The Secret to Our Marriage

“What is the secret?  I feel like we are already failing.”

A close friend of mine that recently had her first born asked me what was the secret. What was the secret to getting through these tough years with a young family and coming out whole on the other side? How was it possible to maintain some semblance of your identity and maintain this relationship you had with your husband before these small, yet all-consuming little beings enveloped our lives? I sat for awhile, stumped by this question. I couldn’t fathom why she would be asking me. I felt I was still trying to pull myself out of the knee-deep sinkhole of parenthood, marriage, career, and just standing upright to do life every day. What was the secret. Was there a secret? For the first time in a very long while, I felt speechless. We walked away from the conversation, me feeling astounded that I didn’t have some know-it-all response, and my friend feeling defeated that I had no feel-good, sisterhood pep-talk to fill her hopeless vat of newborn, sleepless despair.

It’s such a cliche question, “What is the secret to marriage?” With so many knee-jerk cliche answers. “Never go to bed angry.” “She is always right.” “Happy wife, happy life.” “Communication.” Sure, sure. In the ideal world. All of these are the answers we should live by. But unfortunately, none of us live in this picture-perfect, well-rested ideal world we so easily tout about. We live in a world where our patience is worn down, our frustrations and irritations are threatening to erupt out of the running bath of bubbles, and we never feel quite on top of everything that demands our attention. It is exponentially easier to promise to “never go to bed angry” amidst the warm glow of a candle-lit wedding reception, sitting on satin-covered chairs, eating square pieces of marble cake with fluffy icing, than in the midst of real life with kids and careers and communities where it becomes much easier to stray from these words of cliche wisdom.

My husband and I fell in love when we were two college kids with nothing on our minds but finals and future dreams. We studied abroad together and followed one another around Barcelona. We studied in the library on campus and ate pop-tarts out of the package and ramen out of styrofoam bowls. We had great aspirations and all the time we wanted to dedicate to them. I remember being in graduate school on a warm, sunny day and driving the three and a half hours to New York City where my husband was in graduate school. I remember spending a Saturday in the longest post office line just waiting to deliver some boxes. I vividly remember that feeling that something so mundane and seemingly irritating was in fact enjoyable because here at my side was the person I loved.  I felt so lucky.

Fast forward through the years. We checked off college, then graduate school, then residency, then finding jobs, then saying “I do”, then buying a house, then starting our family. We would soon realize that through all of the obstacles, all of the setbacks, all of the losses, disappointments, proud moments, the most intense would be the raising of a family. There was absolutely nothing quite like taking care of twin newborns through days upon weeks of sleep deprivation. No 30 hour shift in residency, no marathon all-nighter studying in graduate school could compare. No, the sleep deprivation of newborns was epically unparalleled. We stumbled our way through it. We took turns, we did it together, we stepped up when the other was crumbling. There was no science, there was no set of rules to follow. We just took it as it came and barreled through. And somehow, we came out on the other side still a team.

Fast forward every day of every year since we had our twins, then our third child, and it has been much of the same–though I am happy to report, the increments of sleep have become appreciably greater. Every day, every week seems like a two person relay where we alternate sprinting legs of the race and work so insanely hard at optimizing a seamless transfer of the baton that doesn’t end in a falter, a loss of stride, or worse, a drop of the baton or disqualification. The load becomes greater with each year. We add demanding careers, community responsibilities, kids’ school obligations, kids’ activities, taking care of extended family, the maintaining of a house, and the weight of the load becomes harder to toss between the two of us. The mere organizing of a week of schedules–who needs to be where when, who is working, who is out-of-town, who will be picking up/dropping off/staying with our kids feels like the putting together of a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle that needs putting together week after week. We scramble to organize the chaos and stay on top of it, but it seeps at the seams and sifts through our fingertips.

