We had a short courtship. My husband and I had known each other a long time — we grew up in the same town — so when we started dating in our mid-twenties, things moved quickly. Within six months, we were engaged. Within a year, we were married and settling into a tiny new apartment in Brooklyn. Within two years, we had a baby on the way, and that was it. That was all the “us” time there was. I can barely remember it.
We had our second baby while the first was still in diapers, and the rest is a sleep-deprived, over-worked haze. We dove headfirst into a balancing act of careers, schedules, kids, and bills. He managed to get one day off a week, strategically timed to fill a childcare gap so that I could take on an extra client. He watched me wake up at 4:00 a.m. to return emails and work on proposals before getting the kids up and ready for school. I watched him fall asleep over his laptop at night, studying for the classes he attended after work.
We told ourselves it would all pay off one day. A little longer and we’d have more flexibility, more time to spend together as a family. The family, our kids, were paramount. We wanted them to have a good education, to have opportunities, to be happy and healthy, and not worry about anything besides learning how to tie their shoes or playing freeze tag at the park with their friends.
We’d fight after they went to bed. It’s hard not to “keep track” when you’re so overburdened. Every straw feels like the last one you can carry. We were always about to collapse. We didn’t say it, but we both felt it — we were together for the kids.
I remember my parents always put their relationship first, but since becoming a parent myself, it was a concept I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. I talked to a close friend about my feelings. She admitted having similar thoughts from time to time, but ultimately, she said, “My husband’s the only one I chose.” I let the idea roll around in my head, trying to grasp the importance of it. Some family just comes to you by virtue of DNA. Your spouse, you choose.
Was my husband really less a part of my family than my children? What must life be like to have a partner you love that way? A picture blossomed in my mind then. It had a rocky foundation, but it took root.
Finally, one day I just said it. “I love you as much as the kids.”
At first, he blew it off. “Thanks, but I’m not as important as the kids.”
I took a deep breath and recaught his attention. “You are to me.” He was quiet for a long time and then he looked at me with wet eyes but didn’t say anything.
He can’t say it back, I thought. He doesn’t feel the same. But still, I needed to know if the future I wanted for us was ever going to be possible. “Do you love me as much as the kids, too?”
He waited so long to respond. I sucked in another breath, preparing to explain that I understood, that our work-life balance had been a struggle for a long time, but he spoke first, “I love you as much as the kids, plus everything else,” and the floodgates opened.
I’m not saying the conversation was a silver bullet. It wasn’t. But we’re trying to spend more time on us — one day maybe even as much as we spend on the kids.
What it made me realize was the effect that feeling less important than our daily balancing act had on both of us. We were suffering from a rejection that dug in without being noticed. Uncovering it was an important first step down a path that was barred to us before — one where we have the option to be loved by the one we chose.
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