Chapter Three: Don’t Fight. Just Talk Instead.
Two months into motherhood, I still hadn’t gotten the hang of co-parenting. Though my hormones had largely normalized and the night crying had stopped, the tension between Matthew and I was still there. It came in waves—small ones, mostly, with the occasional whitecap. Though I did my best to withstand them one by one, it wasn’t enough; I wanted to swim.
And then, the argument I’d been waiting for—that Matthew and I both, probably, knew was coming—finally happened.
It started, predictably, in the evening, when we were most tired and vulnerable. Despite the recent improvement in our feelings toward each other and in our overall communication, our core post-baby issues hadn’t been addressed yet.
We still had some stuff to figure out.
Little by little, the frustration returned. Then the mouse took his place at the end of the rope, and pulled, and pulled again, and I came down with the flu.
It wasn’t the worst flu I’d ever had. But it was one of the most unpleasant, if only because I couldn’t lie in bed. I had to hold. I had to walk. I had to hit the damn button on the damn musical toy, staving off moment by moment a crisis of boredom from a child that couldn’t yet work her own hands.
I had to mother a newborn while sick.
When I stopped any of these things, the crying started up again. And of course, it wasn’t just crying. It was that wailing, tragedy-has-already-struck-and-I-don’t-want-anyone-to-forget-to-save-me cry that serves our little humans so well.
Since it was a Saturday, Matthew was home all day, but unfortunately he wasn’t much help. “Every time I pick her up, she just cries louder,” he’d complain after what seemed like mere minutes of carrying. “She’s probably hungry. She needs to nurse.”
Then he’d hand Poppy back, and sit back on the couch.
Uncomfortable minutes became painful hours, and hours became a morning and an afternoon. Finally, sometime after the sun went down, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore.
I decided I’d have to start a fight.
I couldn’t just go to the bedroom without Poppy, leaving her with Matthew for a while. I couldn’t calmly draw a bath and lock the door behind me. I couldn’t gently ask Matthew to take Poppy out or, God forbid, simply talk to him about my feelings. All those choices were the choices of emotionally stable people, people with full reserves of self-control.
And right then, I wasn’t one of them.
So, I did the only thing left for me to do. I stormed into the TV room, threw a toy on the floor, and, for the first time, screamed at him.
“Get off the couch! Help me with the baby! Get in here and play with Poppy!”
Matthew looked at me with surprised eyes, then with cold ones. Then he looked away without responding.
“Get up! Get up!” I said again, walking in front of him. “Get over here and take the baby right now!”
Matthew set his jaw tighter, still saying nothing. Seeing this, I crossed another line I hadn’t crossed with him before: I swore.
“You are an asshole!” I yelled. “You are an asshole! There, I said it! Finally! I am sick, and overworked, and you’re just watching TV, acting like it’s not your problem!
“I am mad at you! I am mad at you! I am mad at you!”
The screaming was new. The cursing was new. But the most significant part of the outburst was the end. It was the first time I’d ever told Matthew, outright, that I was mad at him.
It was the first time I admitted there was a problem in our relationship.
Matthew stood up. He went to the playroom in silence and sat with the baby on the floor. I stormed off to the bedroom, slamming the door as loudly as possible. Then I lay in bed, feeling even more miserable than before.
Clearly, this fight isn’t over, I knew. But how best to talk it out? Should I wait till tomorrow when I’m feeling less emotional? Or should I go talk to him right now?
I tried to read but couldn’t focus on the book. Then I made a cup of tea I didn’t drink. Finally, I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night avoiding the problem, distracting myself; what I really wanted to do was to talk.
I really, really needed to talk.
I went to the playroom and sat on the floor against the wall a comfortable distance from Matthew and Poppy. When after a long moment Matthew finally looked at me accusingly I looked back sadly and started to cry.
“Honey, what’s going on?” Matthew asked, hurt. I was relieved to hear his voice.
“I know, Hon, I know. I snapped. I shouldn’t’ve said what I said. But really, I am so beyond my limit.”
“I know I’ve told you this before. But I don’t think you really understand: I am so far, far beyond my limit. I’m exhausted. I’m working and sleeping and nothing else. And sometimes you don’t even try to help.”
“What are you talking about?” Matthew asked, bouncing Poppy in his lap. “I help almost every time you ask. Don’t you notice?”
I paused. He does? “You do?”
“Wow. Wait a second while I rearrange my entire mental recording of our past few months.”
“Yeah, do that.”
“You think you help me a lot? And how often is a lot to you?”
“Often. A few times a day.”
I took a deep breath. Not only doesn’t he help me enough—he doesn’t even realize it, I thought. He really doesn’t have a clue.
“And what do you consider helping?” Another breath. Then another.
“The diapers and the cooking and the grocery shopping and playing with the baby when you need me to? You don’t think I help? Wow. I feel so unappreciated.”
“You feel . . . unappreciated?” I said. “You feel . . . unappreciated.” And from that moment on in the conversation, nothing new was said. The conversation that followed was very long, and very circular, and the resolution we came to far from adequate.
I pointed out what I felt was patently obvious: the number of hours I spent every day with the baby, the lack of significant breaks. Matthew defended his position–didn’t give an inch–which, to me, was more than wrongheaded. It was betrayal.
“And here this whole time I’ve been so proud of myself, sacrificing so much for our daughter. I’ve missed so much sleep. I’ve done almost everything for her. And you think changing a few diapers actually compares? I have never felt more unloved in my life.”
Matthew pointed out that though I was with Poppy during the day, he couldn’t be; he was at work. “Anyway, we talked about this. We decided I’d take the baby every night while you make dinner. And that is exactly what I’ve been doing.”
“Don’t you get it, Matthew? Don’t you see what I’m going through? When you take the baby in the evening, I’m still working; I’m getting dinner. Then you go off and have your time alone, but when do I ever get a break?”
“You never ask for a break.”
“I never ask for a break? Isn’t it obvious that when your wife is sick, she could use a little help? Isn’t that just human decency and compassion? Besides, when I do ask, you get moody about it, and I feel like even though you say you’ll help, you don’t want to. Sometimes it’s just easier not to ask.”
“Well, you’ve been pretty moody lately, too, you know. It’s not fun for me, either.”
I shook my head. “Wow. So an hour a day of help is enough in your mind. You really have no idea.”
“If you need more help, Hon, you need to ask for it.”
“Fine. I will. Remember this conversation when I do, though, and you say no or get annoyed.”
“Fine with me.” A long pause. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
That night as we lay next to each other, not touching, I surprised myself; I decided to move my legs over and rub them against Matthew’s. Because, in spite of everything, in spite of my anger and my disappointment, I was glad that he was there.
“I’m going to try to communicate better with you,” I told him in the dark.
“And I will help you more with Poppy,” he replied.
Then we both said “I love you,” and went to sleep.
Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.