Q. and I have an anniversary coming up.
It’s our sixth. And since we do the traditional gifts, this means we’re bound by the traditional gifts of sugar and iron.
I get that they’re meant to represent both the sweetness and the strength of our marriage. I get that our marriage has (according to all the helpful sites on this one can goo.gle) probably weathered ups and downs, and that six years shows that (in this modern day and age at least) we’re in it for the long haul.
Still, when you have a husband with no real sweet tooth and looming airline weight restrictions on your luggage at the end of the summer, they’re not the most helpful of suggestions.
I think I’ve figured out what I’ll do, but it’s taken some consideration. It’s one of the reasons why I like the idea of the traditional gifts so much, even if this year has caused some frustration. It forces you to think outside the box. Left to my own devices I’d probably buy Q. books every year. Not that he’d mind that, but I can safely say that without the traditional gifts spurring me on I would probably never have bought him an overnight bag, like I did for our third anniversary (leather/suede), or a salad bowl made with reclaimed local wood, like I did for our fifth anniversary (wood). Nor would I have been likely to think of buying him flowers on the same day every month for a year like I did for our fourth anniversary (fruit and flowers).
Don’t get me started on the
greedy modern anniversary gift lists.
Anyway, while normally I laugh at the internet descriptions of how the traditional gifts are meant to relate to your marriage, this year I found myself thinking a little bit more about them.
It is true that Q. and I have seen our marriage weather ups and downs. The first three years of our marriage were spent trying to get pregnant. The fourth year of our marriage saw our successful IVF, my pregnancy, and the birth of E. The fifth year found us trying to survive E’s first year. The sixth year saw us find our strength and our confidence as parents but brought with it new challenges.
There have been many moments of sweetness, but many others where we’ve needed our strength: individually and as a couple. And we are certainly in it for the long haul. I am a child of divorced parents. In my own (incredibly unscientific) research, I’ve noticed that children whose parents divorced tend to go one of two ways in their own attitudes towards marriage: they’re either quite negative towards it and don’t see its value as an institution, or they have an almost fanatical devotion to it complete with an unshakeable certainty that if they get married, they will not get divorced. They will not repeat the mistakes of their parents.
I fall into the second category. I simply cannot contemplate a single reason (other than abuse) that could provoke me into leaving my marriage. I thought very carefully about whether Q. was the person I wanted to marry (this thinking took place long before he ever proposed- when he did propose I immediately said yes, since I had decided some years previously that he was the one for me). Having E. only strengthened my feelings on this. Having E. made me look at my own parents and their divorce (a long time ago now- they’ve both been remarried for longer than they were ever married to each other) in a different light. I brought myself to tears on more than one occasion in E.’s first six months, watching Q. with him, and thinking that this was how my father had been with me, and my mother had taken us from him.
Plus it seems every time I turn around there’s another study out there saying that divorce is bad for kids. The most recent couple I’ve seen came to the depressing conclusion that ANY type of divorce- even the wonderfully amicable ones where everyone still eats Christmas dinner together and Dad dances with Mum at the wedding and there are happy family holidays with everyone, even the new partners- is generally worse for the kids than even the most unhappy of marriages (barring, obviously, abuse).
Divorce, the expert consensus appears to be (at least at the moment) may be better for the parents, but it isn’t better for the kids. If you leave a marriage, it’s really you, not your kids that you’re thinking about.
I’m still digesting all of this and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I am very aware of my own divorce-related issues, namely an inability to be able to cope with anyone being angry with me, an almost pathological need for external validation and approval, and a paralyzing fear that if anyone shouts at me that means they won’t love me any more and they’ll leave. I am the consummate conflict avoider. Since having E. I’ve discovered that this last one also applies to having anyone else (and by that I mean Q.) shout at, or even raise his voice at, E. I have a lot of trouble recognizing and accepting normal parental frustration when faced with a toddler and have to work hard to keep myself from reading into it anger and rejection of love.
But I don’t know that I’d be ready to say that ALL divorce is ALWAYS bad.
I’m not sure where Q. stands on the whole issue. It’s not something we talk much about. His parents were happily married until his father died a number of years ago. Possibly Q. doesn’t believe in divorce, because every now and then he turns out to be more Catholic than I think he is.
