“How do you keep your marriage strong when you have kids?”
I was recently asked this question by a young, married woman. She didn’t have kids, and she was genuinely interested.
“Well,” I said, laughing. “You start out keeping score a lot.”
I doubt this was the answer she was expecting. Not because it isn’t true, but because so few people admit it. When talking about marriage and parenting, people will say things like “it’s hard” and “you need to make time for each other.” But rarely do people say, “It’s so fucking hard because of the big giant tally sheet in our brains.”
But if we’re really being honest, we will admit that we keep score. You might keep score on who slept less, who sacrificed more, who worked harder, who cooked more dinners, who took out the garbage more, who folded ten thousand more loads of laundry. You might keep track of the number of minutes each of you has spent rocking a newborn, the hours you have spent in the pediatrician’s office, the hours in the car commuting to a job you hate. You might keep track of things like the number of socks on the floor, dirty dishes in the sink, and toilet paper rolls unchanged. Whatever it is that a couple keeps track of, and whether it happens all the time or rarely, eventually the giant tally marks make their way into one’s brain and one’s marriage.
Most people don’t want to admit to keeping score, but it is a common reality, especially when the shit hits the fan. A new baby, a new job, or some other mind-blowing life change happens and eventually you’re keeping track of who made the last emergency trip to the grocery store for milk and diapers.
And if a couple hasn’t ever kept score? Well, they are either lying or have reached some kind of Zen-like enlightenment which I can only admire from afar.
Because the truth is that when life gets hard—as it does with kids—it is human nature to doubt whether or not anyone else, including your spouse, has it as hard as you do. It is human nature to think that you have gotten the short end of the stick. It is human nature to think that you have had more sleepless nights or endured more stressful workdays or been screamed at by babies or bosses more than anyone in the history of parenthood.
It is normal.
Life is hard. Parenting is hard. Marriage is hard. But that doesn’t mean that life and marriage and parenting aren’t really fucking good, too.
It only means that sometimes you forget that “hard” is relative and that parenting—and life in general—is a cycle of seasons. Sometimes it is hard as hell, and other times not that hard. There are seasons of harder than anything I ever fucking imagined and seasons of really fucking good as well. You are human, so you forget these things. You compare, and you keep score.
But eventually the tally marks get too big and too heavy. You get too tired. And then you start to remember.
You remember that life is hard, and parenting is hard, and marriage is hard—for everyone.
You remember that you’re on the same team.
You remember that you don’t just love each other, but you like each other too.
And you remember that when you said “I do” what you were really saying is “I will remember.” Even when the dirty socks next to the laundry basket seem to be breeding and the who-slept-less contest heads into overtime, even then, especially then, you remember.
“Do you think we still keep score?” I recently asked my husband.
“Yep,” he responded a little too quickly.
“Do you think we keep score as much as we used to?”
“Why not?” I asked, curious. “What changed?”
“Hundreds of fights,” he said. And we laughed.
“We just got too tired to keep score anymore, didn’t we?”
“Yep, pretty much.”
We laughed a little more, and a few minutes later our younger son entered the room.
“Why are you smiling, Daddy?” he asked.
“I just really like to be around your mom,” my husband answered.
And so, with that conversation in mind, when that young woman asked me about keeping a marriage strong after kids, I didn’t worry about admitting that, yes, we keep score. And, yes, it is really hard. But as long as you remember that you’re on the same team, that it will get easier, that you still like each other, then things will be fine.
In fact, they just might be better than fine; they might be really fucking good.