Now for something a little different. I’m participating in a Blog Carnival! How fun is that?! Today’s topic is “Relationships and the Strain Parenting Puts on Them”. There are eight other bloggers who will be writing on the same topic and at the bottom of this post, you will find a link to another blog that is participating in the Carnival. If everything goes as planned, you should be able to click through from blog to blog and read everyone’s thoughts on the topic. The perfect distraction for me, no?
The idea for this topic originally grew out of the challenges facing the Adventures of Jen, Tiff and Chunk family. If you follow this blog and have been wondering what’s happened to their site, they have moved and you can find them here. In spite of the origin of the topic, the wording of the prompt is vague enough for me to play with it a little bit and so that’s what I plan to do. Instead of focusing on one particular kind of relationship, I’m going to focus on relationships in general with an eye toward digging more deeply into each in future posts.
One of the things that everyone loves to tell expectant parents is “the baby changes everything”. It has been my experience that no one really dives into exactly what they mean by that, but the implication is that you better watch out. This was the kind of comment that drove me crazy when we were pregnant with Yogi. “But what do you mean? How does the baby change everything?” Even when pressed (and I almost always pressed) no one ever really wants to get into it. Frustrating. I don’t like ambiguously threatening advice.
After a year with Yogi I’ve got a sense of why no one ever wanted to get into the details. There’s just too much to say. The baby does change everything, but if you’ve got to start the conversation somewhere, talking about relationships is a perfect jumping off point. The baby certainly changes relationships. Every single one of them. Being Yogi’s Mama has changed my relationship with my wife, my parents, my friends (more on this later) and even myself.
Deepening is the word that comes to mind when I think about the changes that Yogi has made in the relationship I have with my wife. The experiences of TTC, pregnancy, birth and infancy have uncovered us in the most intimate of ways. The entire process fixes you on the anxious edge of the seesaw, teetering between joyful possibility and the fear of everything that is so very far outside of your hands. I’ve often thought that we aren’t the same people or the same couple that we were before Yogi, but perhaps we were there all along; hiding beneath the layers that motherhood would begin to strip away. Being revealed doesn’t always (usually?) feel comfortable and what is exposed is generally not too pretty to look at. There is, after all, a reason you were keeping it under wraps in the first place.
Our hardest times have been in the weeks that followed Yogi’s birth. During those days we were responding to all of that tremendous change in very different ways. I would imagine that the fact of my not having a physical or genetic connection with our son was a big piece of that. My wife seemed to be buffeted from the turbulence by an instant bond that I didn’t share. The crying and the consuming focus on breastfeeding and the endless parade of family and the never knowing when you might actually be able to sleep was very difficult for me. I resisted all of it. I fought back in the only way I ever do, I withdrew. I’m sure this time couldn’t have been entirely joyful for her, but it seemed that way to me. I felt disconnected from her in a way that I’d never felt before and haven’t felt since. I didn’t feel a part of my own family. It seemed their was my wife and the baby and then there was me. It was lonely and I was resentful and sad.
There wasn’t a particular moment that I can remember, but slowly those feelings passed and new ones emerged. I opened myself up to the chaos, took my seat on the roller coaster and began to fall in love with my son. I wish it had all unfolded differently; it wasn’t what I had imagined, but I’ve forgiven myself for it. It took awhile to let go of the disappointment, but it was taking up room that I needed for other things and so finally I did.
Although I was initially resistant, the word strain works really well for me in this context. Parenting most definitely strains a relationship in the sense that it stretches and works it, often beyond its’ limits. But the experience of parenting also refines and purifies that connection, filtering out what no longer serves it. We’ve done quite a lot of filtering in the last year. My wife and I can no longer avoid painful conversations because the pace and stress associated with Yogi guarantees that whatever we try to avoid will bubble up at the most inopportune time. This means that during the last 13 months our conflict-averse selves have been learning some new moves. Painful? Yes. Something we would have done without force? No. Beneficial to our relationship? Absolutely!
We’ve got plenty of filtering ahead, but we’ve got time. We will be Yogi’s parents forever and that, more than anything else gives our relationship a mission that is essential to both of us. Our work as parents is creating a space that is safe and nurturing for our children. A home life that offers them both opportunities to learn and grow into their own selves and the security to support that exploration. That mission requires the foundation of a solid marriage and partnership. It’s not just about us anymore and I’m surprised to find that liberating. At the end of the day I may feel like zoning out with a book instead of making the effort to connect with my wife, but that decision (or more realistically the accumulation of those decisions) has implications for my son and it helps to remember that. It doesn’t solve every problem, but it does offer a way of looking at the situation more clearly.
Becoming a parent myself has created tremendous changes in my relationship with my parents. Having my own family has given me the support to forge an adult relationship in which I could (finally!!!) abandon my childhood roles of caretaker and over-zealous pleaser. As part of the painful straining process, I’ve put my own family’s needs ahead of my parents and although the repercussions of all of that sucked up most of my emotional energy for months, it has been very worthwhile. This asserting myself happened in the context of establishing boundaries around family visits, but it has created a significant shift in how all four of us deal with one another.
After 32 years of telling them mostly what (I thought) they wanted to hear, I’ve started telling them the truth. My truth. A pretty novel idea, don’t you think? “No, I don’t think that coming for a visit and not telling me how long you plan to stay sounds like a good idea.” “I would actually rather not go to a restaurant whose logo involves a fluorescent pink pig.” Some of it’s trivial and some of it is pretty important, but I did it because I wasn’t speaking only for myself anymore. I was speaking for my wife and my son and they deserve a little integrity. And yes, I know that I deserve integrity too. I’m getting there. Baby steps.
It’s still early days for me in the parenting world, but I already feel more patience and understanding for my parents than I ever did before. I have a taste of the depth of their love for me and the way that love might have driven some of the behavior that I didn’t understand as a kid. I’m not totally over it, but I’m starting to see it differently. The way my Dad pushed me and why my Mom might have leaned on me more than she should have. I see all of it from a different vantage point now and it has softened me. My parents feel more real to me now and that too is allowing me to relate to them in more satisfying ways.
On an early morning walk when Yogi was first born and my wife was on maternity leave, I was struck with the idea (new to me in that moment) that I was every bit as precious as the tiny little person snoozing in the stroller ahead. This is the kind of sentiment that I had pretended to know long before this morning, but I had not truly known it until right then. We were walking by a coffee shop and I was thinking about Yogi’s birth and how perfectly himself he was. How “just right” everything about him was, from his toes to the sound of his cry to the way he stretched that tiny arm above his head and pushed me that much more deeply in love with him. I couldn’t believe how perfect he was. And then suddenly I had the thought that my parents had felt this way about me. And because I was now feeling this way about my very own son, the depth of their love was real to me. It wasn’t something they had told me, it was something I had felt in my own body. And from there of course, I realized that everyone is this perfect. Some of us have parents who are able to mirror this to us and some of us don’t, but having the mirror doesn’t make it so. It just is.
I have always believed in the idea that people are inherently good (which is certainly not to say that every person lives this out), but meeting my son has shown me that it is so. Now I don’t just believe, I know.
Knowing this hasn’t radically transformed my relationship with myself, but it has shifted it. I take care of myself much better than I used to. I’m not as willing to sacrifice myself for other people and years after the advice was given, I’m finally learning how to be gentle with myself.