All that to say that I feel confident that Q. and I are on the same page when it comes to our marriage. We’re both in it for the long haul. We intend (and hope very much) to retire together, grow old together. When I see octogenarian couples trundling (slowly) down the street, holding hands, or sitting in a coffee shop together reading the newspaper and nattering away, I think to myself- I want that to be us. There is no one else I could imagine spending my life with. I know that the grass would not be greener on the other side. I am an incredibly, incredibly lucky woman.
Q. and I have been married for almost six years now. We’ve been together for ten and a half. Our relationship became very serious very quickly, so for more than a decade we’ve been making decisions as a couple, thinking about a joint future, each of us planning for a life that includes the other.
Yet it’s only since E. has been born that I’ve realized we’re going to have to actually work at this whole marriage thing.
Pre-E., while we had our ups and downs, our relationship was easy. In fact, that’s the advice I used to give friends who were struggling in their relationships: if it were really a great relationship, I’d say, it wouldn’t seem like work. You shouldn’t have to be trying so hard to make it work. It should just work.
I still think this is largely true, especially in the first couple of years of a relationship. If you find the right person, it really is easy. Q. and I faced some significant challenges in our first few years together, before we were married: eighteen months of very very long-distance; my depression; the death of his father; moving in together; applying for my permanent residency, buying a house. Anything life threw at us, we handled with grace. We could talk about anything. Life events that invariably appear in any article discussing the “biggest tests of a relationship” – holidays, home improvements, encounters with in-laws, job changes, moves, etc.- we sailed through.
Q. and I had planned to get married in my home country, since we were living in his home country at the time we got engaged. Then, six months before the wedding, Q. got a job offer from a university in my home country. Now we were no longer flying over that summer for a few weeks to get married, see my family, and have a honeymoon; we were moving there, quite possibly permanently. This meant that in our final few months in Q’s country, we organized a wedding, packed up our household, and said goodbye to our two permanent jobs. Both Q. and I worked up until two days before we left the country for good. We had to sell our house, our car, and my horse. Our cats needed multiple trips to the vet to get the clearance we needed to take them with us. We had to ship our belongings to our new country, but store the furniture we’d borrowed from Q’s uncle.
Did I mention we were also getting married?
Plus we were now throwing a pre-wedding party in Q’s country, instead of the post-wedding party we’d originally been planning.
I’m not saying I recommend taking this sort of route, but it did serve as a very very good indicator of just how well suited we were for each other, and how well we could work together as a team. We divided responsibility: I became entirely in charge of the wedding, and Q. handled the move. We delegated, particularly to my family, who were enormously helpful. Being at arm’s length from the wedding plans also helped curtail any potential bridezilla moments. I don’t think I would have been all that obsessed with chair covers (we didn’t have any) and table centrepieces (my mother made them using flowers from her garden) even if I had been closer, but the distance certainly meant that we quickly had to let go of caring too much about most things.
It all came together in the end. The move went smoothly (although the cats were traumatized for quite some time afterwards by their journey in the airplane’s cargo hold) and the wedding was a simply glorious day that my friends and relatives still talk about in dreamy tones, saying things like, “Remember your wedding? Now THAT was a good wedding.” And Q. and I headed off into wedded bliss, as sure as one can be that we had picked the right partner.
Even infertility, which can sound the death knell in a marriage, failed to shake us. We were always able to talk through the big decisions as a team- the decision to convert that last IUI cycle to IVF, the timings of the FETs, the decision to try one last IVF cycle, the break from the clinic during my comps, the timings of the IVF cycle that gave us our E. We weathered it all: the crushing disappointment with each negative beta, my insane mood swings and anxiety, the hours spent at the clinic, the physical, emotional, mental and financial toll. We developed our routines: for retrieval and transfer days, for PIO shots, for bad news. Again, I wouldn’t wish infertility on anyone, but those first three years of our marriage proved yet again how good we were for each other, how good we were as a team.
And then we had E.
And just recently I was struck by a line in Em’s brilliant post (which you must read if you haven’t yet already), where she wrote that parenting “can hammer out a cleft in a rock-solid marriage”.
