“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.