The following week, I saw Genevieve. She asked how things were going with Matt and I. I told her of my change in perspective, of how much I appreciated everything I’d learned over the past several years. And I told her I appreciate myself more than ever, too.
“I really do love everything that’s happened with Matthew since becoming a parent,” I said. “Not just the good stuff, but the bad stuff, too. It’s gotten me from being a wife who truly loves her husband to being a wife who truly loves her husband and also knows how to be good to herself.”
“You’re stronger,” Gen said.
“Yes. I am.”
“And motherhood just adds to that.”
“That is what it’s about. It’s about getting stronger. Not just in marriage–in life. In everything.”
“I don’t know if I told you this already, but for a while after Poppy was born, I’d get these terrible thoughts about Matt. They’d come to me at night, just overwhelm me. They weren’t logical but at the time they felt so frightening. Mostly they were about how hard it was to be married and have kids, but sometimes they were about Matthew specifically. About his character flaws, about how selfish he was. Sometimes, I would just sit and think about all the pain that my kids are going to have to go through in their lives, and how crazy it is to have them knowing this. Well, at some point, it was weird–all those thoughts stopped. Not that I never have a terrible judgment about Matt or bad thoughts about parenting, but I don’t get that fear anymore. I don’t know how, exactly, but something changed in my head. I have this confidence that basically, we’re . . . normal. Matt is a normal guy. Our relationship is normal. Our problems are actually pretty insignificant. And when the hard times come, well, like I said, the hard times are just a part of it. They’re all just part of the adventure.”
Gen nodded. “I haven’t gone through that. Not exactly the way you’re saying. But I do have a lot of fears for my kids. And I like that attitude you’re talking about. In parenting, too, part of what we’re teaching our kids is to look at hardship as a good thing. It’s real, and it’s good, and it’s part of what we’re doing here. It helps us to grow and get better. Then, hopefully, the bad feelings go away for a while, and when they do we don’t have to be afraid of them coming back. They will come back, always. That is their job. And it’s okay that they do. Like you said: It’s normal.”
“It’s more than normal. It is a gift.”
How did Matthew and I survive those critical first years after Poppy was born? How did we regain the joy in each other we once felt, without significant damage or simmering resentment to show for our experience? Partly it was because we finally stopped the control battles, the tug of war—and when the game did restart, it was usually pretty friendly, and pretty short.
First, I learned to short-circuit unspoken fears by changing my story about Matt and reminding myself that he loved me. After that, I learned how to talk instead of argue–how to let the little stuff go. I was nice, even when Matt didn’t seem to deserve it. I found a way to bargain for what I needed. I humbled myself and apologized frequently. And I finally figured out what Matt needed, biologically-speaking. I stopped the nagging and ditched the defensiveness and when all else failed, I simply embraced the challenge. I reminded myself that marriage is a gift, not in spite of the hard times but because of them, and I remembered how far I had come.
For five years—five wonderful years—after Matthew and I met, our love for each other was easy. We were best friends. We hardly ever fought. Our relationship was straightforward, unmarred. Then we had a baby, and during the three years that followed that event, things were . . . well, they were different. Not awful, most of the time. Just challenging. Stretching. The big fights were big, and the little ones were frequent. By the end of those years, though, Matt and I had several key advantages we didn’t have before that to us, made the experience well worth the trouble. First, we had a deep understanding of what it takes to be a happy family.
Second, we had a happy family.
And that’s what we still have: a family. A happy one. It’s been five years since Harper was born, and things have never been better between us. I still talk to Gen and Marianne about my issues with Matt, read the occasional marriage book—even get advice from my inner self once in a while. But most of my self-improvement energy is now focused on parenting my two children. While relationship challenges with Matthew still arise—and with some regularity—the themes of my solutions are often repeated, revisited. I circle back to much of what I learned during that time, and mostly that’s enough to get me through. Part of the reason for this is that these themes are fairly flexible. And the other part of the reason is Matthew.
These days, Matthew just gets it in a way he didn’t before. Truly, he is a better husband. He talks to me more. He’s vulnerable, honest. He is, once again, the best friend I found when we first started dating.
And in some ways, he’s even better. He’s a dad now, of course, and an excellent one: patient, and giving, and wise. He’s not as moody as he used to be—he’s learned how to communicate his needs and feelings with more self-awareness. And he’s a great deal more helpful. Every single night, his schedule is the family’s schedule. He does the laundry. He reads to the kids, brushes their teeth, takes them grocery shopping. And he’s in for the hard stuff, too: sleepless nights, discipline, potty training. More important than any single thing he does, though, is the way he makes me feel when he’s with me.
These days, every day, I feel loved.
After the Classic Food Fight, there was a break in the tension between Matthew and I. Then, for several weeks straight, for a reason unknown to me, Matthew was in a terrible mood. When we went to Home Depot, and I misunderstood what he was looking for, he embarrassed me by speaking rudely to me in the aisle. When to keep his drill away from Poppy I hid it, then couldn’t find it again right away, he made a sarcastic comment. Finally, when the car insurance expired before I paid the bill, he chastised me unfairly.
Each time one of these episodes occurred, my first instinct was to defend myself. But I chose to remember my resolution, and find a better way to handle the situation.
A week later, Matthew’s mood still hadn’t passed, so I decided to practice a few of my other newfound skills. At dinner one evening, I smiled across the table, then pointed out something Matthew did that I appreciated. “You did the dishes yet again, I noticed,” I said. “Thanks, Hon. That’s a really big help.”
Matthew smiled back, and seemed to feel calmer.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Thanks for noticing, Rachel.”
Then I went in for the kill.
“Hon, I know you’ve been frustrated with me lately. It seems like something is really bothering you. Do you want to talk about it? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I guess there is something,” he said. “I mean, I’m fine, mostly. But work has been totally sucking, and I hate it. Sometimes I wish I could just quit and move on. Do real estate, like I’ve always wanted. But this is a good job and I don’t know how I’d match the pay. So, here we are. You know.”
“Well, let’s talk about it. Let’s try to figure something out. But can I make a small request?”
“When you’re feeling this way—and I know this is hard—can you just not take it out on me? Don’t get mad at me for little things that don’t matter. Talk to me about the real problem instead.”
Matt frowned. “Yeah, I can do that,” he said. And with that, the matter was resolved.
Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.