I’ve heard it before, of course. That list of the “biggest tests of a relationship”? Having a child is right up there.
But I’d always just assumed that we’d sail right through, just like we’d done with every other challenge in our relationship so far. We’d worked so very hard to become parents. Infertility had brought us closer together. What could be more difficult?
I should, at this point, make some things clear.
My marriage to Q. is not in trouble.
I remain as committed to him as I was the day I married him. I haven’t asked him about this, but I would assume he would say the same thing.
We are in this for the long haul.
But there’s no denying that the last two years have put a strain on our marriage that wasn’t there before.
I think this is probably very normal. The first two years of a child’s life are amazing and exhilarating and inspiring, but they’re also downright exhausting. I remember someone (I think is was Ask Moxie who is my official go-to guru on anything to do with parenting) writing about the exhaustion of parenting and how it can sometimes seem overwhelming, and she made a throwaway comment that it basically ALWAYS seems overwhelming to parents of children under the age of three, and I remember filing that one away in my memory to bring out and hold on to on the days when I’m looking forward to bedtime already and it’s not even 8 a.m. yet.
I don’t think Q. and I are the first couple to be hit by baby shock.
But we have faced some extra challenges. E. wasn’t an easy baby in his first year. He was a largely happy baby, but he wasn’t an easy one, what with the sleep issues and the MSPI. I really really struggled with adjusting to motherhood, especially in the first six months, but even for much of the first year (largely due to, in retrospect, the sleep issues and the MSPI).
Plus we made the
well thought out insane rational stupid decision to juggle E’s care between us. And I don’t regret, not even for a second, that decision. Even though so many of our problems from the last couple of years have stemmed from the basic numerical error that we’ve been trying to squeeze three full-time jobs (Q.’s academic position, my PhD, and E’s care) into two spaces, I remain confident that this was absolutely the best decision for our family in the long run. E. has really thrived and has an incredibly close relationship with both his parents. My dissertation is not all that much behind from where I would have hoped to have been if we’d stayed childless (and I’m on track to finish within the number of years expected for a regular student, even with the maternity leave and the part-time hours). Q. has done his job, and done parts of it very well indeed, even if he hasn’t published as much as he probably thinks he should have.
All of this juggling has come at a price, and I think it’s been our marriage. We’ve lost some of that easy intimacy that we used to have, some of our old camaraderie. We used to be able to talk about everything and nothing. Now we still communicate well, but so many of our conversations revolve around E.- what he’s doing lately, what time did he nap, what time will he need dinner – or our household – do we need anything at the store, what should we do this weekend, can you come home early next Wednesday so we can take the cats to the vet, etc. Blah, blah, blah. Lots of content, very little actual substance.
One of our strengths as a couple has always been our ability to stay organized, to share responsibilities, to take turns leaning on each other. And we’ve managed pretty well, even with the chaos of a baby (and now a toddler). Our house is still clean (and we still do it all ourselves). We still cook homemade meals from scratch 99% of the time. We still go to our farmers’ market to buy organic meat and vegetables on Saturday mornings. We’re continually improving our calendar system to make sure that we know when the other has commitments and won’t be able to look after E. (right before we came to the U.K. we started using Cozi, which has worked out really really well). We do the day-to-day minutiae well.
What we’re missing is the extra- the conversations about other things- about love and politics and the future and travel and movies and books. We don’t have a lot of time anymore to sit down and really talk– not just about E., or about our days, or about what we still have to do that week.
We’re tired a lot of the time, so it’s much easier for us to get annoyed with each other. We’ve always said to each other (even long before we had E.) that we’re not keeping score- that it isn’t as though Q. has to clean the bathrooms this weekend because I did it last weekend. Everything tended to even out according to the ebb and flow of our other commitments, the pressures of our jobs. But right now, we’re always both tired and stressed. We both always have too many other things to do. And it becomes easy to see everything that you are doing (and doing every time) and also just as easy to overlook everything your partner is doing. We still haven’t always worked out how best to balance E. on weekends or holidays- how to make sure that we get time together as a family, but also individual time without being responsible for E., and I still get incredibly resentful if I feel like the default position is E. is my job. Q. cooks dinner pretty much every night these days since it gives him something to do in the late afternoons, so I clean up afterwards and put E. to bed. Q. cleans the flat with E. in tow. I do the online grocery shopping and the monthly finances. We both are constantly, constantly doing laundry, since we have no dryer here and only a small rack. The system isn’t perfect but it works. We’ll have to renegotiate everything once we’re home in the fall, and we’ll have a couple of rough months until we figure out what works best.
