I have an unhealthy interest in celebrity quotes. Maybe it’s because their voices are amplified by the hundreds of media outlets all waiting for the next tweet from Blake Lively to publicly roast her husband, or maybe it’s because my Instagram search function is so highly attuned to my shallow interest in the off-handed remarks of famous strangers that I’m flooded with choices. Either way, I’ll read just about anything printed on a paparazzi photo posted by TMZ.
Lately, it’s been mostly Kanye’s new marriage and that guy who played Elvis still trying to convince everyone he hasn’t taken method acting a little too far. But occasionally, amidst the trash I mentally ingest, I’ll chomp on a sharp, jagged, craggy gem from a celebrity mom. Allow me to quote my dear friend, the one who has never been there for me and has no idea who I am, Gwyneth Paltrow.
“It’s hard on a relationship,” Paltrow said to Vanity Fair, “Like, I’ve looked back now on, like, the data set of parents with young kids, [and] it just ruins the relationship…It’s really hard!”
I get the feeling this is where I could stop writing. That if I said nothing else, this quote, and the feeling it immediately evokes, could linger for days at the bottom of our Stanley Sippers alongside toddler backwash and unflavored electrolytes. That without much more fuss over my personal reaction, you, reader, might leave this post with enough fodder to forego your weekly fight with your spouse and instead simply reflect, on when marriage started to feel truly hard. Was it when your sleep went from 8 hours to 5? When your infant cried with you but relaxed with your partner? Was it when you couldn’t run two errands back-to-back without a meltdown? Was it when the house was never again clean? Or was it when the cost of childcare and reprieve became out of reach?
To be clear, I hate this quote. This is the hangnail of quotes, the splinter of speil, the paper-cut of paraphrase. This is not Deepak Chopra explaining Primordial Sound Meditation or Amy Schumer mocking vaginal discharge. This, is a bad quote. This is a quote that makes me want to Ostrich my head in the ground, stick my fingers in my ears, and repeat ad nauseam, “I’m not listening, I’m not listening, I’m not listening!” This, is a quote about divorce. And if you’re a Millennial Mom, or the child of a Boomer, then you are among the chosen many who still twitch at the thought of a failing marriage.
Was it when your sleep went from 8 hours to 5? When your infant cried with you but relaxed with your partner? Was it when you couldn’t run two errands back-to-back without a meltdown? Was it when the house was never again clean? Or was it when the cost of childcare and reprieve became out of reach?"
Between the ages of 5 and 16 I hauled a lip-gloss and overall-filled “duffle” back and forth between my parents’ houses. They’d make the exchange, usually at night under the orange lights of the Mimi’s Café parking lot. Once in the next parent’s car, I’d sit silently in the front seat until I could remember which of my two personalities I used to make sure my dad felt heard and my mom entertained. I rarely mixed the two, but on the occasion I got stuck in my own form of “method-daughtering” (and couldn’t shake the prior performance) my dad ended up with an earful on which friend was fighting with who, and my mom got the quiet reverence of Mr. Miyagi’s star student.
In my specific brand of motherhood fantasy, I happily push my Uppa Baby Stroller while casually sipping a matcha as my adorable child sleeps away the hours while I browse boutique sweaters. In reality, I gain 30lbs while the bags under my eyes darken between constant feedings in our drafty apartment on lockdown. In the months that follow my daughter begins to prefer my wife over me, crying whenever I try to soothe her, and I slowly resent my partner for her seemingly smooth transition into motherhood while I fumble through the baby-stage in tears and darkness like Mommy Magoo. Over the course of the next three years, I keep unconscious score between my wife and I, comparing success rates, tracking parent hours, and slowly, strand by strand, quip after bicker, pick at the threads of our partnership like a seamstress on sequins.
A psychology professor of mine once said to our class, in recounting a patient who’d recently become a parent, “I’d venture to say you don’t just have a new baby, you have a whole new family.”
My daughter has a kid’s book called Love Shapes the Heart. It’s a book on adoption about a little triangle who can’t find a home amongst the squares and rectangles of the world, but when she’s picked up by two half-circles, together, the three of them make a heart.
A few weeks ago, my own little triangle and her two half-circles all sat down for dinner. We’d ordered take out, I was starving, but before I took my first bite I glanced at my daughter who was pawing at her hummus with a plastic fork, which meant she wasn’t about to eat anything. I didn’t want to pack up the food and go through the entire bedtime routine before eating, but I also didn’t want to rush through dinner while punctuating each bite with, “Stay seated please. No playing with your food. Wait for mommies to finish!”
My wife was to my left, and thankfully I was hungry enough that I decided to roll the dice, pretend I saw nothing, and shoved a huge bite of chicken and kale in my mouth before I had the chance to swoop in and start “Momming the moment." Instead, my wife dove in, “We’re eating dinner. You can either eat, or you can sit there. But either way, you need to wait for me and Mommy to finish our food.”
