“Young children bring you closer together as a couple” (said nobody, ever).
Instead of sweet lies like this, folks tend to give pregnant women the most horrifying bits of advice that, while truthful, make you want to curl up and die. I remember only two distinct pieces of advice I received during my second pregnancy, which occurred far too soon than I was comfortable with, or prepared for. In those final long months of gestation, I hungered for words of wisdom from someone further along in the multiple-child lifestyle. More than that, I desperately needed someone to tell me everything would be fine, the world would keep turning, life would go smoothly, and easily, and nothing would really change.
My first baby was an adjustment, but my husband, my son and I developed a special dynamic that worked for us. I didn’t want another newborn entering the mix and throwing a kink in the whole operation. Plus, I’m a person of order, and I like to feel in control. One baby hadn’t upset my apple cart too terribly. How bad could two really be? I had to know. And I vividly remember the words of wisdom I received in response from two ladies in particular.
The first owned a shipping depot near my house, had four older children, and, with a smile on her face, told me the first year would be “pure hell.” “THEN it will get better,” she promised. I remember wondering what person in their right mind would tell a pregnant woman, already in the throes of physical discomfort, that things were about to get worse. I’ll figure out a way through it that doesn’t suck, I thought, we’ll be different.
The second bit of advice came from my favorite O.B. nurse. I had a habit of making conversation with her during my routine visits. She was smart, sassy, so, so kind, and in the midst of it all, battling breast cancer. When you brush up against someone going through such unbelievable hardship and behaving far better than you would in their shoes, you take notice. I’d ask her for advice from time to time, about the road ahead and how to best prepare. “How are things at home?” I asked, “Do you and your husband still have fun?”
“Shoot,” she replied, “we’re lucky if we get to high-five each other in the hallway in-between caring for the girls and getting to work on time.” Wow, I thought, sounds like those two really need to prioritize each other a little better. Faced yet again with the naked truth, I quickly shook it off. That will NEVER be us.
My husband and I joke that our marriage is good for at least twenty years.
He wears his dad’s wedding band — the one his dad wore while married to his mom — and because they divorced after twenty years, we figure we’ve got at least that much time before ours expires. Some days we’ll laughingly remind each other of our progress: only thirteen years left. Then I can shack up with a young, fresh-faced, sun-tanned pool boy, or go after an older man with money. “I’ll send you regular checks in the mail once I get my hands on his fortune,” I tell my husband. After twenty good years, I can’t leave him high and dry.
But we do have bad days, bad weeks, bad months — the kind where you wonder if this is it — the beginning of The End. This past week was one of those. I worried that our twenty-year expiration date might come a little sooner than planned. I can’t explain how we got there. It’s never a crystal clear, linear path. I shuffled into the kitchen one morning for my coffee, casting a glance at my husband glued to his phone at the kitchen table. Neither of us said a peep, tension still hung heavy in the air from our rough conversation the night before, when we’d run out of nice things to say, and opted to simply roll over and feign sleep. It dawned on me how common these mornings were becoming, and suddenly I felt slightly fearful.
When you fight about something tangible, like what to make for dinner, whether to go out Friday night, or how many times your kid should be allowed to pee before bed, it’s fixable. You talk it out, you get on the same page, and it’s over. But sometimes the bad feelings arise from more amorphous origins. Everything he says feels patronizing. Is he using a tone with me? Am I the only one making an effort here? Terrific, another dirty sock that didn’t quite make it into the hamper… I’ll go brood over this as I sharpen the kitchen knives. Some days, we’re just “off.” There’s no obvious reason. There isn’t an easy olive branch to offer and end it. These are days I wish could be fast-forwarded, so we can skip to the good stuff already.
Kids don’t help. For one thing, they’re loud.
And always asking for something (loudly). Plus, there’s a routine to maintain. We start into a crucial and sensitive discussion only to be interrupted by bath time, nap time, or somebody needing grapes without the stems, and for me to change her shoes for the five-billionth time… even though we’ve been inside all day.
There isn’t time, there isn’t energy, and there simply isn’t clarity of mind to engage with the enemy. I just spent ten minutes arguing with a toddler about whether or not his chicken nuggets are too hot — I can’t talk about feelings. I just can’t. But I hate living in tension with my partner. When it comes down to it, we’re on the same team here. And we have so little (if any) quality time together, it sucks when it’s filled with frustration, hurt, and anger.
When we hit a wall with seemingly no way through, we turn to our respective comforts. Space is always good — he’ll fish, or hike our dog to the river with a friend, and I’ll watch Girls, or journal. It helps to find a safe place to thoughtlessly spew all the venom we want to aim at each other, the awful things we couldn’t ever take back, and might always remember. The kind of stuff that wounds forever, and eventually implodes a relationship.
