I got home from work at 6, and I was exhausted. I didn’t really want to do anything but soak in the tub for a while, and take a moment to clear my head. I walked through the front door, and Mel, my wife, unloaded. She told me about how Tristan, our 7-year-old, hadn’t cleared the table for dinner or started his homework. She told me how Aspen, our 4-month-old, had blown out her diaper twice that day and refused to take a nap, and how Norah, our 5-year-old, had done little but throw one fit after another.
This was about two years ago, and at the time Mel was a stay-at-home mom and a part-time student. She was in blue jeans and a striped T-shirt, her brown hair pulled back. She was stirring something on the stove, and on her hip was Aspen, who was crying and wearing nothing but a diaper. The house was a storm of toys and unfolded laundry. The bags under her eyes, her makeup-less face, her sagging right hip, her slumped sounders, everything about Mel said weary.
She’d had a long day.
But so had I.
At the time, I worked at a university as an academic counselor in a program that served under-represented students. A friend once described my job as the “social work of higher education,” and I think that was a good assessment. One of my students had been arrested the night before. He was facing felony charges, so I’d spent a good amount of time chatting with university legal services trying to help make sense of the situation. Trying to make sure that he got a fair shake.
I didn’t have the kind of body-ache weariness my father probably felt after a long day of installing heating and air conditioning equipment, and I didn’t have the kind of frazzled weariness Mel had from a long day with the kids, but more of an emotional and mental weariness. I could feel it behind my eyes and in stomach.
Moments after walking in, Mel was holding out a crying, drooling, angry baby for me to take as though it were a ticking time bomb.
“Take her,” she said. “She’s driving me crazy. And get Tristan and Norah to clean the table and start their homework, dinner is almost done. I’m about to crack. After dinner, I’m taking a break.”
The last thing I wanted to do when I got home was hassle the kids to get their homework done and clean up the living room. What I wanted to do was soak in the tub and not think. And all Mel wanted to do was dump the kids off on me so she could get a moment of peace.
“Hold on a moment,” I said. “Let me put down my bag. I’ve had a long day.” I went on to say more, but before I could, Mel cut me off.
“You’ve had a long day?” she scoffed. “You got to get out of the house. You didn’t have to deal with the kids acting like little maniacs and clean up a bunch of baby poop.”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t.” Then I went on, telling her about my student who was facing prison time, and how stressful that was.
“I’m sure you got a lunch break,” she said. “I didn’t even get that.”
“No, in fact, I didn’t,” I said. “Honestly, I’m surprised I made it home for dinner.”
Neither of us were at our best.
We went back and forth, both of us attempting to argue that our day had been the worst and, therefore, that each of us was the one justified in taking a break. When I think back on this situation, it seems clear that both our days were equally bad, and in fact, we were both due a break, but only one could take it.
Neither of us had done anything wrong. In fact, we’d done everything right. We’d both completed our responsibilities, worked hard that day, but the problem was, young children don’t take breaks. They never stop needing and whining and asking and taking and pissing and shitting.
Sometimes, it feels like the universe is out of balance when you’re a parent. There should be time to hang out, take a break, take a breath, but it doesn’t work that way, so you have to suck it up. But you don’t want to; rather, you just want sit in a dark room or soak in the tub, and not think. Just shut out the world, your family, your job, your homework, for an hour or two so you can catch your breath. But there is no time, and you can’t blame the kids because they are innocent, so you end up blaming your partner. They should know you better than anyone, so why wouldn’t they understand how tired you are? How difficult your day was?
We both wanted the moment of peace, we had both earned it, but neither of us wanted to give it to the other.
So I did what is sometimes so very hard to do.
I sucked it up, and slid into my role as a father like it were a winter coat on a summer day.
I set down my bag, took Aspen, bounced her, and got her to calm. I got the two older kids cleaning the table and doing homework, while Mel finished cooking dinner. And once it was all said and done. Once we were all at the table, having dinner as a family, it seemed like we were both calmer and ready to distribute the labor. Mel said I could soak in the tub after dinner, and then I’d put the kids to bed while she finished some homework.
But if I hadn’t taken that breath, we’d never have reached a moment of compromise.
Sometimes Mel takes the breath. Sometimes no one does, so we argue into the evening.
But honestly, that can be the hardest thing to do as a parent. To take that breath. To suck it up even though you don’t want to, let the moment settle, and then talk about breaks. In so many ways, parenting makes you a bad spouse. It shifts your priorities, your passions, your desires, from being there for the one you love most, the person you started all this with, and causes you to pit against each other for a break. For a moment of sanity that is far more valuable than anything you ever imagined before having children. And it’s not that you really hate each other, or that either of you did anything wrong, it’s just the complicated backlash of what it takes to work as a team to raise and support children.
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