Chapter Ten: Don’t Defend Yourself
I was learning. Matthew was learning. And yet, we had a long way to go; that much was clear to both of us. As we rounded the Year Three corner, another obstacle greeted us, though looking back, I’m not sure why it did, exactly. Was it because after two years of on-and-off tension we’d forgotten how to be comfortably in love? Was it because having solved several seemingly insurmountable problems, we were now expecting—even looking for—another?
Had we made annoyance a habit?
Whatever the origin of our latest issue, its nature was readily apparent: little mistakes or missteps were blown out of proportion, like tiny relationship land mines. When I repeatedly left the front door open while carting stuff to and from the car, Matthew furiously pointed out all the insects. When Matthew slipped his shoes off near the door, leaving them directly in my path, I picked them up and threw them across the room. When I scratched the car, Matthew was sarcastic and rude, and when Matt didn’t answer his cell phone, I sent him an angry text. In short: One of us would be annoying, and the other would get annoyed. Nothing too dramatic, but we needed a different coping mechanism.
Of course, there were the bigger fights, too, fights that were rarer than before but still awful. By that time, we’d learned not to yell most of the time, but it wasn’t a total solution.
Even when we were just talking, it felt terrible.
Fortunately, we had more to celebrate than fear. In a mere twenty-four months since becoming parents, we’d learned a lot about relationships. We’d learned how to laugh at ourselves. How to expect the best of each other. How to be nice. How to apologize. We’d learned how to bargain, how to nag the right way. How to talk without yelling. How to talk at all. The question now on my mind: How good was good enough?
How much patience, kindness, maturity, equanimity, selflessness and, well, logic could one reasonably expect from their partner?
Before parenthood took me by the collar and shook me up, I never thought to ask the question. “We treat each other well all the time,” I would’ve told anyone who did. “We don’t agree on everything, but we’re always nice about it.” But, to quote Genevieve, if you graduate parenthood with only one A, you probably got it in Humility. No longer did I assume my marriage was bullet-proof; weaknesses were now frequently recalled. And so, while Year One taught me how to love better, and Year Two, how to communicate my needs, Year Three taught me how to allow better—to accept Matthew as he was, and be at peace.
The argument that best represented our Year Three struggle began, as so many do, with a comment—one that at first seemed innocent enough. After three full months had passed without a mom-and-dad date, we had accepted a party invitation. We dressed up, then got the kids ready, too hurried to admire each other’s improved appearance. When we finally arrived at the daycare, we were late and stressed out, and not at all enjoying the experience thus far.
The woman at the front desk didn’t seem to notice. She smiled, welcomed Poppy and Harper and introduced them to the other kids. There was a cheerful goodbye, and when we got back in the car, relief came over us.
“It’s quiet,” I said.
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Matthew replied. “They don’t cry all that much. But they’re really . . . loud.”
“They’re loud in our heads, even when they’re not talking or crying.”
Matthew laughed. “So true. Hon, I’m glad we’re doing this. Thanks for planning it.”
“You’re welcome. Why don’t we do it more often?”
And that’s when it happened: Matthew said something I wasn’t expecting, something that hurt me more than he could’ve predicted.
“I don’t know. Maybe because we haven’t been all that happy lately. We haven’t wanted to spend as much time together as we used to.”
My first thought: He doesn’t want to spend time with me? Has it really been that bad? Just when I thought things were getting so much better. I really wish he hadn’t said that.
Though I was hurt, I chose not to show it. I changed the subject, not wanting to ruin the night. And once we got to the party, I was glad I’d done so. In the presence of others, we came back to ourselves. We joked and talked, and were on each other’s side.
That night, before we went to sleep, I mentioned the comment again, but not in anger, exactly—more like in self-defense. I wanted to tell Matthew why I didn’t agree with what he’d said. I wanted to explain to him that after all the ups and downs he may have lost his perspective.
“Honey, what did you mean earlier today when you said we haven’t been happy lately?” I asked. “You said you haven’t been wanting to spend time with me. Did you mean it?”
“You mean what I said in the car?” Matthew said. “Hon, don’t be so sensitive. I didn’t mean I don’t ever want to hang out. I just meant that things have been rough.”
“But it’s not all bad, Matthew. We have mostly good days, you know. Don’t you appreciate all we’ve been through and how far we’ve come?”
“Yes,” Matthew said. “But for me, something’s still missing. I want to actually feel close to you.”
Here, I pulled away from him and sat up in the bed.
“Are you saying that you don’t? I feel like you’re looking only at what’s wrong between us, and ignoring everything else, all the good.”
“I know we’re not fighting all the time anymore, and I am glad about that. But we’re still struggling, you know.”
And that was when I started to cry. It was a quiet cry, the kind not easily detected in the dark. To hide it, I merely had to turn my face.
“We had fun tonight,” I said after a long, slow breath.
“Yes, we did.”
“So that’s at least a good sign.”
“Yeah. But we need to do better.”
“Wow. I had no idea, Hon. I really didn’t know you felt this way. You make it sound like I’m a bad wife.”
“You’re a really good mother, Rachel. And you’re a good wife, most of the time. But sometimes, you sort of forget about me.”
Matthew put his hand on my back, but I moved away, then let out a loud sob. I left the bedroom, and when Matthew followed, I went to the guest bedroom and shut and locked the door behind me. Then I stayed there the rest of the night with my thoughts.
So he thinks it’s all my fault that things aren’t perfect between us. Wow. How utterly predictable. I’m the one who planned our date tonight. What has he done lately to reach out? All he does is criticize and assign blame.
Can’t he at least see how hard I’m trying? Every day, I’m trying so damn hard. All I want for him is to be happy, and for us to be a happy family. I’m doing the work, and he’s just commenting on it.
Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.