We entered no-man’s land on Sunday afternoon. You could sense the mounting irritation, see righteous indignation on our faces as our mental scoreboards lit up. By Wednesday, I was packing for Mexico. I was so done. We were both 100 percent right, 100 percent certain, and even with a dispute resolution master’s degree, I had no f*cking clue how we were going to come down from our respective high horses. And anyway, my horse was heading to Mexico.
While the kids napped, my husband stormed out, and I dumped my insides onto some loose notebook paper. I unloaded everything I felt, all the “truth” about my husband that I brandished like a hot iron, ready to strike at the slightest provocation. The things he “always” did, or “never” did, and the unfairness of it all, because I’m so much better as a partner, and so much more deserving of special privileges.
While I journaled feverishly — pages I pray never see the light of day — my husband was elsewhere, doing the same. Only his version was to unload verbally to a close friend, recounting all of the gory details, and the ways he felt used and mistreated. Eventually, after some time, he came home. The kids, for once, were both still sleeping, allowing us a small window in which to express our discontent to one another, but in a more polished, less stinging way.
By dinnertime, we returned to business-as-usual, living with the baseline amount of marital resentment. We were again willing to give-and-take with one another, and even give a little more than seemed fair. We trusted each other again, feeling safe enough to move forward and into our future, our next thirteen years of bliss.
We couldn’t have gotten there without a close, sober look at ourselves, at each other, and the opportunity to share with complete honesty before talking together. Maria Nemeth writes that honesty is not the same as truth, that the way you see the world and your relationships isn’t necessarily the way they are. Haven’t you ever been convinced of your story, only to change your tune when confronted with another perspective? Sharing honestly can help with that.
It also helps relieve some of the excess anger and tension that really set fire to an open dialogue. It’s helpful to have a place where you can stick a pin in your balloon of pent-up rage, leaking out some of the air before exploding it into a loved one’s face. One way to do that is to find a good friend who will listen without jumping to judgment — someone who won’t take on and continue to carry your load of anger toward your partner. Someone who knows that the fight is temporary, that nobody’s perfect, and that your partner isn’t the only one who made mistakes along the way.
Another way to do it is through journaling, either online, or the old fashioned way with handy dandy pen and paper. I am a big proponent of journaling. Keeping a journal allows you to gather your thoughts before a tense discussion with a partner, practice wording the points you want to make, and also pinpoint (and get a handle on) your emotions. As a woman and mother, I know all too well how impossible it is sometimes to know exactly what the hell I’m feeling. I’m just mad. I don’t know why. Journaling helps me figure it out, so that I at least have a clear reason for being an asshole.
But journaling fulfills other purposes, too. I’m one of those nerds who kept a diary from the age of eight, and they bring me (and my husband) a huge amount of pleasure and laughter. I wrote stories about young love and heartbreak, sending Taylor Hanson and Joshua Jackson as-yet-unanswered fan letters, seeing marijuana for the first time, and trying the cabbage soup diet with my 10th grade best friend (for, like, a day). I wrote a few desperate prayers about getting into college, finding my first job, and I even have a short crossword puzzle that ten-year-old me crafted using choice words about my mom (sorry, mom).
These stories help me remember my life, what it felt like to grow up, and hopefully provide insight into the things my kids may one day think and feel (about me, especially — FML). Now, as a mom myself, journaling helps me remember the big milestones: pregnancy, childbirth, caring for a newborn. These are huge, impactful life experiences that the brain seems to black out afterward, perhaps because it was difficult, we were scared shitless, and exhausted as f*ck. Neither my mom, nor my mother-in-law, recalled those hectic first years of child-rearing, and I hope these stories will help and encourage my kids, should they one day become parents. When they approach me for insight or advice, I can say more than just “the first year will be hell.” Instead, I can load them down with battered spiral notebooks filled with the truth about what actually happened. And when I tell them sweet, sugary lies about how they never cried, or gave me any trouble, they can crack the spine and show me how full of shit I am.
For all of these reasons and so many more, I dig journaling.
And I absolutely know you would love it, too, for all of its benefits and blessings. One way or another, your story deserves to be told, and you’re the best one to tell it. I know what you’re thinking: who the hell has time to sit and write their thoughts? This gal is smoking some serious shit. Where can I get some?
Here’s the thing, friend: don’t make it complicated. Journaling doesn’t have to be hours of sitting with your thoughts in unadulterated silence, surrounded by leather-bound books and wing-backed chairs. It can be two sentences scrawled into a composition notebook every other week. It can be a memory spilled, one paragraph at a time, into an ongoing email draft you continue whenever you happen to get a second on your phone. It can be your naked thoughts spilled onto random sticky notes, stuffed in a colorful pile, and hidden behind the healthy crackers in the pantry (where nobody will find them). Anywhere you’re able to get your unfiltered, honest thoughts down on record, that is journaling. You can do it, and I’m telling you, it’s so worth it.