Chapter Six: Shamelessly Bargain (And Always Have a Bottom Line)
Over the following few months as I continued to moderate my tone of voice and underreact, Matthew instinctively followed my lead. Slowly, a beautiful shift in our relationship began: the big fights still happened, but the little ones largely subsided. This gave us an important relationship advantage: in between our fights, things were mostly back to normal. We had time to step back, to remind ourselves and each other that we’d be okay. It wasn’t until the end of our first year we let that ability slip away—and when it did, it was hard to get it back.
As our ninth month of parenthood approached, not only were our relationship issues easier to handle—Poppy was a bit easier, too. No longer was the baby tethered to me every waking moment; now, she played on her own for minutes at a time, and as the year progressed the difference became even more pronounced. In addition, in September Matthew agreed to take her out at least twice a week, for at least two hours a session, giving my schedule some much-needed padding. He and Poppy came up with their own private mommy-free idea of fun, and for the first time since having the baby, Matthew experienced what I had appreciated about parenting all along: the addition of a brand new best friend. They went to the forest, to the zoo, to the play area at the mall—and Matthew enjoyed every minute. Then something happened that threw us off-balance once again, just as we had started to regain our footing.
That something was that I got a job.
The job was an excellent one—one that I enjoyed and that paid well. The timing was good, too; Poppy seemed ready for the occasional daycare adventure. Most important, the hours were perfect—about ten a week, and all from home. Matthew and I were confident we could transition smoothly.
We were wrong.
We were almost there, I thought as my work hours edged out much-needed rest and alone time. We were almost back to normal. Or were we? Maybe the improvement I’ve been feeling lately was imagined—an illusion brought on by desperation and positive thinking.
It was not a pleasant hypothesis to consider.
Soon after I started my job, the battles over our baby care schedule reasserted themselves. At first, they were mild ones, with most of the tension just beneath the surface. But as they became more frequent, their intensity increased as well, so that by fall they were bad.
If my first nine months of marriage with a child was about learning how to adjust my attitude toward Matthew—learning how to see him through eyes of love, not get angry at him and just be nice—the following year and a quarter was primarily a complement to that. It was about learning how to communicate better, to ask for what I wanted and to get it.
It was about actually solving our problems.
If you had asked Matthew which of us was the source of the Great Birth Control Debate, he would almost certainly have said me. For weeks, even months on end, I chose to put off self-care, working long hours and multi-tasking instead. Looking back, I don’t know why I allowed my workaholic side free rein for so long. Then again, most workaholics probably don’t. At the time, however, Matthew was in a rare lull in his schedule. Why can’t he just pick up the slack? I wondered.
Which is why, if you would have asked me which of us was the source of the Debate, I would almost certainly have said Matthew.
That October, Matthew’s love of basketball had him either playing or watching television at least three evenings per week. He still took Poppy out on Sundays and Wednesdays, but Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays were booked up. On those days my long mornings and afternoons were followed by long, lonely evenings as well, which, of course, made me cranky. And not just because I wanted Matthew to take on more responsibilities, but because I wanted to just be with him. I wanted to take walks together, have dinner with friends, go to the zoo.
I wanted to feel like a family.
And so, one day in the midst of this predicament, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I made an announcement—an ultimatum, really, and one I intended to keep: “If you don’t stop prioritizing your fun stuff over the family, I am going back on birth control.”
The news did not go over well.
It was around midnight, after Poppy had gone to bed, and though I was tired I told Matthew I’d hang out. We were sitting on the living room couch, evaluating lackluster movie options, my head resting comfortably on his shoulder. The month prior, after a year and a half of menstruation-free breastfeeding, my period had finally returned, necessitating a reproduction-related decision. First, I made an appointment with my doctor. Then I told Matthew the plan.
“Hon, there’s something I’ve been thinking about that I need to tell you, and you’re probably not going to like it very much,” I said.
And then I delivered the blow.
Matthew’s first response was to freeze, TV remote in midair. Then he just shook his head. “No, you’re not,” he told me.
“I already made the appointment.” I moved my body away from him, backing into the couch’s arm rest. Then I curled my legs against my chest with my arms.
“Without even telling me?” Matthew threw down the remote. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“Matthew, you know why. I’m so stressed. I’m so exhausted. I just can’t do this the way I have been lately.”
“Rachel, we had a plan. The same plan we’ve had all along.”
“I know, Hon, I know. I’m sorry. But what’s happening right now with your sleep schedule—it’s not fair. It’s not right. I’m just feeling so cheated.”
