This is a hard post to write. Especially following that sweet update about our sweet, sweet boys. This is true mostly because this post is about marriage and – as many of you understand in personal, painful, tired ways – marriage is often not sweet.
And there’s not a lot to say about marriage that isn’t a cliché. Most of us have tried and lots of us have failed. It’s a wretched little trap on a good many levels. It’s also painful to talk about because even though it’s hard, and we all know it, we’re supposed to be getting it right. And it’s a gross and a flinchy feeling to confess that we’re not nailing it. Because what will people think? And so we’re often not honest. We sit in our homes, and we try, and we feel lonely. We feel lonely though chances are our neighbors aren’t nailing it either.
This is compounded, for great hordes of us, by the ineffably HARD variable of young ones. The child-raising. Which because I know you know how much I adore it, I feel free to characterize here simply as work. And in some ways, it demands the same bigness of us that marriage does. Grace, and kindness, and patience. Compassion, and curiosity, and openness, and humility. And really: when one, or two, or more little ones need these traits from us all the time, it is hard to find space to offer them to someone who can take care of their own self. Someone who doesn’t rate in the triage because they won’t run out into oncoming traffic outside of the library. Someone who can live without your grace, and kindness, and patience, and compassion, and curiosity, and openness because they are grown. Because you are not their parent. Except of course that marriage can’t live without that stuff.
This summer was one of our marriage’s darkest chapters. By its outset, we had both finally found profoundly meaningful work, and we had settled into our beloved home. Our kids were finally big enough to climb into their own car seats (when they happened to feel willing to do so). No one was nursing, and if we were content to let them sleep where they wanted, they’d pretty much stay asleep all night. There was, relatively speaking, more ease than there had been before. And maybe for exactly these reasons – because there was space – we looked at our marriage, and we felt betrayed by what we saw. What we saw made me sad, and Jax angry.
Some other making-it-hard facts:
- Jax has struggled with that charming contemporary American notion that if this is hard, especially if it stays hard for awhile, it might be better to ditch. It is not surprising that Jax thinks this. This is exactly in keeping with what we’re taught about intimacy. I suspect that I only don’t think this because I have a natural proclivity towards suffering.
- I have some abandonment issues. I need eye contact, reassurance, gentleness. My favorite moment in the original Pooh book is this little exchange:
Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
- I feel a tremendous call to a third child. Jax does not.
- Jax has some stuff around religion that has made my call to ministry a difficult thing. That has hurt my feelings. Jax responds to hurt feelings with anger. It’s a cycle. I’m sure we’re not alone.
The painful truth that this summer has yielded is that it is possible to imagine life on the other side of this marriage. And of course it is. When people say that some degree of suffering is “unimaginable,” they’re not being honest. Or what they mean to say is “I pray that never happens to me.” We’ve all imagined the hell of losing a child. We’ve imagined it precisely because it would be hell. So, it’s imaginable.
But the great glory – on the other side of a summer full of fleas in our home, and Trump’s bid for the White House, and great marital craters – is that I can imagine life without Jax, and I still don’t want it. I would be okay, and I still don’t want it.
There’s an us here that makes these storms worth weathering. Hurtful, but worth weathering. And not just because Jax is the only one who knows why we sometimes sing “Tina” instead of “Dinah” in “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” or remembers eating cold pistachio pesto pizza on the floor of my kitchen on our first date. Who held Bram’s other tiny hand when they took blood out of his newborn foot when his bilirubin was high. Who felt the biting sting of the hospital not putting my name on first Bram’s birth certificate, and then Lou’s. The only other person who knew the terror of Lou’s fall down the basement stairs. Who knows that Bram’s face lights up when his parents sing together. But it isn’t just the history: the eight million irreplaceable private moments that no one on the outside of a marriage could ever grasp. It’s that we chose each other. I chose Jax. And not just the valor or the passion or the boldness, but also the mood swings and the defensiveness. The hard stuff that gets bigger with sleep deprivation, and outside insecurities, and job pressures. The hard stuff that grows when that’s what gets noticed. I believe in this partnership. I am defeated by this summer, but I’m also in love.
My mom and I were talking the other day, and she asked if I was scared that we might not make it. I said I wasn’t, and I tried to explain why. I feel like one of the things I saw growing up was an (understandable and yet worrisome) willingness to let one’s struggles mean more than they need to mean. To let the drama of hard times lead one to the myth of greener pastures. But this middle class home in this Midwestern town. These deeply lived values. This dance of marriage that is so often not pretty: I don’t want anything greener. I mean, I want the fleas to be gone, but mostly, otherwise, this is what I choose.
It’s hard to be honest about marriage, which is maybe part of why we fail at it so much. So if you’re out there, and married, and some of this resonates, then I’m glad I wrote it. I have no big answers, but I think that this work is part of the thing that will save us. I can’t explain what I mean by that, but I feel it in both my guts and my theology. We are meant for these struggles, and for the messy graces we discover within them.