We are so tirelessly tired. We often feel like hollowed-out shells of those two lovebirds that followed one another around Barcelona. But as we find ourselves still knee-deep in these trenches, we do as we always do. We pass it back and forth. We lean on one another.  We do it together. We do it with respect and with humor. We stand strong when the other falters. We take on one another’s priorities as our own. We remember that the emotions that resound at times when we lack sleep, when we are stretched our thinnest, when we are at our most stressed are not the emotions that are truly beneath it all.  We appreciate one another and know we are both giving it our all.

This past weekend was my husband’s birthday. I packed the weekend full of birthday celebrations. In the middle of it all, I planned a dinner for the two of us and an overnight stay away from home. In that short, less than 24 hours away, we were reminded of us. We let those daily strains and stretches slough to the side and just remembered that at the real center of it all is still just the two of us. And while we stood in that bustling line waiting to order our coffee on that Sunday morning, I was transported back to that long post office line. Here I still was, enjoying a mundane wait in line, because here at my side, was still this person I loved. I feel so lucky.

I can’t say I know the secret to marriage. Those that have been married 25 years, 35 years, 45 years may hold the secret, but all I know is what has carried us through these tough first years as a young family of five. We stick together. We stick together in our unified voice as parents. We stick together in taking care of our family and friends. We stick together in how we prioritize our careers, families, and each other. We are an eternal team. And while we are never perfect, and are still at the beginning of this long relay run, we will keep passing the baton back and forth the best we can.

Raising of Human Beings

It started with a lanky 6-year-old that had no interest in learning to swing. He sat on the swing and his legs dangled like two lackadaisical twigs in the stagnant humidity of summer. His twin sister next to him pumped her legs and swang high into the sky, back and forth, higher and higher, her long brown hair whipping behind her and across her face. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I wasn’t sure if he truly just couldn’t figure out how to swing or if he just had no interest. Both my husband and I would both go through painfully detailed tutorials with him: you lean back, you straighten out your legs, you lean forward, you pull your legs back . . . He kicked and flitted, and remained dangling upright. He’d quickly lose interest and tackle the next adventure.

I suppose it was okay when he was four. And five. But now it was summer and he was six. It should be part of the 6-year-old experience to feel that wind whirling by your ears, that weightless tingling sensation in your stomach as the swing swung low, the lightness of flight as the swing swung high.  While this certainly wasn’t the end all be all milestone of a 6-year-old, it was time to try a different angle. This is how we came up with the ingenious idea of making it a competition. Our kids, and let’s be honest, my husband and Ihave a bit of a competitive fire in our hearts. Make something into a competition, and we will roll up our sleeves and dive in.

Here were the terms we set forth at the beginning of the summer:
By the end of the summer, my son needed to learn to swing and I needed to learn to do a headstand. Best one to complete their goal got to plan the date of their choice for the two of us.
My husband and 6-year-old daughter made a similar bet. They both needed to learn to braid hair. Best hair braided at the end of the summer got to plan the date.

The competition was on. All summer, it was a fun, energetic banter as we “competed” to perfect our end goals. By the end of the summer, my son was soaring high on the swing and both my husband and daughter had mastered the art of the braid. My headstand was a little shaky, but my feet were up in the air and that was good enough for me.

We allowed my parents to judge our competitions and I should have known their grandparent-biased would throw the results. Both my son and daughter won the competition. It was a clean sweep by the 6-year-olds.

The summer was over well before a blink of anyone’s eye, and the grand prize of an end-of-summer date never happened before we rolled into the school year. We promised them up and down that the first Friday after school started would be our date night. It was in fact the only free weekend night we had for the month of September.  That entire first week of school, they could hardly contain themselves, planning their dates, changing their minds over and over. My relentless persistence even paid off as my son carved a stop at Starbucks into our date night. Friday came and that morning started with every light switch in the house seemingly flipped on. “Happy Date Friday, Mommy!!!” The kids bounced about their morning in anticipation for the end of the school day.

