Monday, October 28, 2013

The couple that never fights

When you break an arm or a leg and have that cast on for an interminable period,  it is hard to imagine a time when you didn't have it and had the freedom to move your limb around freely. It's what I call being 'in it'.  Likewise those early months and years with children when you are so dog tired you genuinely struggle to have a memory of what it feels like to be well rested or have a day to yourself with nothing at all to do but embark on selfish ventures. They aren't actually selfish, but when you have kids you think of other people who don't have kids and who tell you they spent their Saturday getting a Starbucks followed by a lazy visit to a market, a boozy lunch with a friend, and a party that evening, as incredibly selfish. "Pah! People with no kids," you find yourself saying, "they have no idea. And they got a lie in too, can you imagine?" 

Before children, my husband and I used to argue about very little - to the degree that I thought perhaps our relationship was somehow inauthentic because we didn't even bicker, and I didn't go through periods of hating him either. If bickering, fighting, and hating each other was normal, we were somehow abnormal. I now see that although we are blessed to be incredibly well suited to each other, it was also largely to do with the fact that we had a lot of time on our hands.  Time to ourselves and time together. We'd spend a Saturday waking up whenever - usually late because we had been out the night before. We'd grab brunch (never up early enough to eat breakfast), wonder down Tottenham Court Road (he'd buy a small electronic wire or plug for some or other computer project he was building), I'd go to Boots, or Paperchase, or visit the Vintage clothing store, or pick up some magazines. We'd grab some sushi somewhere for lunch. Head home, pootle around with our projects and then later meet friends or have them round to ours and have a few drinks and dinner, and the whole cycle would repeat itself on Sunday. 

These days it is somewhat different. On a Saturday morning, despite only falling asleep at 10pm or so the night before, one of the children inevitably comes into bed with us around 7.30am (although this is a vast improvement because when they were smaller it was much earlier). One of us gets up and gets the kids some chocolate milk and lets them watch some kids TV while breakfast is prepared. We take it in turns to shower while one of us watches the kids, specifically my son, who has a habit of discovering bottles of things that can be poured over new carpets, trying to put things into electric sockets, throwing heavy toys down the stairs, or muscle his older willowy sister. My husband takes my daughter to her swimming lesson while I do a few errands with my son, we meet up for lunch with the kids, and then we take them to the park or one of the many kids parties that now fill our weekend calendars. Late afternoon and the kids usually demand a movie.  We always foolishly think this will give us an opportunity to sit down for a minute, but actually their movie watching experience involves us getting them a laundry list of drinks and snacks and taking them for toilet visits.  And then at some point my son will get bored of watching the film and will start levelling violence towards his sister who starts moaning because she is trying to watch, and sometimes crying because she is in actual pain. My husband or I have to settle the dispute, my son dutifully gets told off, behaves for five minutes, and then commits another attention seeking misdemeanour, at which point my husband (rain or shine) takes him out of the house again on a token errand. Basically an opportunity for him to have a walk and burn off some of that little boy energy that if not spent in a constructive manner gets turned into aforementioned destructive house trashing / sister bashing energy.  

By the time they return it is early evening, we prepare their dinner, give them a bath, and then it is bed time stories, and sitting outside of their rooms so they don't pop out of bed every 2 minutes and start running wild. One of us does this while the other tidies up the carnage from the day - playdough on the floor, chocolate on the sofas, dishes from dinner, crisps down backs of sofas, 101 tiny toys tidied away etc. By around 9.30pm if we are lucky, we emerge battle wary and exhausted - sometimes they are still awake but we are fed up with sitting on the stairs outside of their room. We might snack on something for dinner, watch a bit of TV. I fall asleep on the sofa, only to be woken at around 11.30pm by my husband who tells me it is time for bed. We collapse into bed and the whole business is repeated the next day, Sunday. These days we do try and play backgammon or a game of pool so we have the illusion of a Saturday night out. And yes, to be fair, we do have sitters occasionally and manage to go out, which is essential. But you've got to get back at a certain time to relieve the sitter, and one of you has to watch how much they drink as someone has to be responsible for the children during the night and of course get up with them the following morning. 

We are no longer that couple that never argue. Although I don't know if we argue as much as I vent and my husband doesn't retaliate because he is smart and emotionally intelligent enough not to take the bait and enter into a stupid pointless exchange. My son will throw something down the stairs and I ask my husband: "Aren't you watching them? I thought you were watching them?!" And he will say: "No I wasn't watching him and you are right I should have been." It ends there. Or I moan about the fact that perfectly clean clothes are chucked into the laundry basket making more laundry for me. My husband: "You are right, I will check next time." Or the bath towels are left on the floor and not hung up on the radiator in the bathroom. "I will hang them up next time." He gets annoyed about the fact that I allow the kids into bed with us (neither of us are really able to sleep when they do). Me: "But honey she was having a bad dream." And he is very tired when get gets home from work but always always takes the kids and baths them and gets them ready for bed but I know he would like me to do it once in a while too instead of fleeing to my study.

All of this exists because when you have small children you don't have a lot of time for yourself and so you start going a bit mad because you need that breathing space to be able to just sit and stare at a wall sometimes. And suddenly it's like you have to account for every breathing minute of your life and none of it is about you anymore - as in just you as an individual. And so you direct your resentment at the one person you feel can take it and who you perceive to be the enemy in all of this - your partner.

It has changed for me dramatically, because my children are now both at school full day, but a couple of months ago my very busy son wasn't and I genuinely struggled with defining myself in and amongst the 24/7 needs of everyone else. I really had to remind myself that my husband and I are on the same side and that as with any joint venture you embark on, and in this case we are talking our children, it's hard work.  My husband gets a change of scene, but that is because he goes to work, and it's not exactly like he is sitting around having a whole bunch of selfish fun either. He is working. And I chose to be a stay at home mother, and I feel very fortunate to have had this option, although it does get pretty intense. And it's not always going to be fun and easy, and you have to stick together and remember why you undertook it in the first place. Also that my husband is still that person I fell in love with and had all that fun selfish free time with, and now we are both 'in it' and the best way to get through it is to help each other, to be kind to each other, to be grateful for the other person's commitment and hard work, and to remember that we are both individually struggling with the fact that our personal freedom has been so dramatically compromised.

Also you know, I want to look after my relationship with my husband, because one day our children will leave the nest and I don't want to be left with some fragmented thing that resembles a marriage with a person I don't really know any more and who I've neglected over the years. It genuinely scares me. And also one of the reasons I say to all of my friends who are new parents: Date Night. Schedule it in and stick to it as you would a doctor's appointment - but do so weekly. It's astounding how fast you can grow apart from someone that was at one point the centre of your universe when you are busy raising children.

As I am fast discovering, what with the kids at school now, and having that longed for breathing space and time to actually write and reflect, this period when your children are little is really very short when you look back. Although as I said in the opening paragraph, it can sometimes feel endless when things are difficult. But as difficult as it can be it is also a process that is in a constant state of flux. And tremendously rewarding when you see how your children are growing, and learning, and developing. When they start cracking jokes or making witty observations, or just that thing where they launch themselves at you with great affection and tell you you are their best friend and they love you. When you start seeing signs of the kind of people; the man, the woman they are going to be one day and you think to yourself with a mixture of trepidation and awe and of course overwhelming love: You know, I think we did OK and I think they are going to be fine. Then, in that moment, all of it, all the good, all the bad, all the stuff that you had to give up, all the stuff that you gained, all that stupid stuff that you argued about, everything that seemed so overwhelming, well, it all kind of weirdly makes sense.

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