A colleague at work is getting married. To celebrate and send her off in style, we spent part of a recent team meeting offering our best wedding day advice. Some people were sentimental and heartfelt, others were funny, and still others veered toward the practical.
I stayed silent, offering no advice, which, if you know me, is odd. I mean, hello, I write a blog about life and its meaning and what I'm learning along the way and I couldn't come up with one little nugget for this young woman?
What is wrong with you? I thought. Why not just say something about enjoying every minute of the day, or not sweating the small stuff? What are you thinking?
I'll tell you what I was thinking. My mind immediately went back to my own wedding--11 years ago this week, as a matter of fact--and as it did, all I could think was, You really had NO idea what the hell you were getting yourself into.
Please don't misread that sentence. I didn't say, "If only I'd known, I wouldn't have." No. I totally would have because I love my husband (that's right honey, if you're reading this, I totally love you. More today than on that day. Not that I didn't love you that day. I did. A lot. Oh, you know what I mean. And Happy Anniversary!). I just mean that on your wedding day as you stand there making vows and commitments in front of family and friends, through no fault of your own, you really have no idea what marriage looks like, how it will feel, the ups and downs you will endure together, and how it will change as the years tick by.
No. On that day, all you can think about--besides your dress and the flowers and the cake and the DJ (so help him God if he veers from your playlist!)--are all the ways your life is about to change.
Only it doesn't change; at least not at first. After you danced your first dance, and fed each other cake, after your guests flew home and you unpacked your last bag from the honeymoon, the truth is, married life looked pretty much like before. Since you'd already lived together, marriage felt like a continuation, an extension of what you already knew. With nicer dishes.
Life then was free time, movie nights and dinners out with friends. It was pursuing your hobbies on weekends, making love whenever you felt like it, and sleeping in (God, the sleeping in!). It was being a renter, the junior person at work leaning in with all her might. It was two paychecks and few obligations.
But you decided you wanted more. You wanted a baby. A little person who was part you and part him. And you were lucky; pregnancy happened in a flash.
Suddenly, you were granted special, protected status. Lifting anything heavier than a can of soup was forbidden. Foot rubs were a regular thing. And your decorating vision for the nursery? Never questioned. At night, the two of you lay side by side in your little queen bed, watching in awe as your belly danced up and down, contorted as the girl inside you did her evening calisthenics. Together, you would press your hands against each protruding bulge, guessing whether it was a foot or a hand, her head or her backside. It was a magical time and yet, you both knew change was coming.
And change did come.
The arrival of baby number one and then baby number two ushered in a whole new season in your marriage. A season of exhaustion and stress and strain. Arguments you could have never imagined having just a few years earlier seemed to loop on repeat. Why were you always the one getting up at night with the baby? When did laundry start becoming "your" thing? Who was the more taxed member of this duo?
From your vantage point, he had no idea how hard your days were. He got to get up each day and shower (remember showering?!) and head off to an office where he sat drinking coffee, talking to grown ups and feeling successful. You sat at home, alone, with this tiny baby who was, at times, terribly boring to be with or, worse, screaming her head off. Then there were two of them, each needing so much of you every single second of the day.
Without fail, at 5 o'clock every night, you'd phone.
"When are you coming home?" you'd ask, trying to sound light and breezy, or as if you were just trying to make sure the dinner you were cooking would be ready on time (to be clear, there was no dinner being cooked).
"I'll get there as soon as I can," he'd reply, terse and obviously annoyed.
Overwhelmed, you didn't have the energy to even consider the stress he was under, the pressure and responsibility he felt supporting a family of four.
Children brought tension to your relationship. A tension you'd never known together; a tension you assumed happened to 'other' people. Not you. Through the foggy exhaustion of those early years, though, you still clung to each other, assuring yourselves that this would pass. Life would get easier when they weren't so small.
And it did get easier. When they grew to four and six, and then five and seven, life-- finally--started to slip back into some predictable routines. Uninterrupted sleep returned. You could go out to a restaurant--all four of you!--make it through a meal together, and it was somewhat pleasant. OK, it wasn't really pleasant, but no one (you) broke down in a tantrum, no boobs had to be whipped out at the table, and, most important, those nice dishes you got for your wedding stayed tucked away in the cupboard, giving you a night off from cleanup duty.
