From The Moving Sea, the novel/memoir/thing I keep writing to sort through my experience as a wife&mother:
Parenthood was oddly isolating for them. Like two people who could look across an alley and see into one another’s apartments, they still lived intimately. They ate together, talked, slept in the same bed. They joined friends for dinner, made plans for the future, traded earnest I love yous. But thick glass kept them separate. She was physically worn out by the process of growing a new child while keeping up with a toddler, mentally taxed by trying to teach morals and kindness and physics and caution and hygiene and patience and everything else a person ought to know in this life, all while holding onto compassion herself. She was emotionally exhausted by Michael’s mood swings and her own, the testing of boundaries, the nos and the I do nots, the fits and the tears.
And Orryn, too, did not possess boundless energy. He was occupied by office politics, by evaluations, meetings, assignments. His uncle died that autumn, an uncle long estranged but ever present in ghostly form, and Orryn’s emotions pulled at him like the currents of an unfamiliar sea. There were bills and deadlines. There was his share of the parenting. There was the shoulder that bothered him off and on, his body leaning toward the end of its fourth decade.
And so, for days or for weeks, sometimes one or the other but also sometimes both could only muster the energy to go through the motions, to hold steady, to promise themselves and each other that it would not always be this way. There would one day be time off. There would one day be the luxury of not being woken before seven, of not spending their single meal together cajoling and correcting and muddling through interruption. The cold and the fog of early parenthood would pass, and their relationship would grow again.
But that autumn was long, its colors and sounds muted, without the close company to which they had grown accustomed. Marriage is hard, they say. But it takes so much more than those three words to begin to tell the story of the how and the why of it. Marriage is hard when your toes can’t get warm under all of the blankets of your bed and your loved one is downstairs still working and won’t be joining you any time soon. Marriage is hard when there has been no spark, no sex, no true meeting in weeks. Marriage is hard when you wonder if life will ever get easier or better and the one you love can’t reassure you any more than you can yourself. Marriage is hard when you can’t turn your full focus onto your partner because in that moment your son will dump his entire cup of milk onto his dinner plate. Marriage is hard when you have spent all of your day’s allotment of compassion and empathy and care on someone who may or may not have noticed and you have none left for the person you most want to give it to. Marriage is hard when the moon is dark. Marriage is hard when the clouds of the storm have shrouded what stars remain. Marriage is hard.
A marriage doesn’t need betrayal or resentment or anger to be hard. It just needs reality.
The last quarter cord of fire wood still unstacked a month after delivery. The peeling paint on the kitchen window frame. The living room bookshelves they still have yet to purchase, though she’s wanted them since the day they first looked at the house. The bulkhead he worried won’t last another winter. The floor, uneven, that always wants sweeping. The appliances that can’t last forever. The terribly lumpy living room sofa. The tiles in the upstairs bathroom that keep coming loose. The lawn that will need one more mowing before winter…
But it had happened the year before, hadn’t it? When the toddler had been sleeping no better than he had as a newborn and they were out of their minds from sleep deprivation? And the year before that, when the drunken joy of the birth had worn off and left her cabin feverish and grasping for ideas as to what to do with a clinging newborn? And the year before that, miserably failing to get pregnant? And the year before that, new to the town, to the state, without friends or connections.
It happened every year to these two introverts, two earth signs that burrowed into their mental dens as the air turned cold. Maybe, she wondered, it wasn’t a thing to fret over. Maybe this was just a part of their year, this stretching apart after the bare intimacy of summer but before the long winter kept them bound close to home night after night.
It was a pattern. One, it seemed, that was a thing that their marriage needed, that made it stronger. Keeping the patterns. Cracking the codes. Learning to read this language of together. Not just the pidgin anyone can pick up in the first months of a relationship, the basic phrases that can get one through a quick trip safe and sound, but the deep nuance of the old literature, the beauty of the poetry, the varying complexities of the written word.
Which didn’t make it completely painless, this pattern. This phase. It reminded of her of before him, before love had been confessed and reciprocated, when she had liked him—or, for that matter, any other man—lusted after him, tried to memorize the lines of his body, tried to puzzle out a map of his mind. Back before they spoke of anything but the most casual things, or even before they spoke at all. Back when her mind was clamoring for answers and her body quaking with need and her emotions ready to burst out and be shared.
The autumn felt like that. She wanted to tell him how she struggled with parenting and with patience. How much she longed to create art and to make the world better and to contribute to higher thought and also to clean energy and sustainability and respect for the natural world. How her mind was filled with metaphors and morality and epistemology. How she was capable of so much more.
She wanted to tell him how much she loved the way he smelled when he came in from playing baseball with Michael in the backyard, how much she admired and aspired to his patience, his even keel, his contentment. She wanted to tell him she appreciated how he worked to support the family financially even when it wasn’t the job of his dreams. She wanted to tell him how important it was that he always kissed her first thing upon walking in the door.
But she didn’t wish to be a nuisance, a chattering, overemotional stereotype of a wife. And so they spoke of the child and the pregnancy and work and the weather and the things to be done. And she searched the conversation for a gap through which they would connect once more.