I know I am too bossy. I wanted us to be true co-parents, but I’m boss parent, and Q. spends a lot of time asking me what time I want E. to go to bed, or what time I want to eat dinner, because I always do have an idea about when I think the best time would be, and he normally doesn’t care that much about anything. I know Q. thinks (rightly) that I am obsessed with punctuality and doing things on time (I can’t help this- it’s how I was raised), but I think he also thinks that I get much more annoyed about dinner being fifteen minutes later than advertised than I do (most of the time- there are some days when Q. is exactly right to think I get annoyed when dinner is running late. These are usually days where E. didn’t nap and I think he needs to go to bed much earlier than normal, because he really does need to go to bed earlier, and then I get seriously annoyed if Q. doesn’t realize this and E. gets rattier and rattier the later it gets). I get frustrated with Q.’s lack of patience and how defensive he gets when I say something that he takes as a criticism (when it wasn’t at all meant to be). But then again, there are times where I do say something that is a form of criticism, and maybe I sound the same even when I don’t mean to be critical. Maybe I need to pay more attention to how the words are coming out of my mouth. I know I can’t change Q. or his behaviour. I’m only in control of myself- I can control what I say/do, and how I react to what Q. says/does. And I am trying to react with more kindness and less criticism, more openness and less frustration, more appreciation and less judgment. It’s not always easy.
Again, I know this is not a problem that’s unique to us. I remember a friend saying to me that she never, ever fought with her husband before they had children. And now they still don’t really fight, in the same way that Q. and I don’t fight- the screaming/yelling/hysterical fighting- but they do carp at each other and snipe at each other and get frustrated with each other, and her husband does hide in the bathroom to read the paper, and they do have to work at making sure their children aren’t hot potatoes on the weekend: “I had them both for an hour this morning while you read the paper, so now it’s your turn”. She told me, pre-E. that this balancing act is the hardest part of parenting, that both parties always, always feel like they are doing more and are underappreciated, that no one ever feels like they get enough time to themselves. I think she’s probably right.
And that’s comforting too, because I know that it isn’t just us. Much of the difficulty now will be a passing phase. E. will get older. Things will become easier (even if we are lucky enough to have a 2.0, in which case things will get MUCH harder for a while, but then they will get easier again). There will be more time that we can eke out for ourselves, both individually and as a couple.
But in the meantime, if we don’t want that tiny bit of distance to yawn, and stretch, and widen, it’s time to really sit down and put some work into our marriage. Q. and I don’t really bicker but we’re also not great at clearing the air when something’s niggling at us. Q. tends to withdraw and sulk if he’s feeling defensive, and I tend to get
a bit more-than-a-little passive-aggressive about things. I’m also becoming increasingly inflexible about things because I’m getting used to getting my own way given Q. cedes so much control to me about E. (and, by extension, about our day-to-day life). Usually all of this evens out and we work fine, but every now and then I get a glimpse of a not-so-nice dynamic, and I realize that if we’re not careful, if we don’t remember to nurture our marriage as we nurture our son, we could one day find ourselves as one of those couples out for dinner with nothing to say to each other.
I don’t feel like we actually need to work on our marriage, per se. I think we need to work on making time for our marriage. Q. and I still have loads to say to each other- we just don’t often make time to say it. In the evenings one or both of us is often working (which is likely to remain true of this coming academic year as well). Last academic year we did always make sure not to work on Friday and Saturday nights, but often we’d end up watching a movie.
