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Still, about three weeks into parenthood, it finally dawned on me: This problem wasn’t one to wait out. It wasn’t going to go away. It wasn’t going to fix itself. I’d have to find a way to get rid of it. So, I did what any other self-respecting self-help junkie would do: I started collecting advice.
I searched the Internet, of course, as well as the library. This was a lot harder than it sounds. Much of the advice online was generic—even bland. And the books I found didn’t seem to address parenting. What I need, I decided, is real stories, real experiences. I need to call a few friends.
My first choice: calm, collected mother of four, Marianne.
Marianne was one of the happiest people I knew, and for good reason: She had the whole Zen thing figured out. While my habit was and is to analyze a problem from every angle, suffocating it with my prolonged attention, Mare knew how to just finesse things away. She knew how to let things be until they weren’t—until they either died of boredom or left.
“Is this normal?” I asked after briefly explaining the situation. “Is this just the way new dads are?” What I really wanted to ask, though, was more personal, more probing: What had Marianne’s own husband been like when their kids were born? I didn’t dare.
“I don’t know if it’s normal,” Marianne replied. “But is that really the question you should be asking? Or should you just ask if it’s something you can live with? If you’re okay with what he’s doing, or if you’re not?”
Sensible advice, I thought, taking a deep breath. Balanced, like Marianne herself.
It’s possible I asked the wrong person.
“Yeah, sure, I get it. There are no right answers. But what would you do if you were me? Tell me the truth.”
“Okay, Rachel. I get it. You want advice. All I can say is, think it over. Take a long walk. Pray about it a little. I know you’re not religious, but try anyway. Then get really quiet—as quiet as you’ve ever been—and ask yourself what the answer is. Does that sound like something you can do?”
“Okay. And let me know what happens.”
Yeah, I thought as I hung up the phone. I definitely asked the wrong person. I don’t need philosophy. What I need is help. I know. I’ll call Gen instead.
“I need to fix this,” I whispered to Genevieve later that evening after I’d moved out of the office and away from Matthew. “I’m hormonal, and I’m miserable, when I should be the happiest I’ve ever been. This sucks. There must be something I can do.”
“I know. There should be,” said Gen. “There’s got to be. It’s almost impossible that nothing you can do will make a difference.”
“Exactly,” Rachel said. “You get it. My fellow control freak. So, let’s come up with some ideas.”
“Have you read any marriage books?”
“Of course I have.”
“Of course you have. What did they say?”
“Meh. The usual stuff.”
“Maybe you read the wrong ones.”
“So first, make a list of books that people highly recommend.”
“Then branch out a bit. Read some spirituality books—you know, the ones I’m always begging you to borrow from me? And get some other relationship books, too—stuff on parenting and friendship. And psychology—happiness research, that kind of thing.”
“Woah. Hold on there. You lost me at parenting books. I’m not going to have time for all that reading.”
“So skim it. Do what you can. I’ll give you my notes, too. Keep a journal of everything you learn that might help.”
“Hmmm. All right. That does make sense. If nothing else, it’ll make me feel like I’m doing something.”
“No, it’ll work. The answers are out there somewhere. You’re not the first person to have these problems.”
“No, I’m not. But that doesn’t mean they’re solvable.”
“Rachel. Snap out of it. Matthew is great. He’s not perfect, but he’s … basically normal. It’s hard to see it when you’re mad, but trust me. He’s fixable. If anybody is fixable, he is.”
“So what you’re saying is I should try to change my partner? Is that supposed to be the worst relationship advice ever?”
“They only bad advice is the advice that doesn’t work. And if you never try, you’ll never know.”
“That is true.”
When Rachel hung up, she was still upset, and to that feeling she added skepticism. But she at least had some ideas for feeling better. She put Poppy in her swing, then started making dinner and considered both her friends’ advice.
I love Gen’s practicality, she thought. But Marianne’s advice is easier. I think a long walk is in order.
After a short dinner, she told Matt she’d be back in an hour. She put Poppy in the stroller and headed to a well-lit park. As she walked, she spoke out loud about her feelings, about her anger, about each and every perceived relationship problem. Then she did as Marianne instructed: She got very quiet, and imagined her higher self giving her advice. It took just a few minutes for a small miracle to occur, for Rachel to hear her inner voice for the first time.
It was just a sentence—just a handful of words—and she heard it only in her thoughts, silently. But it came with a knowing, with a rightness, with a force. And the words were definitely not her own. They were: “Choose to see Matthew as perfect.”
