Come dinner time on Saturday night, the owner of a local restaurant stopped by our booth to inform us that they were serving dinner exclusively to vendors and invited us to come by. My wife and I left the booth in the able hands of my parents and snuck across the street and behind the line of tents to a café that also doubles as an antique furniture store (That’s right – it’s a café and an antique furniture store. If you like the table you eat on, you can buy it.) Because it was nearing the end of the festival and because it was only open to vendors, it was quiet. The bustle of the street and the noise of the fair couldn’t penetrate the large open showroom, and my wife and I enjoyed a quiet moment together over a grilled cheese on rye and a slice of homemade pineapple cake.
If you count this lovely scene as a “date night” – and I do, even though it only lasted forty-five minutes – then that makes three date nights my wife and I have enjoyed together since the birth of our beautiful baby. The first one was a month after her birth: her parents kept our little girl while we went to our favorite Indian restaurant and then saw Toy Story 3. The second was two weeks ago for my wife’s birthday; my parents kept our little girl while we went to a fancy restaurant here in town. I’m not counting the wedding we attended or my wife’s company banquet because we had to interact with other people. I am counting our quiet, peaceful interlude in the furniture café simply because my wife and I were able to enjoy the time just the two of us.
Used to be we had date night every weekend. Sometimes twice a weekend. But when our ninth wedding anniversary came six weeks ago, the best we could muster was to simply remember saying “Happy anniversary” to one another. The date night has become nearly extinct in our lives, unless you broaden your definitions to include a brief moment of quiet over a grilled cheese outside of a fall festival.
Every life change comes with loss. Every single one: marriage, a new job, buying a house. All come with some kind of loss. Becoming a parent is different than the previous examples only if you measure them by the magnitude of what is lost. And every time someone experiences loss, well, they grieve. Or, at least, they should grieve, because that is the appropriate emotional response to loss. But I think that in our culture we rarely do grieve the losses that come with these significant life changes, particularly when these life changes have been deliberately (and often painstakingly) chosen.
For instance, when was the last time you went to a wedding and the couple openly mourned the loss of their single lives? Perhaps a wedding isn’t the proper setting for such a thing (we didn’t do it in our wedding), but I wonder why not. As the scriptures say, “a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his wife.” Leave being the operative word. I suppose weddings do often have an acknowledgement of a family of origin, but there isn’t a lot of attention paid to what is being lost in leaving that behind. I wonder if the divorce rate might be incrementally lowered if we could find some kind of funeral ritual for the single life, allowing married couples to name and bury the aspects of their lives apart that they will miss the most.
The importance of this grief process seems heightened in the case of becoming a parent, not only because you lose so much, but also because this is the one major life change that can happen unexpectedly (at least in terms of positive gains). Becoming a parent is an amazing, joyful, delightful and wonderful experience. But the losses are tremendous. Never again will it just be me and my wife. Even on those rare occasions when we do get away, our minds never stray far from our beautiful baby girl. I’m just shooting from the hip with this figure, but I’ll bet that 70% of the conversations we had on our three date nights somehow related to our being parents. No more do we have the luxury of just getting lost in each other’s company. Our lives are completely focused on our baby girl.
And the realms of life that this extends to! Of course, there’s money – wow, the kind of financial impact a child has on a family, it’s truly unbelievable. You think you’d believe it if you heard it, but you don’t until you feel it. Then there’s time. Life worked pretty well for us until my wife went back to work. And then suddenly there wasn’t a person at home full time who could clean and arrange around our baby’s schedule. And even when we have time, we have so much less energy. I’ve bragged on my little girl’s sleeping habits, and I can honestly say I’m getting about the same amount of sleep as I got before she was born. But now I need twice as much sleep as I used to. We haven’t watched a movie together since, well, Toy Story 3, and that was only made possible by babysitting grandparents. And I won’t even mention sex.
C.S. Lewis once described grief as being like cancelling the mail. You don’t lose everything all at once; it slowly decreases in a trickle over time, and every day or two you discover something else you no longer have. I suppose Saturday night, nestled together in the quaint furniture café, I discovered that we’d lost the date night. Sure, we get them occasionally, and as our baby gets older and more easily babysat, we will likely experience them again. But the freedom of complete immersion in one another is now gone, pretty much forever. Even if we can carve out the time and discover the energy to immerse ourselves in one another, there will always be this creature between us. A beautiful, amazing, astonishing creature of angelic magnificence, yes. But between us nonetheless.
I write this not in complaint or regret, but rather in an attempt to openly and appropriately mourn. Any idiot who has ever been to counseling can tell you that working through one’s grief is essential to moving into the transition brought by loss. I think there are a lot of unhappy parents in this world who can never express the root of their unhappiness because they have never worked through their grief. I noticed during our pregnancy how often other parents would respond to us with some cynical or pessimistic comment about how our lives were about to become a lot harder. I guessed that this came from some hidden well of bitterness, but now that I’m on the other side, I’m sure of it. It’s as if there are parents who are angry that no one ever told them parenthood would rob them of so many things, and now the only outlet they can find is to grumble at expectant parents-to-be who walk around with foolish grins of hopeful expectation on their faces, unaware of the burdens ahead of them.
Well, guess what – I’m still full of hopeful expectation. And I think I can continue to be so ridiculously in love with fatherhood and my beautiful little girl because I can say out loud that there are things I miss about my life before parenthood. I could compose an encomium to the date night, to the loveliness of just sitting in the presence of my beloved spouse and bathing in the intimacy of her company. I miss that. I grieve the freedoms we have relinquished – the Saturday afternoons spent languishing on the couch playing video games or watching football; the snap decisions to dress up and go out on the town; the spontaneity of sex and kissing; the quiet moments of belonging together, just the two of us. I miss these things. And I stand before you, composed but a little heartbroken, as I bury them in the ground.
So now I get a whole new world of experiences. Saturday afternoons spent watching my baby girl smile. The delight of having strangers coo and ogle our little girl dressed up like a ladybug. The spontaneity of choosing which funny sound will accompany the next kiss on my little daughter cheek. The quiet moments of belonging together, all three of us. And that little noise she makes when she’s trying to talk? Sort of like a happy growl, when she furrows her brow and grins? I’d give up date nights forever if I could get her to do that for me and my wife anytime we asked her to.
My life before parenthood is gone. I will miss it, but I am happy that it has gone on to a better place.