jan February 19, 2009 at 2:35 am

    I think as many different types of personalities and people there are in this world, that’s how many different perspectives on being a mother there are. I hear so many say “This is so hard” and that is not my experience at all. But so what? We don’t have to convince each other that we are right and they are wrong or too negative. It is what it is! Everyone is allowed their own opinion, their own experience. Being a mother is the EASIEST thing I have ever done- and my life has NOT been easy. If someone else’s experience is different, I respect that….and ask if there is anything I can do to help. I directed a child care center for 17 years and that was my favorite part- helping other parents who may have been struggling at times. Peace and hope for all of us!

    Adventures In Babywearing February 19, 2009 at 9:39 am

    I kinda wanted to comment on the post right after this- I get you. I understand. And lately I am in a dark period (I’ve not gotten much sleep this week and have thought about you and am hoping you’re finally getting some) and so it is actually refreshing to see someone else write those things that we are all feeling. Sometimes we need the dark to see that there is a light!

    That’s all.

    Steph

    Steph February 19, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    My favorite quote ever about parenthood came from a movie, and was something like: As hard as you think it is going to be, you end up wishing it were that easing.

    Steph February 19, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    or rather… that easy. :)

    Veronica Mitchell February 19, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    It really is the age, not the number. My sister’s fourth and fifth kids (twin boys) are now almost five, and her marriage is going through a renaissance. She feels freed from the constraints of babyhood, and she and husband are cooing over each other, in love like college kids. My fourth baby is only 5 months old, and we have a long way to go till babyhood is over. But it matters a lot that I can trust him to be committed to me until this gets easier. And he remembers single life well enough to choose even a tired and cranky wife over no wife at all.

    Jaci February 19, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    THANK YOU for writing this! I’ve been feeling alone in my parenting/marriage/me-time struggles, like there is something wrong with me and I can’t handle it as well as other moms.

    I’m going to print this and share it with my mom’s group tomorrow. I know every woman there will be able to relate!

    LAVANDULA February 19, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    catherine you are so hard on yourself sometimes…i'm sure we all at times resent our spouses the freedom they have. as for finding time me time spouse time children time its very hard.my children are vastly different in age 18,16,8 & 4.so trying to spend quality time with them is hard and my husband is often in bed before any of children as he has to be up at 3 a.m. so it is very hard to spend any time together.i just keeping telling myself that it will all work out for the best…

    geeklady February 19, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    It took me a little while to really condense my thoughts on this, and they’re still long and rambling, but here it goes.

    I can never imagine turning on Mike, or him turning on me. Not as our past selves, or our present ones, or anyone I can imagine us being in the future. Whatever the jobs, one kid or ten, the idea that we’d turn on each other just seems impossible. Even ludicrous.

    We argue, nuts, we fight all the time. Marriage is hard, parenting is hard, life in general is hard, and we’re both pigheaded individuals. So we fight, but they’re usually flashes in the pan. It’s rare that there’s any lasting resentment between us. Having a kid just is one more thing life, the most importantthing, so the resulting fights are an order of magnitude huge-er.

    Mike adores his son, but won’t give him baths (he’s not flexible enough to hunker down by the tub), won’t feed him dinner unless I ask, forgets to change his diaper again unless I ask. And this drives me up the wall, across the ceiling, and down the other side. But he can get the baby to sleep without boobie, and will get up in the middle of the night to put GeekBaby back to sleep to spare my boobs pacifier duty, even when he has to get up at 4:45 am to leave by 5:30 for his hour long drive to the soul sucking horror of teaching HS spanish.

    It’s easy to forget this when all I want to do is write a blog post but the baby needs dinner and a bath and then he wants to nurse, and then by the time all this is done it’s 8:30 already, and damn it I was at work all day too, why do I have to do all the baby tending when we get home from work? And did I mention the kid practically bit my nipple off last night and it hurts??

    But while I’m baby wrangling, he’s doing the dishes, or the laundry, or picking up, and maybe he’s not doing these things to my standards, but he’s doing them. And, thank God for small favors, he is not ALSO a baby that needs my constant tending and attention. He’s my partner, my coworker, my fellow conspirator. I trust him without thinking about it. Ultimately, he has my back.

    In turn that trust is supported by our closeness. Baby in tow or not, we spend time together. We talk, banter, pray together, we are noisy and silent together. We try to be open to each other. This is super hard, way harder than parenting in my opinion, because it really makes you vulnerable. With or without kids, it’s so easy to get wrapped up and safe in your own little world and then you just drift apart. It’s much harder to be open.

    Sarah February 19, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    My husband and I have one easy going 2-year-old and are contemplating having another. In my heart of hearts, I know that one is enough for me. However, everyone keeps telling me that my son needs a sibling. I’m so very torn about this.

    Anonymous February 19, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    Hello,
    I want to thank Elizabeth 9:14 for sharing her perspective in having tooooo much to do in a 24 hour day. That really is the problem isn’t it? I wouldn’t mind any of this if there were more hours in the day to truly rest i.e get an 8 hour shift of sleep in. Then I wouldn’t even mind the work of parenting. I am the one with the three kids under the age 3 years, two and a half months. My hubs works 80+ hours a week. HE is a new GP, who is trying to set up a practice. He leaves us all in the middle of the night to deliver someone else’s baby. Every one thinks I am so lucky and it must be easy, must be nice to be a doctor’s wife. But my life is hard too. We all need to replenish our energy or we are no good for anyone.

    courtney February 20, 2009 at 2:16 am

    What a great post. We’re only on our first child, but I have already felt that resentment. That I’m doing it all and that he gets it easy. And then he gets frustrated because I’m mad with him and he feels like he’s doing enough… it’s hard.

    Animal February 20, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Miss Tessmacher and I just had this experience yesterday morning, when Roslyn was on her umpteenth day of feeling crummy and out of sorts because of incoming molars and outgoing ear infections. First we sniped at The Rozzle, then we quickly switched gears and started sniping at each other. On our way to work – a wonderful semester long panacea – we apologized sincerely and admitted that razzing each other in classic passive/aggressive mode was no solution for the exhaustion and frustration we both felt. And in that moment, we were allies once again.

    If your hubby is everything you say he is, trust me: he will never pause for a second before carrying you, he will always give you the last coconut (even as his own ribs poke holes through his grass shirt), and he will never, ever resent you for it.

    ;-)

    Alana February 23, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    I hate kissing ass, but I’m afraid that’s all I have to do here. I couldn’t have said this better and I have sorely wanted to verbalize exactly this. We decided to have only one child and while it is an adventure, I feel I am in the same place that you are. It is so, so much harder than I ever could have imagined. Do you ever feel that this is a sign of OUR times? Previous generations not being exposed to the idea that we don’t just nurture but that we PARENT (make sure to raise unspoiled, happy, smart, engaged people). I don’t want to write a novella, but it is something I think about a lot.

    While I have yet to read the other comments, I did want to praise you again for some of your wonderfully thought provoking posts on this topic. They have truly resonated with me and I appreciate your honesty.

    MrsEmbers March 1, 2009 at 10:27 am

    Good Heavens- YOU ARE ME. Well, me if I could string together enough coherent and well-thought-out sentences to create a post this perfect.

    Thank you for saying what so many of us can’t!

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