“So that’s why you’re doing this. To get back at me. I see.”
“No, that’s not the reason—really. It’s not just what’s going on right now. It’s how things have been all along. It’s been hard. Harder than you know.”
I continued. “We have Poppy, and I’m so glad we do. Having her has only made me want our second even more. But it doesn’t have to happen right now. We have time. It’s only been a year, after all. Our kids can be spaced a bit more.”
“So you’re just making a threat rather than discussing it? Typical. That’s always what you do.”
“No. I’ve been trying to discuss it. I’ve been trying for a long time. There are little changes, but it’s not enough. One kid is already so difficult for us; I’m not going to do this with two. That’s just not the choice I’m going to make.”
“You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?”
“That I’m making things harder than they have to be? That I work to much? Well, why don’t you work more so I don’t have to?”
“I do work. I work a lot. It’s like you don’t even see it. But when I need time, I take it.”
“We’re going in circles now, like we always do. Maybe we’ll figure this out. But until we do, I don’t want to get pregnant.”
With that, the arguing ended; Matthew and I went our separate ways. But the fight definitely wasn’t over. For the next few days, a sort of suburban cease-fire was silently declared: we avoided each other most of the time, and avoided serious discussion entirely. This gave us time to think about what to do next, to weigh our advantages and to strategize. In international relations and in married life, however, eventually someone has to make a move.
This time, that someone was Matthew.
A few days after the argument, he offered to take Poppy out for the evening. He said they were going to dinner, but by the time they got back three hours had passed.
When they returned home, Matthew greeted me with a smile. “When is your doctor appointment?” he asked.
“Not till next week,” I replied. “Why do you ask?”
The following day, Matthew took Poppy to the park, and soon after that, he started taping his games to watch after I went to bed. For my part, I hired a babysitter to cover one evening per week. I called my doctor and cancelled my birth control appointment, and three months later, I was pregnant.
The pregnancy was, of course, the most significant result of the Great Birth Control Debate. However, there was another worth mentioning, too. One evening a week or so after the fight, we sent Poppy to a friend’s house and sat down at the dining room table, pen and paper at hand.
Then we began negotiations.
We went through each day of the week, section by section, and decided who’d be responsible for what. Who would make dinner, who would clean the car? When would we both exercise? Who’d get to sleep in, and on which days, and what about weekends when I was working? For the first time since becoming parents, we decided to be deliberate about our schedule, taking all of our needs—not just work and sleep—seriously.
Finally, we decided to stop winging it.
Here is a list of all of the chunks of time we thought through together, plus a list of all of the important activities we included in our new family schedule.
Baby Care Scheduling Considerations:
- Weekday mornings
- Weekday work times
- Weekday dinnertimes
- Weekday evenings after dinner
- Weekday bedtimes
- Weekday overnights
- Saturday early mornings
- Saturday late mornings
- Saturday afternoons
- Saturday dinnertimes
- Saturday evenings after dinner
- Saturday overnights
- Sunday early mornings
- Sunday late mornings
- Sunday afternoons
- Sunday dinnertimes
- Sunday evenings after dinner
- Sunday overnights
Activities to Include in the Family Schedule:
- Paid work time for Dad
- Paid work time for Mom
- Transportation time for parents
- Transportation time for children
- Cooking time
- Cleaning time
- Meal times
- Recreational time for children
- Educational time for children
- Exercise time for Mom
- Exercise time for Dad
- Alone time for Dad
- Alone time for Mom
- Date nights for parents
- Mom’s time with friends
- Dad’s time with friends
- Family time at home
- Family outings
- Mom’s one-on-one time with each child
- Dad’s one-on-one time with each child
- Mom’s household management time
- Dad’s household management time
- Time for home maintenance and repairs
- Time for special activities and projects
- Adequate sleep time for each family member
It was quite a conversation we had that evening—and the schedule we agreed upon, no small feat. In creating it, I wanted a guarantee of some kind—a way to ensure Matthew would give me the breaks I needed. For his part, Matthew hoped for more predictability, a way to ensure he wouldn’t be endlessly nagged to do more.
Our hopes were ridiculously high. However, more important than the schedule itself was the fact that we created it at all. In doing so I expanded my relationship skill set considerably.
I learned how to negotiate–and shamelessly.
Marriage is transactional, I realized as we made our plan. It’s not always romantic, and that’s okay. If he doesn’t want to do something I want him to do, it’s not because he’s a jerk or doesn’t love me. It’s because he has needs, too.
Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.