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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

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Ring of Fire

So many of you have responded from the heart to this essay. If you'd like to share it farther afield, you can vote for it here. Thanks so much for keeping the lights on while I am taking some down time. I'll be back later this week.

You know how when you have to go away for a few days, you overfill the cat dish so the kitty won't starve? Life is calling me away for a little bit. The following essay is from a proposed collection, called D-I-Y Spells DIE and Other Domestic Epiphanies—feel free to tell people like this about it. It was published this summer in The Rose, a spirituality journal out of Athens, Georgia. Chow down the whole thing all at once, or ration it out. Back soon. Don't shred the furniture.

On our sixth wedding anniversary, the eve of his fortieth birthday, my husband decided to surprise me by cutting off his shoulder-length blonde hair.

“Surprise!’” he said, as he came through the door, grinning self-consciously and holding up his lopped-off ponytail with the guileless charm of a little boy clutching a fistful of dandelions.

“Surprise,” I said weakly, handing him the damp test stick with its pink vertical lines like bars on a tiny prison window. Impossibly, in spite of being on the pill, breastfeeding a toddler, and the almost complete absence of opportunity, I was pregnant with our third child, and his fourth.

Slack-jawed, Patrick stared at the stick. His mouth closed, opened, closed again.

“You’re not,” he said.

“I am,” I said.

He stared back at the stick, and I thought I saw comprehension dawn on his stricken face.

“This is your pee,” he said finally, looking back to me for confirmation. I wasn’t sure whether he was asking if there could be some kind of mix-up, or if he just found it distasteful.

I nodded soberly, thinking that the unfolding scene was already completely unsuitable for the baby’s memory book. We would have to lie.

Patrick slumped into the nearest chair, still clasping his limp hank of hair. Looking at it, I was reminded of that famous O. Henry short story, The Gift of the Magi, where Della sells her hair to buy her husband, Jim, a chain for his heirloom pocket-watch. Only it turns out that Jim has sold the watch for a hair ornament, and both gifts are utterly useless. Of course, it all works out in time for Christmas, and in the end they realize that what matters most is that they have each other.

Yes, our story was a lot like that, except for the part where my husband almost immediately plummeted into a spectacular midlife tailspin, during which time I was out of my mind with rage, hormones and confusion; and there were days I did not think we would make it to the next week, let alone Christmas. Also, Della & Jim did not have children whose needs had to be taken under consideration and who need help with wiping whether or not right now is a good time for you, emotionally. Else it would have had to have been a novel, and written by a Russian.

Here’s what they don’t tell you to expect in What to Expect When you Are Expecting, or any other pregnancy how-to book I’ve ever read: even the most carefully planned and anticipated pregnancy is like a bomb going off in a marriage.

It will test your mettle like few other things can, and it will show you exactly where the fault lines lie. I don’t recommend trying this unless you have a pretty solid idea already, but if you want to find out what your marriage is really made of, get pregnant. Then duck, and take cover.

In the space of two blurry years, we had gone from two of us to five of us, with the birth of our first two children and the acquisition of a third from a previous marriage. We loved each other and our kids, but in the course of keeping up with even the minimum demands of childrearing a few things had gotten pushed to the backburner. Big things, like sleep and sex; and little things, like good books, and long kisses.

We loved each other, but we were not at the top of our game. Facing another round of pregnancy and infancy was more than we could do gracefully. And so we blundered our way through it, pelting each other with resentment and blame. In and of themselves, our grievances were unexceptional. They all came down to how we divided available time and energy. In fatter years, we could have arbitrated with more civility. But this was famine, and we were starving people fighting over the last thin scrap.

Every emotion and perception was amplified and distorted. “You always” and “You never” became the constant, looping refrain. It felt like our wedding bands had twisted into Möbius strips—around and around we’d go, never getting to the other side.

I have a friend who has managed to stay married to the same man for over thirty years. She says the secret of long-term commitment is very simple: you just have to be willing to renegotiate everything, forever. It was time for us to sit down at the bargaining table.

We both had unmet needs, wants and demands. This was a serious test of our marriage. It deserved and required our undivided energy and attention. We needed to be in lockdown at Camp David, with a full entourage of aides and interpreters. We needed bottled spring water, and frequent stretch breaks; guided meditations and long, quiet walks in the woods. We needed all calls held and nothing on each day’s agenda but working out a new deal.

Instead, we had a fourteen-, a four-, and a two-year old. We had a full time and a part time job outside the home, and inside, the endless work of childrearing and housekeeping. We had clothes to wash, and school papers to sign, bills to pay, library books to return and crusts to cut. We couldn’t scream, or cry, or curse, as loud or as long as we sometimes needed to. And yet, as much as the presence of children inhibited and hindered us, I am not sure we would have hung in there without them. In a way, they were our entourage: a steadying influence that kept us from walking away on days when it felt too fucking hard.

