“Mom, can I come?”
My three-year-old daughter stood timidly outside my closed bedroom door. I was lying alone in the dark, hiding from my husband and the reality that he’d only been home five minutes before we’d had another fight.
She cracked the door, came in and stood at the edge of the Pack ‘n Play that sat wedged in the middle of our overly-stuffed room.
“Can I get through?”
I showed her how to climb around it, and she worked her way over to the bed. She settled under the covers next to me and looked into my eyes. “Just talk to daddy. Don’t yell. Just say nice words.” She looked at me with more concern than a three-year-old should know to feel.
“Yes, baby. I’m sorry.” The words for that moment didn’t exist in my bruised heart. I reached over and gave her a hug.
“OK. I just wanted to talk about daddy. I have to go back downstairs now.”
She hopped from the bed to the chair, shimmied around the Pack ‘n Play, and bounded downstairs to watch Doc McStuffins.
As my husband opened the gate at the bottom of the stairs I heard her share our conversation: “I was just talking about you. I told mommy to say nice words.”
I lay in the dark, devastated and ashamed.
I grew up listening to my parents fight behind closed doors, and I told myself that my kids wouldn’t experience the same. As I listened to my sweet daughter tell me to say nice words, I knew I’d failed. My first baby, too young to know about hatred, sitting next to me while poisonous words flew from my mouth, watching her daddy recoil as they pierced his heart. I never meant for her to be a victim of my anger. I never wanted our fights to be a part of her world. But that’s what happens when pain and resentment are the only feelings you tend to; they spill out all over anyone in your path.
My husband and I have always fought. I’m slow to offer an apology and even slower to accept one. It’s a toxic combination. Our first few years of marriage were intense. Long hours of work to barely make ends meet, graduate school, babies, miscarriage, suffering and sickness. We walked through a lot, and I used it as an excuse. It’s a hard season. We’ll be better to each other when things slow down. I’ll be more patient/forgiving/loving when the kids are older. Eventually the moments full of tension, hurt hearts, and missed signals, began to feel like they defined us. The lonely days bled into lonely weeks, and I accepted that broken was all we’d ever be.
He was on his way home from work. We’d fought earlier in the day and had hardly spoken since, but I wanted him to know what he was walking in the door to. I sent a picture of our one-year-old son sitting perfectly still on my lap.
“Barely moved in an hour. Temperature is just over 100.”
He responded immediately. “I’ll call the doctor and see if they can fit him in.”
Within minutes he called to say they could see him, and I was hurrying two crying kids into the car. As soon as we walked in the nurse ushered us back and started rattling off questions about symptoms. When my husband got there he came quietly into the room, scooped up our daughter and started reading her a book. Twenty minutes later we walked out of the office with a Hand-Foot-and-Mouth diagnosis and a prescription to knock out a brewing ear infection.
“I’ll take them home. You go to the store and pick up the medicine.” He didn’t even look at me as he offered the gift of a few minutes alone. We switched car keys and headed out the door in opposite directions. I brought home a bag of his favorite candy. He handled dinner so I could take a long shower. We put the kids to bed, ordered pizza, and laughed through an episode of The Office.
It’s these moments, the ones where we move in silent, gracious harmony, that I forget about so easily. The nights when the baby is sick and suddenly everything we said or did to each other that day doesn’t matter. A Saturday morning when one gets up quietly with the kids to let the other sleep in. Afternoons spent laughing at our daughter’s jokes, getting open mouthed kisses from our son, and looking at each other like can you believe these little people are ours. I let myself believe that these moments of unity are the exception, and that the darker moments are our truth.
Too many nights we lay silently next to each other, hearts longing to reach out but too battered and bruised to manage. The silence hangs painfully between us, so we take refuge behind our phones. What would happen if, instead of hiding from each other, we tended to the seeds of good moments, took our daughter’s advice and said nice words? What would it look like if we filled that dark silence with whispers of “I see you, and I love you?" Would saying those nice words poke a pinhole of light into our dimming hearts? Maybe my daughter is right. The best thing I can do for my marriage is just say nice words.