The day after the Dish Debacle I got up earlier than usual. I cleaned, cooked and played with Poppy, pretending everything was fine.
But that did not make it fine.
In the afternoon, I took Poppy to the park to meet Gen and Max. Knowing that between snacks, diaper changes and “Mom, come push me on the swing!” we wouldn’t have long to chat, as soon as we found a bench and the kids scampered off, I jumped right in.
“Matt and I had a fight. Another bad one. I’m not even sure what it was about. Housework?”
“Oh, one of those. Housework. Such a catalyst.”
“Yeah. I apologized, but it’s like, ‘I’m sorry I nagged you. Can you do the dishes?'”
“And then it was about our schedule, and me feeling like he doesn’t care enough about the family, and all the rest of it, yada yada.”
“Awww, I’m sorry, Rachel. That sucks.”
“I know. It does.”
“So do you really think he doesn’t care enough about you? Or . . . what’s the real problem here?”
“I don’t, but I do. I don’t know. Gen, you almost never complain about your marriage. Why is that? Have I ever asked you? If I haven’t, let me correct that error now.”
“I don’t think you have, Rachel. And I don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s all about having clear expectations. Who does what and when, and all that.”
“Yeah, that’s good, and that’s what Matthew and I have been doing, too. Ever since making our schedule. Still, I’m starting to wonder if its really the right thing for us. I can’t quite explain it, but it feels like something’s missing.”
“Well, has he been doing his part every day? And how does he do it? Is he dragging his feet?”
“Yes, he’s sticking to it, and so am I, pretty carefully—and it’s been several months now, so I feel good about that. But to your other question, yes, he does drag his feet. And then I end up nagging.
“And I really, really hate nagging. Not only because it’s thin-ice territory for him, and tends to make him grumpy, but because it makes me feel unloved. I start wondering why he won’t just do his part without my asking first as a way to show me he cares. Then we’re both in a bad mood.
“Sometimes I think we’re just planning everything too much. Why can’t he just look out for me, and me for him? Why does it have to be so complicated?”
“Well, it’s complicated because everything is complicated. He wants to look out for you, but he has to look out for himself, too. I mean theoretically, if you both put the other person first all the time, both of you would get your needs met. But relationships just don’t work that way. So get that idea out of your mind right now. Lose that expectation. His main job in life is to take care of himself. And so is yours.”
“Yikes,” I said. “That’s hard to hear.”
“Is it? Would you really want the job of making him happy? If he left you in charge of taking care of him, how would you make that happen? Would you just do everything he asked you to do? What about when what you wanted didn’t line up with what he wanted? Who wins? Do you each fight for what the other wants? Anyway, how would you even know what he wanted in the first place?”
“Okay. I see that. Okay.”
“Your husband is not going to put you first all of the time. Some of the time, but not all. Won’t happen,” Gen said.
“I get it.”
“But yeah, it’s complicated. And it’s going to stay that way. It’s hard enough when there are just two people’s needs to consider, but now there are three of you. That said, you could probably simplify things a bit.”
“When I was pregnant with Max, Richard and I made an agreement. Since he was our third I knew that my alone time was basically over, at least until the kids were in school. So instead of trying to figure out an exact schedule to make it work, I told him that all I really wanted was for him to be present with us after he got home from work, pitching in and doing what he could until all the kids were in bed.”
“Wow. And what was that like?”
“Honestly?” Genevieve said. “It was the best thing ever. Before that, we were doing what you guys are doing—planning our evenings and weekends in advance as much as possible. But, well, it never quite felt fair. I was always the default parent, the one on duty when nothing else was negotiated. After that one discussion, our marriage really changed. It became more of a partnership.
“We still go by that guideline most days of the week, and a lot of the weekend, too. When Richard comes home, he plays with the kids while I get dinner, and we take turns with chores and bedtime stuff. It’s good for all of us, really. Even Richard can’t imagine it any other way. He’s gotten used to being together as a family every evening.”
“That sounds awesome,” I said. “But do you think Matt would go for something like that? It would be such a big change.”
“But he’s already doing a lot. Maybe he’d rather not be on quite as strict of a schedule. Maybe he misses your laid-back, unscheduled time, too.”
“Maybe. Or maybe our expectations would get fuzzy again, and I’d be nagging even more than before.”
“You never know. You might be surprised.”
“If it worked, I would be. It would feel like a coup. Like something fundamental changed in Matthew’s personality. And you know what people say about trying to change your partner.”
“What? That it’s not possible? They’re wrong.”
“Oh, Rachel. We all change our partners, all of the time.”
“How? What do you mean?”
“People change, in small ways, to reflect your expectations of them. And even more so in marriage. A lot of the time, what you think you’ll get is what you get. They can sense it and they find themselves acting how you think they’ll act.”
“So have I changed Matthew?”
“What do you think?”
“Hmmm . . . yeah, I think I have. One of the first things I learned after having Poppy was to change my stories about him–to see the best in him. After that, I noticed a big change: he was less moody. Then we both learned how to talk instead of getting emotional about everything right away. I think he followed my lead on that one, too. He still doesn’t always apologize, and he still does hurtful things, but whenever I’m in a good mood, he’s much more likely to be pleasant, too. The other day I was feeling really positive and he picked up on that. He sent me a text that said, ‘I love you.'”
“I know. And he doesn’t do that stuff just to make me feel good. He only does it when he’s really feeling that way.”
“Richard, too. So it sounds like what you’re saying is that Matt has changed for the better, but not from nagging. Mostly from just improving your attitude.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe nagging helps a bit, too. There are times when I think it has.”
“But nagging nicely. Nagging gently, and not all the time.”
“Yeah. It’s a different kind of nag. More lighthearted.”
With that, an interruption. First one, then a cascade. Max needed to use the bathroom, then both kids needed food and water. When the dominoes stopped falling, I picked up where we left off.
“So basically, Gen, what you’re telling me is that at times I can change Matt by expecting the best of him, and other times I can either learn how to nag in a nice way or have a well-planned, respectful conversation?”
“I might have said all that, yeah. Worth a try anyway. Can’t hurt to try. Won’t work with everything, but you might be surprised. Package it well. Show him the benefits. Most of the time, what you want is what will make him happy, too.”
That night, after Matthew came home, I popped some popcorn–his favorite snack–and we sat in the family room and discussed our relationship yet again.
“I know things have been rough for the past couple of months,” I told him. “And I’m sorry for not holding it together a bit better. I’ve been picking fights and hurting you, and I really don’t want to do that anymore.”
Matthew looked at me gratefully. He’s easy to soften, I realized. It takes such a small gesture. An apology. A loving touch. Even a smile will often do the trick. Why don’t I do this more?
“I talked to Gen today and told her a little about this, and she made a really good suggestion. She said that she thinks our schedule has been great, but that we might need a bit more flexibility. How would you feel about both of us working together in the evenings, instead of taking turns like we have been? I don’t want to be co-workers, watching the clock all the time, taking things in shifts. I want us to be more like partners.”
“Interesting,” Matthew replied. “That actually makes sense. We discuss each night what we need to get done, or just spend the evening hanging out together.”
“Hmmm . . . Yeah. We could try it.”
In the years to follow, I would know the true significance of this conversation. That evening, though, I only suspected it. I took another bite of popcorn and when Poppy held out her hand, put a few kernels in it. As I looked at her face, then at Matthew’s, a deep love for them came over me—as well as a great feeling of relief.
It’s true, I thought, I don’t need Matthew to always take care of me or put me first. I can do that. But I do need him to be there.
Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.