by Jeb Hoge, who has written little gems like Biscuits for Boys and In Defense of the Road Trip for Richmondmom.com. Editor’s Note: Jeb recently welcomed their third baby, so I’m not sure how he had time to write this, but we’re thankful that he did.
When we got married in our 20s, we wanted a family. When we hit our early 30s, we had one child. No big deal, one might think, since a set of parents outnumbers that baby 2 to 1. How hard can it be? “Oh here, honey, let me hold him” was our common refrain, relieving each other of duty whenever a break was needed, but we were two parents focused on one child, making it very much a shared effort, and there was beauty in that.
Then when we evened up the sides with our second baby when the first was just turning 3, I remember thinking “Wow, it’s a little busier now,” especially since this infant was a dedicated nurser (unlike the first, who had been all bottles) and I, as the male component, couldn’t do a thing to help in that regard. My role, then, largely turned into wrangling the older child, and before long it started to register how much time he and I spent separated from my wife and the baby.
Now, we’re outnumbered, and while I can’t begin to describe the blessing of three happy, healthy, active, and funny boys (each three years younger than the next), it has led to a jarring shift in the way that we live our daily lives. We’ve gone from child-raising being a shared effort to being life in a set of shifts, each one focused on specific boys doing specific functions, and our coping mechanisms are somewhat thwarted.
As a stay-at-home mom nursing an infant, of course, my wife’s central focus now is on the youngest, but she’s cried tears over the feeling that she’s not taking care of the rest of her family; during the day shift, getting all three into the car and out for errands is a monumental effort and one that she usually just doesn’t tackle unless she has to. The after-work shift entails me either spiriting away the baby for a quiet walk around the neighborhood or taking one or both of the older boys off to swim, or play, or go to Scouts, or do whatever is on the agenda. The dinner shift often is split up, with the older boys scarfing down food they like or picking through food they don’t like, and my wife and I each eating our meal before switching off to mind whichever child is needing attention that night, although sometimes we still do manage to sit together for dinner as a family at the table. Then, the bathtime/storytime/bedtime shift is almost always my domain, stretching out as much as an hour of the evening as I get the two older boys down to sleep, while my wife takes the baby away for quiet nursing and rest. Finally, our own quiet time is limited to whatever’s left on the clock before I’ve got to get to bed before my next workday, and the baby still takes charge of that night shift whenever he wants to.
Check in, work, check out, rest (or more work), check in, work again…life in shifts, for a workforce of two.
Our routine is by no means severe, and we’re lucky enough to have each other to help get through it, but still, I can’t get past a certain feeling that we chose to break down our relationship as a couple in order to set up our relationship as parents. We were lucky enough (or unlucky enough, depending on your point of view) to have nine years to ourselves before children, and our plan in all that time was to be parents, so I think that we had plenty of preparation to get to this point and through it without falling apart as a couple, but what happens to those who were surprised, or didn’t have that time, or just maybe weren’t as ready for it as they thought? Might that explain some breakdowns in marriages? Does it explain the problems with coping skills that lead some parents to go on strike? Or do people just not see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, or that there is a way to survive the shift work and re-establish the bond of “couple” either within the mantle of “family” or as an external force, holding it more tightly than before? How do you rebuild that coupleness when you can barely manage time for a hug without a kid being lodged in between?
As parents, we know that we’re always going to have our kids in mind. I don’t think there’s ever been a case of parents who, having left behind the kids in someone’s care, didn’t talk or think about their offspring while away, no matter how glamorous or relaxing or engaging their time away is. However, for parents of young children, I think it’s extra difficult to visualize that it’s OK for the couple to come back in the place of the parents. We’re always sensitive to the possibility of being needed right away. We think we hear their voices, even if we know we don’t. We wonder if everything’s OK back home and compulsively look at our cellphones to make sure we didn’t somehow miss a call.
We know that someday we’ll be able to leave all of the kids with a sitter (and someday after that, leave them without one), and one day our kids will leave us. One day we’ll be able to become more “couple” than “parents” again, enjoying the benefits of both without the responsibilities overshadowing them. Until then, the best we can do is savor the quiet moments as parents and remember when we wanted to have the life we have now.