We are so short on spare time these days, that every moment has to come at the expense of something else. If we’re going to make time to really sit and spend time together and talk to each other, then we can’t chill out watching a movie. And yes, that sounds a bit ridiculous, because obviously my marriage to Q. is more important than a movie, but some days you’re just really tired and you just want to chill out and watch The Avengers or Downton Abbey, no? It’s just it becomes a problem when EVERY week you are just really tired and you just want to chill out and watch something.
It’s also hard at the moment because Q. is still always, always tired, and I’m not. I really do seem to need less sleep than I did before E. was born. So I’m happy to stay up later reading, and if I wake up earlier, which I almost always do, I get out of bed and go into the living room to read so Q. can get some more sleep. Which is a good thing, except then we’re missing the chance to have a cuddle in bed before E. wakes up and the whirlwind that is our daily life with a toddler begins again. There’s an imbalance and a bit of a disconnect there too. But if I do stay in bed, then I usually do end up waking Q. up, even if I try to read quietly, and then I feel guilty and irritated, because those few moments before E. wakes up are precious ones where I don’t have any other responsibilities and can steal a bit of time for myself.
Right now our hands are a bit tied. We’re in the U.K. for another month and a half. Q.’s going to be frustrated and bored being at home with E. I’m going to feel guilty and anxious about being in the library. We don’t feel comfortable trying to find someone in the village to act as a babysitter. We’re, once again, not even going to manage to go out for dinner on our anniversary just the two of us. Q.’s Mum will still be here, and while I did think about asking her to babysit, a) that’s her last night with us, and b) we’ve already asked her to babysit the night before while we have dinner with a highschool friend of Q’s who happens to be in the U.K. at the moment and who ran into us on the platform at King’s Cross station in London (I’m not joking). This will just be another of a long list of anniversaries shared with relatives. Our fifth anniversary we had a very nice lunch, shared with E., Q.’s Mum, sister and brother-in-law, in a lovely wine region in Q’s home country, where we were on vacation. Lovely, but full of relatives on a relatively stressful trip. Our fourth anniversary was shared with two-month-old E. (we had a picnic in the ravine near our house where E. sat propped up in his stroller and got over-tired and ended up flailing, bug-eyed, while we surreptitiously drank our celebratory bottle of wine since you can’t consume alcohol in a public place where we live). Our third anniversary was classic: we were back in Q’s country. Q. had to give a lecture that night at his old university, so we couldn’t go out for dinner, and he had to spend the afternoon working on it. We tried to go out for breakfast by ourselves but my mother and stepfather (who were on holiday with us) ended up at the same restaurant and sat with us, and then I offended my mother by getting really annoyed with them. Q. and I did manage to do some hiking together later that morning, but it wasn’t ideal. It’s been years since we’ve had a nice relaxing time on our anniversary, just the two of us. We don’t have wild expectations- our second anniversary we spent having a picnic in the ravine near our house, and that was just wonderful.
We don’t have a great track record at making time for ourselves as a couple. I’ve written on here before about the difficulties we have with setting aside holiday time for our little family- holiday time where we’re not visiting family or friends, where we don’t have them visiting us. In January we made a commitment to each other that we would start to prioritize that time, and we’re going to have a week together, just we three, at the end of our time in the U.K.
It’s a start. But you’ll notice I said the three of us.
What we’re abjectly failing at doing right now is getting any time to ourselves, just the two of us.
Last fall we managed a couple of moments. My father watched E. one evening while Q. and I went out to see a horse show for my birthday. That was the first time (I think) anyone other than Q. or myself put E. down for the night. In early September my mother and stepfather watched E. while Q. and I went to a Shakespeare festival. We had a picnic lunch and saw Henry V and went to a lovely restaurant for dinner. E. went to the park, and took a huge nap, and ate ice cream, and went to bed without a fuss, and generally had a brilliant time. In November we took the biggest step and my Mum came down again to watch E. while Q. and I went out OVERNIGHT to celebrate the ten years that had passed since our first date. We went to a matinee of Skyfall and then went out to dinner in a Thai restaurant I’d been to once before, and then we stayed in a hotel where we were woken up too early the next morning because the room staff had left the alarm clocks set. Q. went back to sleep but I couldn’t. And then my mother locked herself out of the house with E. in tow right when we were checking out (luckily we’d opted for a staycation and hadn’t left our city), so we had to rush home a bit faster than anticipated. But again, E. had had a lovely time.
