Everyone goes through that phase as a new parent where marriage inadvertently goes to sulk in a dark corner of the basement, hidden by cobwebs, grieving alone, its sobs stifled by the baby's gassy cries. Mine was no different.
Caring for a newborn takes gargantuan effort, patience and sheer physical strength. I didn't know before my daughter was born just how much of myself I would have to give...and give...and give. There was no room left for anything, no me time, no us time, no time, period.
By the time she was a year old, we had stopped talking to each other directly. It was only through her that we communicated.
I was so wrapped in ensuring her well-being that I lost sight of the rapid disintegration of my marriage. I wanted to make time for my husband but the sleep deprivation, the hormonal fluctuations, the pressure to be the perfect stay-at-home-mom got in the way. Having different sleep schedules didn't help either.
The baby nursed all night long. Her yet-to-be-diagnosed lip and tongue tie caused loud clicking sounds. My postpartum snoring added to the din. For five months, my husband tried to stay the course. But the sleepless nights were too much for him. He had important meetings to lead, projects to finish, products to launch.
He started sleeping in the guest bedroom. And whatever little closeness we felt as a couple crumbled away. He ate dinner alone. Watched TV alone. He started doing FaceTime with his parents nightly. His coworkers and friends put the cry-it-out bug in his ear. He tried "Ferberizing" our barely six-month-old. That was the beginning of the end, I think.
We were co-parents living under the same roof. The hand-holding, affectionate, gregarious couple was a distant memory. Conversations were few and far between. When we talked, it was only about the baby. By the time she was a year old, we had stopped talking to each other directly. It was only through her that we communicated:
"Ask daddy if he wants to go out for dinner."
"Tell ma I don't want anything from Whole Foods."
At 14 months, our toddler started saying her first phrases. She was so used to being the conversation facilitator that the one time I asked him a question directly, she said, "Me ask daddy. Not ma!" For her it was a deviation from what was normal, from what she knew.
Her infuriated high-pitched voice slapped me out of the dreamlike existence I'd been in.
A shell of my former exuberant self. A lonesome artifact in the name of a wife. A friendless vestige. A single parent. I had become them all. I was a mom. Only a mom. Just a mom. I always noticed the dark circles under my eyes, the sagging folds where my bulging uterus used to be, the dull, lifeless skin I tried so hard to revive with miracle-touting Konjac sponges.
Now I started noticing his tired face, his slumped shoulders, his defeated energy-less stance as he looked at our daughter, stupefied. He had aged rapidly in the last year and a half. And I had been too consumed by motherhood to notice. I didn't even know who he worked with anymore or what his newest challenges were. I had no idea what, or if, he ate for lunch. We hadn't had sex since...I didn't even know when.
But what was I to do to change what had become our new normal? How would I even broach the subject? We had been together for 14 years. Silence had never caused awkwardness between us. But this was different. This wasn't the lull of a comfortable love. This was a relationship on permanent mute.
He texted me an hour after the "incident." He was in the guest room, I was nursing her upstairs.
"I can't do this anymore."
I read, re-read and re-re-read the message. What does he mean he can't do this anymore? I'm the one sacrificing everything. I'm the one putting everything on hold so we can raise the child he wanted! I'm the one...
I closed my eyes. His lifeless face came alive. With tears in my eyes I ran downstairs, Kiddo in tow. "I need you," I cried as I tried to hug him. "I don't think we can be together anymore," he said calmly as he pushed me away.
When we decided to spend the rest of our lives together at age 21, there was no doubt in our minds that "death would do us part." When we lived apart for two years because of work commitments, we burnt a lot of cash flying halfway across the country every other weekend, because we were going to make it work. When our parents tried to interfere in our child-free marriage, we defended each other.
We were always meant to be. Divorce happened to other people. To loveless relationships. To partners who had grown apart. To folks who didn't have anything in common. To those who cheated. To anyone but us.
From "you don't really mean it" to "do you have any idea what it takes?" to "you only think about yourself" our exchange took many forms: pleading, finger-pointing, shouting, sobbing.
Unfortunately, our daughter witnessed the hysteria, the tears, the bitterness in our voices. Fortunately she won't remember much, if anything.
If this marriage were to survive my parenting, I had to take a step back.
Three hours of emotional outpouring later, we had calmed down. Lying on the floor of our family room, hugging each other, him repeatedly saying, "We are family. We are in this together."
It took a week of sustained conversations to reopen the clogged communication channels between us.
He wanted to be a hands-on dad but I hadn't allowed that to happen. He wished to help out with the feedings, the baths, the diaper changes but I was so much faster and better that he felt he was stepping on my toes. He wanted to take her to the park, do grocery runs with her, chase bubbles...but thought this fell under a stay-at-home-mom's purview. The more I spent time with her, the more she sought me exclusively to comfort her, the more alienated he felt.
I had been blind. Completely oblivious to his feelings, his desires, his efforts.
If this marriage were to survive my parenting, I had to take a step back. I had to let him be a dad. I had to trust him to take care of her. I had to trust her to be OK with him. I had to trust myself to be a wife again. A friend again. It hasn't been easy but we are committed. We are trying to spend more time together as a couple. Our almost-two-year-old is finding ways to keep herself entertained.
We still sleep in different rooms, and likely will until she weans, but I slip away from her some nights to spend an hour with him before it's lights out. They run errands together on weekends while I enjoy a leisurely bath. She waits for him to come back from office, so they can "have fun."
Evenings are full of laughter, squeals and the usual dinner time battles. Sex has made a comeback. Our marriage isn't the same as it was pre-child. Nor is it the same as it was six months ago. It's different. But it's alive. We have dusted off the cobwebs, dressed it anew and kept it front and center. It is cemented in partnership, nurtured with love, and I have vowed to never take it for granted again.
This post originally appeared at the Good Men Project. Reprinted with permission.
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