Over the course of the next 10 minutes, I ate in silence while my wife handled every aspect of our daughter at the table, and when we she and I were done eating, we all happily walked upstairs for books and bed on full stomachs, and without a tantrum.
My wife has a different approach to our daughter than I take. She’s very practical, with clear boundaries, and unwavering expectations. When my daughters with her, it’s expected that she will put on her own shoes, use the bathroom, and never whine in the car. This is usually where I deem her approach good and mine bad, sending myself on a dichotomous shame spiral through Dante’s seven circles of Mommy hell.
For most of my daughter’s life I designated myself the “default parent.” My wife is the primary breadwinner, so I work to make up for this financial insecurity by Momming 24/7. Dr. Nicole LePera (@the.holistic.psychologist) talks consistently about seeking in adulthood the relationships that mimic those we witnessed and experienced in childhood. I assumed, on a first read, this pertained only to romantic relationships, but the more I chewed on this PB&J of perception, the more I related to it as an unconscious search for familiarity within the family, and the idea stuck in my throat like nut-butter on rye. The self-sabotage, the comparisons, the marital and motherhood scoreboards, those were all subconscious efforts to return myself to the only parenting dynamic I’d ever seen. I was unknowingly shaping myself, and my family, into the dynamics of divorce, by silently mimicking the life of a single mom.
Walking up the stairs from our take-out dinner was the first moment I paused my parenting long enough to realize I wasn’t parenting alone. I’d let my constant swooping-in muddy opportunities to witness the beautiful relationship between my wife and our daughter, the bond they were building, and the importance of their specific and special relationship without comparing it to my own. But what really pains me to say, and what brings tears to my eyes to see, are the 11 years I’ve spent in an insanely loving relationship while still struggling to believe I’m not one day going to end up doing it all alone.
"I was unknowingly shaping myself, and my family, into the dynamics of divorce, by silently mimicking the life of a single mom."
I’m amused by the inner-thoughts of others. I have a hard time talking boho-hats and designer-jeans. Maybe I love celebrity quotes because they’re just easier to access than sitting down vulnerably with another mom and asking, “So, I love this weather we’re having, anyway, how has having kids strained your marriage?”
In some ways Gwyneth’s quote is right, kids test a marriage. They take the shapes we were, those craggy gems, those boring rectangles and squares, throw ‘em in a blender and hand us back a pitcher of sand from which we must both parent and remodeled our marriage. Who I am to myself and who we are to each other will never look the same. It can’t. We’re doing this by hand, drop by drop, shovel by shovel. Some days the walls lean and the tower falls. The mote floods and the perimeter’s breached. We add on a half a bath, gut the kitchen, or retile the floors. We lose a job, lose our temper, compare, bicker, the trash is full, the laundry isn’t folded, I’m selfish, and you work too much. Life swirls, swells roll in, but if I'm willing to suffer a little salt water I realize, there’s too much sand to ever wash it all away.
There have been moments in my marriage when single friends and family members have said to me, “You’re lucky. What you two have is unique.” Sometimes I smile and nod, sometimes I get up and pretend I have to pee, sometimes I reply, “I’m so sick of that comment, it’s such bullshit,” and immediately regret It. I don’t assume anyone has a perfect marriage, in fact, if they say they do, I’m sure it’s worse than ever. I don’t condone my reaction, but after years of fielding this assumptive question, I understand my emotional response is indicative of feeling unseen by someone assuming I'm not active in my own life. It’s like training for a marathon, crossing the finish line, and then everyone saying, “Wow, you’re so lucky you’re athletic.”
"I’m amused by the inner-thoughts of others. I have a hard time talking boho-hats and designer-jeans. Maybe I love celebrity quotes because they’re just easier to access than sitting down vulnerably with another mom and asking, 'So, I love this weather we’re having, anyway, how has having kids strained your marriage?'”
The suggestion that my wife and I in some way stumbled into our marriage blindly, led only by luck, feels like an undermining of all the moments we fought, stretched, and pushed through the hard shit to create the trust and partnership they’re witnessing. Nothing about our marriage is unique, aside maybe from the commitment we have to it. I would never tell someone marriage is easy. It’s hard work everyday. But the payoff is huge. We get to love, and be loved, and share that love with our daughter who, yes Gwyneth, pushes and stretches us beyond our comfort zones to become even better versions of ourselves, often painstakingly so. But even more than that, we get to be understood, and deeply seen, by someone else with whom we’ve gone to battle and returned a victor. And that bond, that little castle on the shore, whether it’s hit by a ripple, a Tsunami, an infant or a toddler, will always rebuild.
In 2017, Ellen Degeneres commented on her Wedding Anniversary to Good House Keeping, “Portia understands me completely. In our vows, she recited a quote — ‘It is good to be loved. It is profound to be understood’ — and to me, that’s everything. What ‘I love you’ really means is ‘I understand you,’ and she loves me for everything that I am.”