What the hell was that? That was Rachel’s first reaction. It was followed by, Where did it come from?
Was it an angel, like Marianne said? Or did I make it up myself? Naw. That’s the last thing I’d come up with. Denial? Can’t be good. Especially about my marriage.
My subconscious is smarter than that.
My husband is a lot of things. He’s intelligent. He’s fun. But he sure as shit isn’t perfect.
Rachel took a deep breath. Then another, and another. “It’s time to head back,” she said to Poppy.
On the way home, though, something strange happened. The advice changed shape in her mind. Rachel found herself remembering the early days of her relationship with Matthew, when things were simple, easy. Rare were the times when she questioned Matthew’s character or motives, even when she disagreed with his choice. When he didn’t bring her flowers on her birthday, for instance, he just wasn’t into romantic displays. When he lost his temper over a tricky repair job, he was just tired or hungry.
Choose to see Matthew as perfect, she repeated to herself. Yeah, there is some truth there. Matthew isn’t without flaws. But he’s who he is. He’s doing the best he can.
Like all of us, he’s learning. He’s trying. And when I remember that, our disagreements don’t feel quite so horrible.
When Rachel got home, she gave Matthew the baby and started getting ready for bed. As she did, she noticed something: she felt better. Lighter. Less angry, more hopeful that things would work out.
So this is what all those religious people feel, she thought, adjusting her blankets.
She felt a little transformed.
“Choose to see your partner as perfect.” It just might work. But can I actually do it?
Before Poppy was born, the answer would’ve been an easy yes. [everything logistically uncomplicated]
But six years into their relationship, they still chatted late into the night. They still truly liked each other. They were still best friends.
They were among the lucky ones—and they knew it.
Maybe that’s why the challenges the couple experienced during their first several years of parenthood were so difficult for them to face.
They were just so unexpected.
Part of the reason for this was the couple’s relative maturity: They met at twenty-six, had kids at thirty. Plus, they weren’t angry by nature; in the old “lovers versus fighters” split, neither could claim any affiliation with the latter.
If anything, in the first four years of their relationship, they didn’t disagree enough. Before Poppy was born, chore distribution wasn’t a problem; Matthew worked full-time and Rachel cleaned and cooked. Meals were always on time and sleep was logistically uncomplicated.
As they entered parenthood, their conflict resolution skills were notably underdeveloped.
Before Poppy, their relationship hadn’t been truly tested.
When disagreements did arise, ,… Matthew was the lighthearted type—even jovial—while Rachel was serious and driven. He preferred to get things done, check them off the list, while Rachel always made sure to dot and cross.
Matthew procrastinated (which drove Rachel crazy) and was more easily annoyed by little stuff like traffic. Rachel usually kept her head over the small stuff, but let the big stuff weigh on her mind and pull her down.
Besides, Matthew was nice. He held her when she cried, and respected her decisions, and when something was bothering her and she talked to him, he listened. And every evening when Matthew opened the front door, arriving home from work, Rachel was happy to see him.
Which is why one night during her pregnancy they had a conversation that went something like this:
“You know, they say having kids changes your relationship—that you start fighting more, getting angry,” Rachel said. “What do you think? Will that happen to us?”
They were lying in bed, Matthew on his back and Rachel on her side facing him. The light was off, and in order to see Matthew’s face better, Rachel readjusted her pillow.
“I don’t think it will,” Matthew said, staring at the ceiling.
“Really, Hon? That’s a nice thing to say.”
Matthew turned to face Rachel. “Well, what would we fight about?”
“I’m not sure,” Rachel said. “What is something that bothers you about me? They say that whatever it is, it’ll get worse.”
“Nothing comes to mind.”
“Really? You can’t think of even one thing?”
“Not really. Nothing important. Why? Can you?”
Rachel pulled her arm off of Matthew’s stomach and rolled onto her back. “No,” she said. “I can’t, either. But I do kinda wonder if we’ll remember this conversation later and laugh about how optimistic we were.”
“Maybe,” he said. And then he laughed.
Then their conversation shifted to more immediate concerns.
Incidentally, Rachel was right—they did laugh about the conversation later. Well, not laugh exactly. More like remark on with sarcasm.
The feeling of invincibility they shared was, of course, overconfident—maybe even just plain dumb. However, in the years to come, whenever Rachel recalled that moment she realized it was also pretty sweet. They believed in themselves, and in each other, that much.
Even belief, though, arguably the most powerful force in the Universe next to love and gravity, has its limitations.
It wasn’t enough to keep them from fighting.
Stay tuned for Part Four of Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Novel.