Two hours into their school day, I got a message that my mother-in-law was feeling short of breath. She was going to the emergency department. I was car-less at the moment–my parents were visiting and out buying every bulk package at Costco they could possibly fit in my minivan. My husband had left work and was on the way to the hospital to make sure my mother-in-law was okay. Ultimately, my mother-in-law was admitted to the hospital. I thought about the rest of our weekend. I worked the rest of the weekend evenings, and the mornings were inundated with kids’ activities. Every slot of time was spoken for. I thought about how it was important for us to go visit my mother-in-law and important for the kids to go visit her and show their support and love for her. I thought about this sacred Friday night that was the culmination of a summer’s worth of teasing, afternoons spent practicing swinging, and mornings spent biting my lip as my daughter doused my hair in water and pulled and knotted it into braids. I thought about their little bodies buzzing with anticipation. I thought about their longing for alone time with their parents.

As a parent, a piece of your heart aches deeply when your child experiences disappointment. Your natural instinct is to shield them with bubble wrap to protect them from the crash. Your natural instinct is to leap forward onto that mud hole so they don’t stumble and land face first in wet, cold, sticky dirt. Your natural instinct is to try to hold up the dam and patch the holes before the big cartoon tears start to spurt out of the corners of their eyes. But what do we do when we shield them from disappointment? We raise children that miss an opportunity to learn to cope. To learn to encounter deflation and devastation and realize that on the other side of that is healing and acceptance. We raise children with the attitude that everything goes “right” and will easily fall into place with no understanding of the brick walls that will hit them in the face even when they do everything they are supposed to do and swing as high as they can and braid as nicely as they have been practicing to do.

Disappointment is just a part of reality. And it hit me that perhaps I was approaching this all wrong. All this time, I have been working so hard to raise these children. All this time, I have been trying to create fun and memories and hit milestones. What I really want, is to raise human beings. Human beings that put fun and prizes aside to be there for their family when they are needed. Who learn the importance of dropping everything and seeing their grandma in the hospital when she is sick. Even if it is just to sit at her bedside and eat a meal with her. That even though, this Friday date was the culmination of summer and the most important thing they had in their 6-year-old lives, there is absolutely nothing more important than family and being there for one another.

I thought about how to address this when I picked them up from school. I knew that they would be enveloped in the heaviness of disappointment that made my every maternal instinct cramp. But facing and coping with disappointment is also part of the raising of a human being.

We set down our backpacks and sat on the family room floor. I have something to talk to you about. I said. Grandma was having a hard time breathing today, so she went to the hospital and they decided to keep her there tonight so they could help her breathe better. We talked about being sick and how that felt. We talked about being alone and sick and how that must feel. We talked about being sick, alone, and in a hospital bed and how that must feel. We talked about how if they were sick, they probably wouldn’t want everyone in their family to leave them by themselves in a foreign place and go out and have a really great time. We talked about the importance of being there for family and putting everything else aside. We talked about putting our date on hold and going to see grandma in the hospital.

My daughter looked at me. Her face fell for a transient second. You probably wouldn’t even catch her reaction if you didn’t look closely because it was quickly replaced with a bright smile and a nod. This is how she responds. My son broke out into immediate tears. His cheeks got flushed. His whole body became hot and sweaty, and he crumbled into me with large heaves. This is disappointment, and this is how my 6-year-olds express it differently. We talked through their feelings. Their reactions. That disappointments are tough and both their reactions are valid. We talked about how each setback and how we react and move forward will help us the next time.

I allowed them their time to process. And when they felt better, they both knew that it really just came down to family.

That night, we spent in a hospital room. The kids ate their dinners with french fries with full kid-energy and kid-joy. They bounced around grandma’s big hospital room. They gave her hugs, lifted her spirits, and they let us tickle them until they were full on squealing. We left after a full night of being together and the night ended the same as if we had gone one our date nights—with exhausted kids asleep in the van from another full night.

And that’s how I came to realize that in the day-to-day choices we make in raising our children, we are ultimately raising human beings.