I hate to admit it, but I am one of those who get lost when the going gets rough. Maybe not physically, but emotionally. As much as I love the idea of battening down the hatches and riding out the tough times, in practice I am apt to slip quietly over the gunwale and head for shore. My standard M.O. was always to have an exit strategy—the next relationship--in place before leaving. I would love to think I have outgrown those reflexes. The truth is, the urge to escape was strong. On our worst days, I did think about having an affair. I did fantasize about leaving, or making him leave. And then I’d remember I was three months pregnant and he was my sons’ father, and there was the house and money and all this stuff we shared and as hard as it was to stay in it, it seemed a whole lot harder to get out of it.

Which is the whole point of marriage as an institution. There’s all this infrastructure that can’t be dismantled overnight. And when children are part of what you have built up together, you can’t tear the whole thing down anyway, because you tear them up with it. You can only rearrange the details: who and what goes where, and with whom.

Rita Rudner said, “Whenever I date a man, I think, is this the man I want my children to spend weekends with?” I swear, there were days that the only thing holding me back was the thought that my pain-in-the-ass husband would be an even bigger pain-in-the-ass ex-husband. And I would have to have to put up with him, because of the children. As long as I was stuck with him anyhow, I might as well keep him close enough to take out the trash and help with bedtime.

I find the flipside of this line of reasoning useful even today.

“I will be the ex-wife from hell,” I promise sweetly, whenever I catch him admiring someone younger, blonder and bouncier in the sideview mirror. He chuckles and gives a heartfelt “whoo-whee.” Today, I like to think, he is happy to be stuck with me.
Back then, we were miserable and trapped. This is the beauty of marriage as a legal contract. I believe no committed couple, regardless of sexual orientation, should be denied the opportunity to feel miserable and trapped together, at least once in their lives.

Let me be clear, I am talking about getting through a rough patch. About getting uncomfortable enough to become willing to let go of what’s not been working and venture into uncharted territory together. I don’t advocate anyone staying in an abusive or chronically untenable situation, kids or not. There has to be love—good love—at the bottom of all the crap that’s piled up between you, or no amount of effort will make up for what’s missing. And even that’s no guarantee. But let me tell you, amazing things can happen when there’s nowhere left to turn but toward each other.

Amazing things, like admitting you need help. Realizing a marriage therapist was cheaper than two divorce lawyers, we sought one out. Her name was Nancy. She was terrific. She hardly said much of anything. She didn’t have to. Just having a neutral third party in the room made us more mindful and aware of what we were saying to each other and how we said it. The fact that we both kept showing up for our weekly sessions became visible evidence of our commitment to each other, and that goodwill began to spread into other days of the week. A kind word here, a soft gesture there.

We were still so fragile in that first month or so of therapy. If we came up against any degree of conflict, we would back away from each other as if from a fallen wire. “Let’s save this for Nancy,” we’d agree, and somehow manage to avoid it until then. Funny thing, by the time we got to Nancy, the issue in question wouldn’t seem like a such a big, snakey thing anymore. Gingerly, we began to try it at home. Clutching our photocopied diagrams of “how to practice active listening”, we’d approach a topic like students learning a foreign language. “I think, uh, no, wait…I feel…you should, no, wait. What was the question?”

It didn’t take long. Our issues weren’t the insurmountable, irreversible barriers they had felt like. We weren’t the bad people we felt like. The issues were just issues, and we were just humans who needed to upgrade a few skills.

The birth of our third and last child mirrored this labor. My prior two birthing experiences had started out as all-natural, at-home deliveries. The first was successful, but with complications; the next ended in an emergency C-section. I was younger, and cockier then. Less compromising. This time, I was ready to let go of expectations. I wished only what was best for me and my baby. I asked for direction and advice from my doctor and nurses, considered and took it. I made compromises. When the pain was too much, I asked for, and accepted, relief. I had a birth plan that I took seriously, but held lightly.

When our last son was born, the sun was setting outside the delivery room. I felt no pain. I had no fear. Patrick stood at my side, holding my hand, his golden hair haloed by the dying sky. Our eyes burned into each other. We could have been the only two people in the room, in this marriage. But we weren’t. This birth would add to all that was already between and behind us, binding us and holding us, sometimes against our will.

He squeezed my hand, hard, and with everything I had, I bore down and pushed.



Blogger Minivan Bohemian said...

Thank you so much for sharing. This is one of the most beautiful blog entries I have ever read. I am so moved. Thank you.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Who She She said...

That was such a lovely post. I love that you can look at your marriage (and I can look at my own marriage through your words) and see the beauty and growth amid the pain. Thanks.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Heather B. said...

Though it's only 10 AM. That will probably be one of the best things I'll read all day.

In other words: Holy shit, that was awesome. My crass way of saying 'WOW'.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Prisca said...

You give me hope. :)

9:06 AM  
Blogger Schmutzie said...

