Photo credit Carolyn Stanish
Before I asked you to be with me forever, on that rock in that river, I considered whether or not you’d be a good father. I felt pretty sure then, six years before Oscar, that you would be. But you don’t really know until that baby comes. And you really don’t know until it’s been a whole year of never sleeping for more than a few hours in a stretch, til you wake up for the thousandth time to that baby crying, and the only thing you can say is a loud angry, “F–K!” And right before you leave to go get the baby, you stand up and hear a sharp Smack! Smack! Smack! and are surprised and not surprised to realize it is your own fist punching the palm of your other hand. You don’t know until you seriously consider closing the apartment door behind you and never opening it again, so you never have to hear that cry and you never again have to feel that tug of the relentless never-ending need.
That was, of course, me I was describing, not you. You are exactly who I married — calm and helpful and committed, always holding my hand through my own internal insanity. You get stressed and irritated, but you have not backed down, not one imperceptible inch from this insurmountable task of being a husband and father. You have not retreated from this life we now live of 5 am mornings and 9 pm bedtimes, of constant backaches from no exercise and a very healthy one-and-a-half-year-old, of housework always creeping its way back from the clean corner where we left it, of our new obsession with TV — the only form of self care it seems we can manage.
You have gotten up with me almost every night since Oscar was born, never pulling the “I have to be alert for work” or “There’s no sense in both of us being exhausted” excuse. (As if getting up and taking care of a baby all day long isn’t work one needs energy for.) Nights when there was nothing for you to do while I was breastfeeding, when I plopped back into bed, you always, always, reached your hand over to my thigh, patted it and said, “Good job, Mama.” In the wilderness of first-time parenthood, where we are all afraid we are doing it wrong, a simple “good job” goes a long way.
At 18 months, Oscar still wakes up 50% of nights, though you’d say it’s way less than that. (Thank you for staying so positive amid my regular plunges into total despair.) However many nights he’s up, you are up too: heating the milk, sucking the liquid ibuprofen into syringes when he’s teething (always). I change his diaper in the darkness, and I hear the swish of your hands roving over his mattress, feeling to make sure his sheet isn’t wet and that his four pacifiers are all there.
The times when we agree to let him cry, sometimes I’m Strong Mama and sometimes you’re Strong Daddy, but mostly we’re both gripping whatever is close to us trying not to hear him, holding our breath, looking at the toaster or lamp, something that can’t see us this way, as we wait and pray for it to stop. I love you in this moment because I know his cries pierce you somewhere deep and tender. I love you when you turn on the fan so we don’t have to stand around listening, hoping. I am grateful that you were raised to know that when it comes to suffering, even though we’re Jews, sometimes enough really is enough. I love you because when you look at me with big wet eyes and say, “He’s so smart” or “He’s such a lover” or “That’s our Shmoo,” I am so sure and so damn thankful that the love you hold for our son destroys you right to the bone.
But don’t get me wrong; there have been frustrating moments. There is the occasional night when I come back from putting Oscar back down and you’re all snuggled in the covers, earplugs smashed down to the drums, sleep mask on tight. I feel so far away from you then, like you are successfully trying to distance yourself from what is happening, which is mothering and exhaustion and desperation and love and relief.
But these nights are rare, and I know how most men are, and I have heard how men used to be, and you are not those men; you were never those men. And I married you because of that. Because you wear it all on your face, in your doe eyes and your Muppet mouth. Because you tell me you love me all the time. Because you are the biggest supporter of everyone you love, constantly praising us all — “I like how you’re touching those flowers so gently, Oscar!”
Since Oscar was born, I have taken seven nights away from the two of you. Out of 547 days that sounds like so very few, but I know and other mothers know, that is a lot. Thank you for not just letting me but encouraging me to leave occasionally! Thank you for those few mornings when you crept out of the room and turned on the fan (that beautiful savior disguised as plastic monstrosity), and let me sleep past our tiny human alarm clock that has rung between 4:30 and 6:30 every morning for 547 days. Thank you for not resenting me for needing an identity besides “Mama,” even though I wanted and still want so badly to be “Mama.”
It has been hard, this parenting thing. I know that sex has lessened to a trickle, as has my self-esteem. I know my body is different — softer in places I wish were harder, bigger in places I wish were smaller, and smaller in places I wish were bigger (something I’ve never said before). I know you don’t notice and if you do, you don’t care, and I love you for that. Really really love you for that.
But since our family became three, even with the a marriage full of love and gratefulness, I have seen the outline of that ominous door that leads to divorce. When we married, I was aware of the bleak statistics. If one in two marriages end in divorce, why would ours make it?, I asked. Like most couples, we shrugged and said whatever comes, we’ll roll with it. And like all couples, we secretly we thought we were special, and that our love was greater than most. And not so secretly, I still believe that, but I saw the door, Ben. More than once. And it really scared me. It scares me how we’ve spoken to each other in the last year and half. It scares me that there have been moments when that little twinkle in your eyes, the sparkle that tells me how much you love me — it was gone. And I know it was dead in mine too. We have shot such such angry words at each other, and when it got really, really bad, we had none. For a writer and a Kentucky-raised schmoozer, no words is scary. When we turned away from each other in loathing and silence, I thought, this is the pathway to the door.
I know that in the last six months, I’ve started doing that more and more — the turning away and the silence, though, I swear most of it has been aimed inward. Thank you for refusing to let me live with my worst thoughts alone. Thank you for rubbing my back and telling me happy things so I can fall asleep on my worst nights. Thank you for understanding that motherhood is so public and so lonely all at once. Through it all you have been my cheerleader, my best friend, and my total partner in the amazing and devastating insanity that is parenthood. Thank you.