It was witching hour. Leftover meatloaf popped like a weasel caught in the microwave. The tiny autocrat ruling our home protested from the confines of his high chair. I was over it and wanted my old life back.
“Mam mam mam mam mam,” barked the autocrat.
“I hear you, sweetie,” I sighed. My son, who turned one not two weeks before, went to bed a baby and woke a raving mad toddler.
“You’re frustrated, but mommy is cooking dinner and can’t play with you right now and…”
My voice trailed off into a litany of reasons why I couldn’t offer my undivided attention or embrace my new role as a homemaker. None of it came naturally to me. I caught myself in the middle of an inner sermon proselytizing the woes of a martyr.
Oh, I was a martyr all right, and this story had a spell on me.
Stop it! I took a deep breath and shot off a prayer to the ether. Dear God, All, Source, Guides…whoever. Please grace me with something, anything!
I drew another breath, this time deep into the belly that grew this beautiful, strange, demanding little person.
I sighed again. “I love you, little tyrant.”
While I extricated myself from the twisted rapture of self-pity, my husband toiled away in his home office, which was partitioned from the rest of the living area by a couch flanked by a 75” baby gate. I called it “The Great Wall”.
On one side of The Great Wall lay Babyland. To the South stood a wooden shelf lined with primary colored bins holding a motley crew of stray puzzle pieces, stuffed animals and stackable things. To the North was a yet to be baby-proofed, defunct wood stove and our kitchen.
To the East lay the ruins of a pre-child life: a large couch for entertaining or (gasp!) relaxing; a flatscreen TV that hadn’t seen the likes of Mad Max or Battlestar Galactica in many moons; and a stereo system mourning its pre-Raffi days. To the West, more toys and orbiting clutter.
Like it or not, Babyland was now my de facto state of residence.
My husband’s office lay on the other side of The Great Wall. It was littered with computers, electronic parts, wires, gaming books, music equipment and plastic shelves filled with who knows what. Command Central laced with a hint of hoarder — a place where he could feel like himself.
From my perch in the kitchen, he appeared delightfully oblivious to the unfolding evening chaos. His attention toggled between two computer monitors where he tended to something gaming-related. I was envious and smoldering. I would love to abandon dinner, sit at my computer and block out the world around me.
And by God, how could he do that? Take space — during witching hour — just like that?
Now, my husband’s perspective was much different. An introvert, he was overstimulated from his workday. What he needed was so simple: a few minutes to reboot. My husband was also not oblivious. He was aware of the mounting chaos and on alert just in case he caught a clear signal to jump in.
And he had no idea why his wife regressed into a passive-aggressive, sulking, prickly thing. Why she refused to use her words and communicate directly. He’s not a mind reader, after all. To him, his home was no longer a sanctuary.
The same night, two completely different perspectives and a swarm of unfulfilled needs. How can two people who share a life exist on opposite sides of the moon?
This was our true Great Wall.
For a while, I thought myself unstable, selfish, weak even. Perhaps I expected too much, and why the hell couldn’t I just be more direct and objective? Or perhaps I asked for too little, an outcropping of social conditioning and family history.
I commiserated with mom friends experiencing similar frustrations. I tapped into the bubbling conversation about “emotional labor” and the “mental load” bore by mothers. As I read Darcy Lockman’s All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, my good friend devoured Jancee Dunn’s How to Not Hate Your Husband After Kids. I even took an online course called “Motherload Liberation”.
I felt validated, vindicated even. I resolved my son would be raised by an empowered mother. Down with the patriarchy!
All of this, and still my husband and I sat on opposite sides of the moon, our positions polarized. The convergence of deeply rooted conditioning, family histories and self-concepts slammed into our transition into parenthood. It left us at an impasse.
The confusing part? In our own ways, we were both valid. No black and white, right or wrong. Only a mystifying wash of gray.
Mental and emotional grappling in gray territory is an exhausting cause. Hitting bottom through exhaustion does present a fruitful possibility: getting back to basics. For me, basics came down to owning the relational skills needed to bridge a parenting impasse.
Becoming a parent is a developmental event, and the stress involved with this transition can awaken the sting of old wounds and amp up psychological defenses. During the first year of our son’s life, I was highly reactive towards my husband. This state of elevated vigilance and reactivity is a neurological one involving the limbic system, often referred to as the emotional brain.
Part of a parent’s self-work is establishing or restoring our capacity to self-regulate and cool down a fired up limbic system. Diaphragmatic breathing, journaling, physical activity, EFT (tapping), pausing a high conflict conversation and returning in a calmer state, enlisting the support of a therapist or other healing professional — these are just a smattering of strategies that can soothe a reactive brain.
A reactive brain isn’t motivated to listen. It’s sole purpose is survival. A calm, regulated brain, now that’s a brain that can slow down, listen deeply and more aptly receive our partner’s viewpoints. Just as important, it gives us a better shot at listening to our own truth. This is where I so often get off-center: that piece about listening and trusting myself. It’s from here we can more effectively communicate with integrity.
A regulated brain practiced in the skill of deep listening is in a good position to demonstrate empathy. And it’s empathy that ultimately bridges the polarized. Empathy doesn’t mandate winners or losers, require total agreement or force one to abandon their truth. It’s an inclusive space that holds the tension of the opposites, be it between people or within one’s own meandering psyche.
My husband and I are now nearly four years into our parenting journey with another child on the way. Though we’ve still not tackled sticky conversations like parenting equity or patriarchy, we continue to plug away at the basics.
For all of our bumbling and clumsy attempts, we’re committed to the basics, to our family. This gives me the long-range perspective needed to recognize our hits and (on a good day) embrace our misses. We’re a work in progress.
And for me, this is progress enough.