This is a beautiful story. Life is hard, but it's worth the effort to push through to our best selves. Thank you for sharing such a difficult narrative.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Jess said...

That was so beautiful. Thank you...really.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Charlotte said...

Beautiful story about sticking it out. Thank you.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Mrs. Furious said...

That was really moving. I appreciate your honesty and I too can relate. It is so refreshing to have someone thoughtfully express the "truths" of marriage and motherhood.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Marie said...


10:27 AM  
Blogger Jennie Thomason said...

This was mouth-on-the-floor incredible. I've officially bookmarked your site.


10:55 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Sage advice, and beautifully expressed.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Susan said...

Love this. Your writing is beautiful.

12:26 PM  
Blogger mmmm, brains said...

Wonderful. Great advice. Thank you so much for sharing.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Wendy said...

beautiful. i'm breathless.

3:21 PM  
Blogger twintales said...

Beautifully said.
Thank you.

7:12 PM  
Blogger AliBlahBlah said...

I agree with all of the above, I stumbled on this post via jenandtonic, and wow, brilliantly written. "We loved each other, but we were not at the top of our game". That certainly summed up the first year of parenthood for us.


7:31 PM  
Blogger Katherine Gray said...

Not only is this a gorgeous--I mean, incredibly gorgeous--piece of writing, but it should be required reading for all those pre-nup classes. People need to know how hard it can be, and how beautiful it can be. Oh, I wish everyone could come to marriage knowing this.

11:38 PM  
Blogger littlepurplecow said...

Wow. There is nothing better than pure, honest writing about life from an incredible writer. I'm ready for the book please.

12:03 AM  
Blogger Jeanette said...

Fabulous writing as always. Its good to see someone write about reality instead of the American dream.

4:16 AM  
Blogger seal said...

this gave me chills. thank you for sharing it.

8:45 AM  
Blogger teahouse said...

This is lovely! So many wise sayings. I'm getting married in 6 months, and I hope that my roller coaster ride is as exhilirating as yours has been!

6:33 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

What I think I love most about your writing is the depth and breadth of your metaphors. Just in this essay you reach into mathematics, sailing, geography for your exquisitely crafted analogies. I really enjoy that, plus your honesty and your ability to talk about things like love without being sentimental. A rare gift.

Julie (formerly from Learning & Laugher, now from Letter9)

6:57 PM  
Blogger HLH said...

I found your blog through Mrs. Furious. Thank you so much for this post. We're going through a rough patch currently and while there's a lot of love underneath, it's scary as hell trying to navigate this thing. Thank you for helping me remember that its only temporary.

7:25 PM  
Blogger KinnicChick said...

This is gorgeous writing and as someone above wrote, should be required reading for anyone contemplating marriage and even families. It isn't easy. It isn't happily ever after. But it can be beautiful with work from both people.

I thought this was a very helpful statement: "Just having a neutral third party in the room made us more mindful and aware of what we were saying to each other and how we said it." Thank you for this painfully honest post.

11:31 PM  
Blogger Miss Eliza said...

This is a lovely post, and I feel you. Thank you for the beautiful encouragement.

11:37 AM  
Blogger isabel said...

beautiful post.

I added it to*

12:57 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

I wandered over here through Kinnichick...very beautiful- anyone who is married and human would find something they could relate to in this entry...

2:11 AM  
Blogger Lioness731 said...

Gosh, a lot of what you said about your marriage mirrors what I've experienced in mine--infidelity, indifference, and regret. I often feel like what ties me most is the obligation to it, but in the end, it IS the special moments--my husband holding my daughter in the first minutes of her life and relishing her presence, a spontaneous caress or kiss when you think you look your worst, or the laughter with someone who knows you better than you know yourself. I think the focus is on the negative stuff, but when you keep a log of these beautiful moments and work on it, it makes marriage worth it, and more beautiful for all the bad times you weathered and survived. Great post and keep it coming!

12:00 AM  
Blogger Family Adventure said...

A very human journey, but described with such amazing insight. I am in awe of your skills. Thank you for sharing.
- Heidi

12:22 PM  
Blogger cce said...

You've nailed it. We're so in this thing that you describe, right now, right at this very moment. I don't have another child on the way but we have two already and we struggle. It's a beautiful, exhausting journey this slog to stay married.
Thank you for this. It's so meaningful, to read something honest and true.

12:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Until I read this I was feeling pretty hopeless about my marriage. We are in therapy, and it seems to be going nowhere. But reading this gave me a glimmer. Thanks.

3:41 PM  
Blogger nadinebc said...

It is so good to read about people who put the effort in. So many don't.


9:19 PM  
Blogger Ron Davison said...

cce sent me over from her blog. I'm so glad she did. Wow.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Kian said...

That was beautifully written. My husband and I went through (and to some extent are still going through) that same sort of thing. Only I couldn't have worded it so nicely.

11:19 AM  

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