Remember that handsome man who seduced you about a year ago, acting all suave and sexy? Now he’s asleep on the couch, drooling, with a scratchy five o’clock shadow and a level of hygiene that harkens back to his middle school days. The baby screaming, he is obliviously snoring as the rage sneaks in and sets up camp in the deep recesses of your sleep-deprived, half-working brain. The next morning, as you walk in a zombie-trance into the kitchen wearing a dirty pair of leggings and an unclipped nursing tank revealing a less appealing version of a wardrobe malfunction, he complains about how tired he is. There is no memory of that suave, seductive man left in your mind: only the blackness of rage as the mom-cano erupts words of caustic lava on his unsuspecting head. This is not possibly the man you loved and married and let into your pants. This is someone completely different: your baby daddy.
Babies change a marriage. It is a statistical fact that marital satisfaction tanks in the child-rearing years. And for good reason. You committed to the romantic notion of “starting a family” only to discover that this beautiful stroller-walk in the park is actually an effort to scale Mount Everest. Without training. Or oxygen. Your life has changed more drastically than you ever imagined it could, and while you think you are in this together, your experience of these changes is drastically different. And the disparity with which you experience the chaos of parenthood can result in division and conflict.
This was one of the biggest struggles I went through as a new mom until I finally decided to stop competing with my better half.
My husband does this trail race every year called the Dirty Duel. It’s run in the late fall, so it’s a cold and muddy endeavor. The unique thing about the race is that there are two paths you can run. One is called “long and difficult,” and the other is called “short and brutal.” Pick your poison. Either path you take, it’s going to be rough, but either route will bring you to the finish line.
That’s how it is with co-parenting. You are both on the same mission to raise a reasonable human being and responsible member of society, but you and your baby daddy are on very different, but equally grueling paths. It took me many years, four children, and several arguments to realize that my experience of parenthood is fundamentally different from my husband’s.
It started after our oldest, Lily, was born. I realized my whole world changed an incomprehensible amount, while his life looked much the same on the outside. He took a few days off, and then he returned to work. I was a jumble of hormones, fat and unshowered in perpetual lounge pants, struggling to find a routine with this terrifyingly powerful 7-pound being. He got up and went to work just like he had every other day of his adult life. When he got home, he would snuggle the baby, play a few rounds of peek-a-boo, and kiss her good-night. All the fun stuff minus the engorged breasts and cabin fever.
This did not feel like a joint venture. We were not equals on this journey. My life resembled nothing close to what it was before. Even when I did get away to work part-time as a therapist while my mom watched Lily, it was a totally different routine than when I worked before becoming a parent. Not only did I have to pack her up with blankets, diapers, toys, clothes, breast milk, etc. and drop her off before I even started my day, but I did it all with an ache in my heart. I couldn’t just go to work and do the magic of healing lives; I had to tear my mind and heart away from this tiny being who occupied such huge amounts of space in both. And then there was the pumping. No matter what anyone may say, you can try to preserve your previous way of life and make it look the same as it was before, but it is counterfeit. Your very being is changed when you created that life, and even going through the same motions is fundamentally different than it was before. There is no going back.
Thus began the ultimate case of “the grass is greener.” I would covet my husband’s apparent freedom while he would envy my abundant time with the children. I would think, “At least you get out of the house for more than a haggard grocery store run with a screaming baby. You can dress like an adult and go to work where you feel successful. Must be nice.” And he would think, “At least you get to be home all day, wearing comfy clothes and cuddling our baby. You see every one of her firsts and nap while she naps. Must be nice.”
The reason raising kids can be such a divisive time in marriage is because we expect to do it together. To share the same struggles, to commiserate together, problem-solve together, cry together, and celebrate together. But that is very hard to do when our struggles are so very different. I may be overwhelmed being knee-deep in baby all day, while his heart aches from being away from his children. It’s difficult to support someone who has the problems you wish you had and doesn’t appreciate them as the blessings you wish you had. We’ve had numerous conversations like this, trying to get support and acknowledgment for our sacrifices. But they just end up in a verbal competition over who has the hardest job and who is a bigger martyr for the family. Ergo, division.
It took me a long time to get it, but I finally learned that I have to stop competing with him. We are both hard-core, awesome parents working towards the same goal. Long and difficult or short and brutal, we are both struggling and persevering to the finish line. I need to honor his work and sacrifice instead of just wanting credit for my own. And sometimes, our struggles with our own position are best shared with other moms or other dads to gather the support and commiseration we seek.
Joe is still my best friend, and when it comes to talking about our kids, nobody else can appreciate so deeply the silly little stories about what one kid did or said that day. No one else celebrates as fully the successes of our children or mourns as deeply their struggles. In that way, he is my partner without substitute. And I know that one day the kids will grow up and move away, and we will once again be able to look at each other’s faces for more than 35 seconds without interruption. I know that marital satisfaction curve will swing its way back up. For now, we just have to realize that we are in the trenches, and we need to give each other a healthy dose of grace, love, and understanding. Supporting when we can, finding support from other moms or dads when we can’t, and trying to remember why we married each other in the first place. Hang in there, mama, and every once in a while, take a glance to your right and remember he’s fighting in the trenches with you.
Theresa Phillips is a mother, author, nurse, and mom-encourager. She runs a crazy household of 4 young kids and moonlights as a labor and delivery nurse, where she has the privilege of inaugurating women into this amazing society of motherhood. Before nursing, she was a therapist specializing in marriage and family therapy and had the honor of helping those in crisis. Now she marries all three areas of experience into a powerhouse of encouragement for moms. She’s like your midwife, best friend, and therapist all rolled into one! For regular encouragement in this crazy mom-life, follow The Gritty Mama on Facebook or Instagram.