The Amazing Survivor Race Challenge: Parenting Edition
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.