By Lauren Gonzalez
I should have married a woman. Or, in a perfect world, a clone of myself. My ideal mate would anticipate my every need, parent my kids in the same way I would, and clean the house as regularly (and as thoroughly) as I believe it ought to be cleaned.
I have often said that if I ever divorce my husband, it will be over the layers of beard hair constantly coating our bathtub, another empty soda can (or anything else non-perishable) left in the kitchen sink, or possibly because he’d drained the coffee pot before I’d had a second cup. I point out these exasperating personality ticks jovially, aiming for a laugh over the silly and trivial nature of my marital frustrations, but these comments expose something deeper, and much more universal: the potential for resentment and bitterness to develop in this rat race of raising children.
There are those who say that parenting a child together brings you closer as a couple. That’s like saying that shoplifting will make you better at budgeting – on the surface it seems logical, but in reality, your five-finger discounts are going to cost you more long-term. Parenting is kin to running a marathon with your partner… in a hailstorm… without clothes, or proper training. Inevitably, you will see your partner’s many faults, and they will see yours.
Sometimes, when you’re up for that 2:00am feeding and feeling like the only person alive on earth, or when your 8-month-old’s teething brings out his incredible hulk-like aggression, or when your toddler flushes your favorite earrings down the toilet after leaving a Sharpie-lined path from the living room, you may wonder if you’re both still in this together. Suddenly, that dirty pair of socks awaiting your attention on the bedroom floor feels like a personal affront rather than just dirty socks that didn’t make it to the hamper. All too quickly, your household role and responsibilities feel like an inescapable cage, the housekeeping and mothering duties you perform feel like shackles. It’s easy to feel crushed under the weight of it all, to get lost down the rabbit hole of who-does-more-than-whom, and it all feels so unfair. Scorekeeping turns to frustration, which sours into resentment, which sparks into the raging fire of bitterness.
Parenting brings out the worst in people. It can also bring out the best – those qualities that develop as you navigate and overcome the hurdles set in your path, things like patience, creativity and kindness. But mostly, it leaves you feeling really, really tired, hungry, lonely and, yes, even a little bit crazy. Before you have kids, you can cater to your basic needs, sleeping where and when you wish, eating delicious meals on a regular basis, and meeting up with friends at any time of the day or night. Once babies arrive, your needs play second fiddle, and it makes for a very frustrating life. Suddenly, your “free” time becomes an exceedingly precious commodity, as does quality time with your partner, and “quality” itself takes on a very different definition. Instead of floating the river for a whole afternoon, or enjoying a nice meal while staring into each other’s eyes for hours on end, you’re wrestling the kids to bed, then struggling to the couch and sitting in a catatonic state for an hour together, side-by-side. Sometimes you’re able to muster the mental energy to spew meaningful sentences at each other during commercials. Sometimes you just stare at the TV in silence, wondering what the hell happened to your life.
I believe that parenting, like any difficult and worthwhile task, can bring you closer to your partner, but it takes daily leaps of faith and a lot of hard, tedious, backbreaking work. Parenting is a team sport. It requires mind-numbing endurance, ruthless perseverance and continued dedication to the partnership. Those couples you love to hate because they have kids and still seem so in sync aren’t just lucky. Behind the scenes, beneath the surface of what you see, they put in effort. Day in and day out, they make decisions that keep them connected to each other. In good times and bad, they make mindful choices to support one another, even when they don’t feel like it, and be present to each other, even when it’s uncomfortable, or inconvenient. They value honesty. They protect their bond. And while they still fall prey to the frustration and resentment borne of creating life with another imperfect human, they weed out resentment before it has the opportunity to grow.
It isn’t always easy. In the relentless circus of parenting, when time is so precious and mental energy is sparse, it’s easy to pick one another apart. It starts small – an empty soda can in the sink, for example – and before you know it, your melodramatic sighing and eye-rolling leads to your flipping the bird at the front door as it closes behind your partner, blissfully unaware of your growing rage as he heads to the garage to organize duck decoys. When you share daily space with another human, it’s the little things that get under your skin, the habitual idiosyncrasies that spark fragments of irritation. And forming a mental block against budding resentment becomes harder when you parent together. You see one another’s most raw, vulnerable selves, all the while expecting each other to live up to impossibly high parenting and partnership standards.
Sometimes, you simply resent the biological role into which you were born. I love my children to pieces, but I loathed so many aspects of mothering newborns – the pregnancies that wrecked my body, the breastfeeding that tethered me exhaustively to my babies, and the fact that, as a mother, I was somehow the default decision-maker about how best to care for a newborn. I had no clue what I was doing, I was more physically and mentally uncomfortable than I’d ever been, yet I felt forced to sit in the discomfort. Mother nature both blessed and burdened me with the ability to bear children, and I had to live it out, or die trying. So yeah, there was a bit of resentment brewing. There were (and are) moments when it seemed easier to scrap my relationship rather than to spend precious energy trying to fit our personality puzzle pieces together. Sometimes, in my darkest moments, it just feels easier to let resentment grow. I’m so tired of this. I feel like I’m doing it all. I can’t do this anymore.
Parenting is an exercise in forgiveness. Forgiving yourself for falling short of perfection, forgiving your partner for not measuring up to your standards, letting go of resentment over and over and over again. It’s one long, hard road and nobody said it would be easy. I guarantee there will be moments when you want to give up on yourself, and on your partner. There will be moments when you’ll wonder why you ever wanted to have kids, when you won’t remember what it was like to pee alone, wear nice things and not drink your weight in coffee. That’s when you call a friend who will listen as you yell, or cry, or both. Someone who will meet you there, on the brink of collapsing under the weight of it all, and remind you that this is a worthwhile journey, that deep love grows in the soil of faithful perseverance, and that there are still many, many moments of joy, connection and hope still to come. That this journey, while painful and demanding, doesn’t last forever, and that you will someday wish that you’d just let the extra baggage go – the self-righteous scorekeeping, the pettiness and pity parties – and enjoyed the children that will one day be grown and gone.
Stick with it, mamas. You will find joy again.
Do you struggle with resentment? Do you find it hard to turn off the mental scorekeeping with your partner? Check out this video for ways to move through resentment and reclaim your joy.
Lauren Elizabeth Gonzalez is a Missoula-based writer/ blogger, whose kids (both under the age of 3) provide ample inspiration for her short stories, social media posts and articles that highlight the challenges, joys and bare realities of motherhood. Drawing on her master’s degree and background in conflict and dispute resolution, Lauren is also working on a series of how-to guides that will enable parenting partners to build a stronger, more connected team dynamic. Find out more at www.LaurenTheFreeMom.com, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter for a daily peek inside the head of a nutty gal just free mommin’ it.