The closest I’ve ever come to being murdered in my sleep by my wife was just after our first daughter was born. I’d adopted the odd little custom, in the wee hours of a restless night, of making an unnecessary announcement: “I’m just gonna get a little more sleep.” My wife might be nursing the baby, I’d rouse, ask if I could help, and then offer the catchphrase. It’s unclear exactly what it was that enraged my wife so wholly about the saying, but to this day, if reminded of it, her left eye twitches, searing with fury, and she mutters something I can’t understand before storming out of the room. Maybe it was the word “more.”
The sleep issue wasn’t the only instance of what felt like divergence for us. Very early on in my life as a dad, I discovered that my primary mode of contribution to the family was as chief sanitation secretary. My routine included the changing of innumerable diapers (of varying hygienic severity), cleaning the litter box, picking up hairballs, spraying where the dog accidentally peed, scooping the dog’s leavings on our walk, and fixing the clogged toilet. It wasn’t uncommon, frankly, for me to be wrist deep in something’s excretions all the live-long day. More than once, on hands and knees scrubbing a carpet, I thought, “this is what I’ve amounted to as a husband, as a father, as a person: a cleaner of cat vomit— this and nothing else.”
Sometimes, perhaps while bouncing an interminably fussy three-month old, or trying to coax a dirty diaper out of the jaws of our dog, I’d recall that funny little idiom: “I was such a great parent before I had kids.” That is, the challenges of parenting quickly cease being theoretical, or purely philosophical, and it can be difficult to predict how you’ll react to them. These challenges don’t originate solely within the home, either. Take away the reckless politicization of issues like unpaid leave, insurance, and child care costs, and what you’re left with are very real, often very stressful hurdles for your family. On tougher days, these stresses alongside the everyday rigors of parenthood can leave you and your spouse a little ragged.
I remember one particular evening of frustration, when my wife and I had confidently carved out some personal time: the baby slept calmly in her bassinet, and I passed my wife a glass of wine as we sat down to watch a movie. Like a thunderclap, the baby awoke screaming, shattering our attempt to return to married life— it was an all-out collapse, as I could do little to help. Both of us had to work in the morning, but there was my wife, bouncing on an exercise ball with our little bundle of anger, exhausting herself into the late hours while I tried to get some sleep—my commute meant I needed out of the house no later than 6:50am, rapidly approaching, and for that night, and maybe a few others, it was as though my wife and I were leading utterly disparate lives. This didn’t happen often, I should emphasize, and those rare tough moments certainly aren’t the memories we’ve taken away from those amazing early months of parenthood— but they sure didn’t feel great when they did happen.
As the months of parenthood piled up, I noted a number of instances wherein similar forces operated on my wife, making her less herself, and more— sometimes—an outsider in her own life. Bra purchases, for example, went from, “oh, this is cute,” to, “this is least likely to leak breastmilk onto my shirt.” Similarly, her role as breastfeeder occasionally made her feel like “a dairy cow” (her words). Paradoxically, the often preferential attention she received from our daughter— of which I was deeply jealous— could sometimes leave my wife drained. Throw in a needy husband, a big dumb dog, and a couple cats, and she had some living thing attached to her close to 24 hours a day, leaving very little energy left over for herself.
We have two daughters now—a two year old and a two month old—so those sorts of issues have multiplied. My wife and I sometimes live as cellmates, commiserating, but ultimately unable to relieve each other’s plight. Some days, my wife and I sit on the couch as two husks— once proud, passionate adults, now desperate, hoping only that the closed captioning on the Today show is accurate enough to communicate Kathie Lee’s sass, lest another morning be wasted in silence as the baby sleeps.
“If I ever get outta here,” I’ve said to my wife, “I’m gonna have merlot at 10am like Hoda.”
Once, after teaching a morning class, I returned home to my visibly frazzled spouse.
“It’s just been a really crazy day,” she said. It was 9:30 in the morning.
On another occasion, I got up before the rest of the house and made coffee. When my wife migrated downstairs, our two daughters in tow, and realized that coffee was ready and waiting, she gave me a look I hadn’t seen since our wedding day; she whispered “thank you,” as a single tear rolled down her cheek.
So clearly she and I—caving to the cliché—are in the same boat. In fact, it’s the same boat we got on six years ago, when we met and fell head over heels in love. Running with the metaphor, I never left the boat, neither did my wife, but both of us definitely had to figure out how to regain our sea legs as new parents, as a new family entirely. Sure, I felt exterior some of the time, but strangely enough, so did my wife—“She doesn’t love mom,” my wife once told me of our infant, “she loves milk.”
Recognizing the challenges both of us have met has brought us even closer, and I’ve realized that whatever energy I once spent on negativity—feelings of loneliness or uselessness—I want to spend on loving my family: my wondrous daughters, my luminous wife. For now the boat, as it were, may be captained by tiny lunatics and is sometimes rife with tensions, but to whatever extent we are adrift, we are finding our way together, and we are bearing onward with boundless joy.
Guest post written by John Wells. John is an Ohioan teaching rowdy collegians in North Carolina. He lives with his wonderful wife and two young daughters. He also plays music and writes as often as possible; his poems, essays, and short stories have recently been published in After the Pause, Driftwood, Best New Writing, and other journals.
Photo by Taylor Johnson Photography.