The fight was our most embarrassing one, occurring in a restaurant during a busy wedding celebration dinner. Almost as soon as we sat down, there was something between us, something we couldn’t seem to shake. At first, little things got to us: Poppy’s fussing in the high chair, throwing food, grabbing at our silverware. While I scolded gently, Matthew attempted bribe after bribe, pointing out that his technique was more successful. Poppy spilled her water, and interrupted every conversation, and by the time dinner came, I was ready to leave.
But of course, we could not leave.
Finally, dessert: peach pie and coffee and a port tasting at the bar. As the mood lightened, it happened: Matthew took a large forkful of the pie, and put it on Poppy’s plate.
“Matthew!” I said, a little too loudly.
“Rachel. It’s pie. It’s a treat.”
“I’m training her taste buds. You know how hard it is. It takes a lot of work to avoid unhealthy stuff.”
“Well, maybe it’s not worth it. Maybe it’s okay to give in every once in a while. Maybe you’re making your job too hard.”
“Oh, you’re blaming me now? For what? For trying to be a good parent? You’re blaming me that raising a kid is so hard?”
I glared at Matthew. He glared back. Then I looked around, noticing the people that were noticing us. After picking Poppy’s food scraps off of the floor and throwing them on the table, I escaped to the bathroom.
He breaks our rule, then embarrasses me about it? Wow. I can’t believe that just happened. These were some of the thoughts that rushed to mind as I looked in the mirror and washed my hands. How dare he say I make my job too hard, when he’s the one who’s making it so much harder? He acts like it’s my choice that I’m stressed out about Poppy. If he helped me more, it’d be a lot easier.
I took some deep breaths, then washed my face, and by the time I returned the check had been paid. My friends gave me sympathetic looks, then retreated to their cars. Matthew, though, was a little less well-mannered. We gathered up the baby and the baby supplies, and quietly walked out. On the way home, we got stuck in traffic.
I’m not going to stay mad, I’m not going to stay mad, I repeated to myself as the car slowed. How can I act in this situation that will make me proud of myself afterward? How can I talk to him about it honestly, while still being nice?
Immediately, I had my answer. It was all in the tone of voice. That’s what really mattered—not what I said.
Fucking eureka. I could say whatever I wanted, pretty much, as long as I used a respectful tone of voice.
Gathering scraps sympathy, much as I’d gathered Poppy’s leftovers, I took a deep breath and began.
“Matthew, I’m sorry I nagged you about the pie. I know you were just doing what you thought was best. I’m sorry if you thought I was accusing you of something.”
Matthew turned his eyes from the traffic and looked directly at me. He relaxed a bit, giving me a forced smile. “It’s not that you nagged me that I didn’t like. It’s that you always question my judgment. You try to make every decision about Poppy, and even when I have good ideas, you don’t listen. You think you know everything and I know nothing.”
“Really?” I asked. “But you don’t tell me many ideas. I’m always the one who has to take charge.”
“I don’t need to give you input on every little thing. But when I do, you should know it’s because it’s something I care about.”
I paused, taking this in. It made sense, actually. It wasn’t about the nagging. It was about respect.
Matthew went on. “How many times have I given you good advice, and you just kept ignoring it till it was obvious I was right? Remember sleep training? You put it off for so long, and now you’re so much more well-rested.”
“That’s true,” I said. “You are often right. And it sounds like you don’t think I know that. But Matthew, I do respect you. I know I’m a control freak and we don’t always agree on everything but please don’t ever question that. Okay?”
Matthew gave me a strange look, one I didn’t quite recognize. Then, I did. It was emotion. He knew I was angry and was restraining that feeling in order to . . . well, to be nice. And he appreciated it.
For the rest of the ride home, we were quiet—quietly grateful. The argument had turned into a good thing. The pie, the no pie—that’s not what this was about, we realized. It was about wanting to feel heard and loved.
Matt and I slept well that night. Then the following evening, after I’d thought it over a while, I decided to broach the subject—an uncomfortable one for Matthew—once again. I called him into the bedroom where I had been reading and told him I wanted to tell him something.
Matt stood in the doorway. “What is it?”
“You know, for everybody you love, the feeling is a little bit different,” I said. “Some people, you have to work at it a bit. But with you, I’ve never had to. I’ve never had to convince myself of anything. Ever since we met, I just loved you. I love you as close to unconditionally as I am capable of—and nothing that has happened between us has ever changed that. Not the arguments and disagreements—nothing. Not even a little. You are just someone I truly like and love.”
“Thank you, Rachel,” Matthew said. “Thank you. Really. That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
“And I’m trying really hard to treat you this way, in a way that shows you this. I’m trying really hard every day.”
He sat on the bed next to me. “I love you, too. I really do. I’m sorry for the restaurant thing.”
“So our friends think we hate each other now, probably.”
“It’s fine. Just wait till they have kids. All judgment will be gone.”
And that’s how I learned my next important relationship lesson: it’s not the words you say that matter most. What matters is that the other person feels cared about and respected—even in the middle of an argument.
What really matters is that you’re nice.
Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.