E. is big enough, old enough now that we feel comfortable leaving him.
We haven’t yet left him with anyone other than family.
That’s the next big hurdle, the problem that I am determined to solve in the fall. Q. and I NEED a regular date night. We need to start making time for ourselves as a couple, because our lives are not going to get less busy and we need to put our marriage a little bit higher on the priority list.
It’s now that I wish more than ever that we had family in the city. Leaving aside the issue of finding a reliable babysitter, it’s hard to rationalize dropping $20 an hour (or whatever the going rate is these days) just to go out and have dinner, or coffee and dessert, especially when you know that your child is asleep for most of that time! And going out and actually DOING something- going to the symphony or a play or what-have-you- makes the whole evening even more expensive. We’re not going to be able to rationalize doing that every week, like we used to before E. was born. We used to have ‘date night’, where we would go out for dinner and try a new restaurant. One year we subscribed to the symphony. The following year we subscribed to the company that brings in most of the musicals. I was pregnant with E. that year, so he heard a lot of showtunes while in utero. Q. and I would wander around the city holding hands and just talking.
We can’t do that every week. But maybe we could try to do it at least once a month, even if we started just by going out for a drink in our neighbourhood so we’d be able to rush back if anything went wrong. I know a couple of girls who live on our street babysit. Q. really wants to use them, since their parents would be literally across the street if anything went wrong. Our friends who live in a nearby city have had great luck using an undergraduate student studying to be a primary school teacher. My instinct is to go with an undergrad rather than a young teenager, but then I’ve got no idea how to go about finding someone suitable. Our university is a big commuter school- it’s unlikely that any of our students would live near us.
I’ve had two other ideas. One of my Mummy friends lives not too far away, and I’ve thought about asking her whether she’d like to organize a swap arrangement where we take their son one evening a month, and they take our son one evening a month, so we get some child-free time. I’ve got no idea how that would work, since we don’t have a spare crib, but surely we could figure something out. Or maybe we could drop them off mid-morning and pick them up again before dinner, so the parents could get away for lunch and the early afternoon. (I could see this working really well when they’re no longer napping, but I’m not sure if it will work next year since I expect E. will really need his naps on the weekend given the three days at nursery school are going to be a write off).
My other idea, which will be much easier to implement, stemmed from a discussion Q. and I had about our teaching schedules for next year. We realized that he’s probably going to be teaching too late on Wednesdays to get home in time to have dinner with E. if, as I suspect will happen, E. will need to revert back to a 7 p.m. bedtime on nursery school days where he didn’t get a nap. Originally I thought about just eating with E. as that would be a good chance to eat something light. But now I’ve realized what we should do is save that night for dinner, just the two of us. Q. could put something together while I got E. into bed (or vice versa). Maybe we’d even get takeaway sometimes. We could set a rule that neither of us would work and we could actually have a bit of time together mid-week and we would NOT watch anything on the laptop.
One of the complaints about something like ‘date night’ is it’s artificial. There’s this idea that you shouldn’t have to schedule in romance, or time as a couple. And that’s probably true B.C. (Before Children). Q. and I mainly instituted ‘date night’ to stop us succumbing to the lure of takeaway earlier in the week if we’d had a long day at work- if we knew we were already scheduled to go out later that week we were better at going home and cooking the meal we’d planned. We were really good at spontaneous stuff on the weekend- going for long walks in the city, getting tea and coffee, perusing the shelves of used bookstores, lounging on the grass in a park. Little stuff, but the little moments added up into a rock-solid, warm and loving marriage.
Now maybe we do have to schedule to get a little bit of that little spontaneous stuff back in our life. So be it. We schedule everything else- our work meetings, our dentist and doctor appointments, our holidays, our visits to family, anything and everything to do with E. We regularly plan weeks in advance to meet up with our friends (and did this even before E.- living in a big city where everyone is separated by significant distance, and everyone has a full-time job, is a far cry from our old lifestyle of being graduate students in a university town where you just wandered around the residence to see if anyone fancied a trip to the pub). We make time for all of these things.
It’s time to make time for our marriage.