On first glance, I wonder if the title of this blog is misleading. Because the truth is that parenthood, left unchecked, probably hasn’t made me a better spouse. I think it may have made me a worse spouse. In trying to get an objective handle on how to describe and measure this, I pulled out our wedding vows and did a mental check on how well I’ve been doing with them lately. Now, our wedding vows were beautiful: inspired, poetic, romantic and, well, kind of mushy and non-concrete. So it’s hard to grade myself on some of them. “Celebrate the promise of our lives together” sounds so dreamy in a wedding ceremony, but I’m not entirely sure what this looks like on a practical level. I am kind of sure, however, that wiping poo out of a car seat isn’t anyone’s idea of celebrating the promise of life together.
Then there were the vows that it’s obviously clear parenthood has made far more difficult. For instance, “I will always find time for you.” Clearly when we wrote that we had no idea what parenthood was going to do to us. I can’t even say that I always find time for me, and I’m an introvert whose very psychological existence depends on spending some regular time spent floating through innerspace of my own thoughts. Having a child is a giant time-suck. I work all day long, come home and join the rodeo of toddler-wrangling, maybe waving at my lovely spouse along the way. Then my little girl goes down for bed and we have to feed ourselves somehow, and by the time the kitchen is clean, it’s 8:30 and I’m exhausted. So no, I don’t always find time for my spouse anymore.
The above dynamic that I’ve described is at the heart of what makes being a good parent and a good spouse a tricky proposition. Becoming a parent is not just a time-suck; it’s a complete rerouting of one’s energy. A male therapist colleague told me in the months before our girl was born, “There’s no lonelier creature than a new father.” Not the most encouraging words for a young man to hear while living with his pregnant spouse, but they turned out to be very true words. All that energy and focus that for years we were able to give one another is suddenly and dramatically diverted, like an earthquake that reroutes a river into the small valley village, flooding the idyllic townscape which disappears off the map. Of course, a new mother is lonely too; but a new mother’s physical bond with her child is crazy intense. Too intense, probably, but it’s a bond nonetheless. I found myself watching my spouse breastfeed my child and feeling even more left-out than I had felt sitting at the lunch table alone during those awkward middle-school years.
A child splits the connection between her parents. There are any number of ways to portray this in a physical tableau, the most obvious being the young child holding her parents’ hands while walking in between them. Suddenly, and irrevocably, there was something new and powerful in between my spouse and myself. And it’s never going away. So when I look at other vows in our wedding ceremony – “I will comfort you in times of distress,” “I will grow with you in mind and spirit,” “I will persevere during moments of hopelessness” – I realize that, hard as they already were, being focused on this new creature makes these vows seem not only impossibly difficult, but strangely inapplicable. It’s like promising to check your spelling every time you drive your car.
So, is all lost? Does becoming a parent destroy a marriage? I don’t know, maybe. I’m starting to think that, left to its own devices, yes, a marriage will disintegrate once a child is introduced. Because all of that spouse-directed energy gets immediately refocused on the child. For example, I could look at any of the wedding vows I’ve listed above and state unequivocally that they are things I wholeheartedly and unhesitatingly do for my child. It’s as if becoming a parent just means transferring your wedding vows away from your spouse to your child. And I think that any couple who makes this natural transference of energy without examining its consequences could find themselves feeling distant, disconnected and isolated from each other in a very short period of time.
But no, all is certainly not lost. All of us know a couple (I hope) who have children and seem happier than ever. This is the real gift of parenthood: that it provides the opportunity for an adult to really dig in and see how they can grow and become a new person. Not all parents do this. But those who do make not only better parents, but better people and partners and spouses.
For instance, here’s one of our wedding vows that was incredibly important to both us when we got married: “I will remind you of your beauty and value, even when romance is absent.” This seems clearly written by a person who does not know how to imagine a time when romance is absent. But let me tell you, there is no romance in a screaming infant at three-thirty in the morning. There is no romance in scraping congealed oatmeal off the walls. There is no romance in wiping poo out of car seats. And if you think that there is romance in these things, you are a freaking idiot who has read too many Baby-Sitters Club books and has no idea what responsibility is like. Romance is almost always absent as a parent, which is what makes that vow still so relevant. But the trick, I think, is not just fulfilling these vows to one’s spouse, but to oneself. And this is why being a parent – or, at least, a reflective parent – is so helpful. Because being a parent helps me to see my own beauty and value in ways I’ve never before had the eyes to see. In fact, I’m not sure you can even actually accurately see beauty and value at all when romance is present. Romance really has to be absent in order to see these things clearly.
Parenthood can make you into a pretty good team player in practical, goal-oriented ways. But it takes a concerted effort at recognizing the shifting directions of the currents of love to make it really work. Which brings me to the vows we made that I think we maybe didn’t fulfill as fully until we did become parents. “I will join with you in the love and service of others.” When we wrote this one, we imagined ourselves as fellow partners in the task of bettering the world, serving the hungry and homeless and pooling our resources and efforts into social action in our community. We’ve done that, and I hope to continue doing that, because it’s an important part of our faith. But wow, we haven’t done this with the kind of intensity and selflessness as we do with our little girl. I could preach a little sermon here about how “others” shouldn’t be limited just to one’s immediate family, but I do feel as if that family is where the concept of “others” starts. That’s certainly where it’s starting for our little girl.
The last vow I haven’t yet mentioned is this: “I will rejoice in the blessing of our love together.” Much like “celebrating the promise of our lives together,” this is the kind of abstract platitude that reduces mushy-headed wedding-goers to tears. And as a young, romantically-inclined newlywed, beautiful abstract platitudes are wonderful things. But they are empty and meaningless as a tired, weary parent. I’m not rejoicing when my little girl coughs herself awake every fifteen minutes throughout the night. The blessing of our love together doesn’t mean anything when there’s a toddler screaming at the top of her lungs because we won’t let her eat a thumbtack she found on the floor.
Parenthood is a concrete, practical, goal-oriented state of being. But a relationship, particularly a committed partnership like a marriage, requires some abstract reflection. This, ultimately, is what makes me a better spouse: that I no longer take for granted that we can celebrate the promise of our lives together. Instead, I really have to see it, I have to figure out how to make that promise concrete and real. I no longer smile dreamily at the thought of rejoicing in the blessing of our love; instead, I am required to actually come up with ways to make that blessing real. Of course, becoming a parent is not necessary for these realizations to take place; I could name moments in our non-parented relationship when these abstract ideals were made real and concrete. But I cannot survive as a parent in the abstract. These things have to be made tangible and real. I can’t say I’ll always find time for my spouse; I actually have to physically find time. I can’t just say I’ll persevere in moments of hopelessness; I have to actually, you know, survive those moments or real hopelessness. The vows we made to each other have become real live scenarios of active love that we give to one another, just as we give them to our child.
So you know what? Maybe wiping poo out of a car seat really is a way of celebrating the promise of life together. Because parenthood is some real shit sometimes. And damn, I’m glad I get to do that with my life partner. If there is any person in this world worth working with on this tough stuff, it’s her. Parenthood is a struggle and, like any struggle, it calls us to make our values real. We can’t skate by on idealism and platitudes any more. We have to really work together to make this stuff real. There’s nothing more intimate in the world, and it’s what makes our life commitment authentic in a way I would never want to give up.