In no time, routines around school and sports gave shape, structure and purpose to your days. Ha! "Your days." What a funny little expression. They weren't your days anymore. They were the kids' days and you were the facilitator, the conductor, the engineer making it all happen. But the disequilibrium of babies and toddlers was gone, at last.
With the kids a little older and a little more independent, you looked around and thought maybe now you and your husband could get back to connecting, get back to the way it was before kids. You missed the way he used to look at you like you were his person in this world. You missed the spark you used to feel for each other. You two had been on lockdown mode for so long trying to nurture these two helpless little humans and, frankly, keep them alive, and now you could see a little crack of light streaming through, a small space opening where you could breath and relax into him again.
Only, without you even noticing it, the ground under your marriage had shifted during those years. You'd both been so busy grinding it out, riding it out and, perhaps, even collecting resentments along the way that "connecting" didn't come naturally anymore.
One night, you decided to raise the issue.
"You know, now that the kids are getting a little older, I think we need to make some more time for each other, to connect and focus on our marriage," you suggested.
And then you waited. You waited for him to fix it, as if you'd said something like, "Honey, the sink in the hall bath is dripping," or "You know, that trash in the kitchen really smells." Yep, that was your approach. Wait for him to get to connecting with you and creating more intimacy in your marriage.
But nothing changed. When he didn't miraculously create this connection you were looking for, you started to blame him. You went a little crazy. All you could see was what he wasn't giving you, what he wasn't doing. He wasn't making you a priority. He wasn't talking to you enough. He wasn't going out of his way to make you feel loved or special. You couldn't see it then, but if Dr. Seuss himself had written the sum of your relationship at that point, he would have said something clever like: when all you could see was the not, the more not you got.
At this point, you stopped suggesting and moved on to insisting. And then demanding. And then begging. But the problem was, the more you pushed, the more he pulled away and, one night, while you each sat alone watching your respective TVs in separate rooms, you started to wonder if when you vowed to love him in "good times and in bad" it included this bad, this lonely.
One chilly December night when the kids were out Christmas shopping with Grandma, and it was just the two of you at home, you sat across the kitchen table from each other and you had a conversation more honest than anything you'd had in a long time. No, scratch that. Maybe ever. You each told your searing, painful truth. You yelled and you cried. You called him on his stuff and he called you on yours. And the more you talked, the more you started to realize that the person sitting across from you was someone entirely different than the person you married all those years ago. In the haze of kids and life and time, without even realizing it, that guy had changed, evolved, drifted away. And so had you.
That night, your arms and shoulders ached from bracing yourself. Your insides clenched and your brain raced as you thought, Is this it? Is this where we end?
Then, in a voice you'd never heard in all your years together, he looked right at you and said softly, "I still want to grow old with you."
And even though, in that moment, you couldn't see how to get from here to there--from this kitchen table where all your hurts and pain had just been aired, to growing old together--you felt your heart open just enough to try.
Christmas came and went, and more months pass. You hesitate to get your hopes up, but it feels as though your relationship might just be entering a new season. Spring, perhaps? You find yourselves holding hands a lot, and in his grasp, you feel him holding onto you, like really holding onto you. In the kitchen while you're cooking one night and he's reaching for a glass, you embrace and as his arms wrap you up, you feel your whole body sink into his. You start to notice good things about him, like what a wonderful father he is or how he makes you laugh at yourself.
Even though you find God and religion confusing and you're not sure what you believe, one day, you stumble on Saint Francis of Assisi's Prayer of Peace that goes:
"Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in the giving that we receive."
Huh, you think to yourself. Let's try that. And you do. And you start to think this Assisi guy is onto something because the more you focus on what you're giving instead of what you're not getting, the sweeter life gets.
Now, late at night, lying in bed, you read while he watches SportsCenter. On most nights, you reach out for him and touch his arm or hold his hand, just for a moment. And before you drift off to sleep you think how much he means to you, how you could have lost him, how grateful you are that he is still here next to you, and most of all, how much you love this man--the man that he is now, not the man that you were trying to make him be, or the man that he was on your wedding day.
Which brings me to this, my best wedding day advice: View today as the start of your journey. Board the ship together, set sail. When the storms come, as they always do, your instinct will be to turn the boat around, head back to what you left behind. Know this; what you are looking for is not behind you. You will get lost trying to get back to that place. Hold on to each other, do what Assisi says, and look for the clearing in the skies.