If I had to guess how many times we said "I love you" last year, it would probably be in the 300+ range. I can't swear on my life we said it every day, but we probably said it most days. Running out the door. Hanging up the phone. A light kiss before bed.
"I love you!"
"I love you, too!"
We say those words often -- we yell them over the sound of kids crying, we whisper them over a sleeping child. We recite them like a memory verse, as natural as hello and goodbye. Hi, I'll be home in half an hour, I love you.
But can I confess something to you?
If I had to guess how many times my husband and I felt loved last year, it would probably be... a slim number. Much, much less than the number of times we said it.
Our year started with the best of intentions, as all years do. Last January we had a 2.5-year-old and a brand new baby who barely weighed eight pounds. We decided to potty train over Christmas break because we are overachievers, and that spilled into the New Year like diarrhea in a car seat.
They say having a child is a big stressor on a marriage, to which I believe the cavemen grunted, UH-HUH.
Our first baby hit our marriage like an earthquake. The house shook, but our foundation was solid. A few plates broke (from the earthquake, not me throwing them). A few picture frames rattled on the walls (from me slamming doors, not the earthquake). Sometimes we hid under tables, but we survived. We're California kids; it was fine.
I think I expected our second baby to hit our marriage like an aftershock. This ain't our first rodeo. Boy, was I wrong. The second baby hit our marriage like a freight train crashing into the side of the house. The transition was sudden, unexpected, loud. There was wreckage everywhere: harsh words, severe sleep deprivation, an alarming amount of apathy. We tag-teamed the cleanup as best we could, but there was only so much we could do covered in ashes.
The biggest challenge of the transition from parenting one kid to parenting two kids was that our co-parenting rhythm completely changed. With one kid, we often parented together. Dinner, bath time, stories before bed -- the three of us spent a lot of time in the same room. With two kids, however, we've spent a lot of time parenting separately. One needs to nurse; one needs a grilled cheese sandwich. One needs a diaper change; one needs help off the potty. One loves to wrestle with daddy; one cannot function outside of momma's arms.
Parenting became a 24/7 relay race.
We spent much of last year as passing ships in the night, just trying to survive on broken sleep and lukewarm coffee. We ran opposite directions doing opposite things -- whatever it took to get us out the door on time, whatever it took to get the kids to bed at a reasonable hour. You take this kid, I'll take that kid. The pressures of adulthood crashed around us like waves: the messy house, the unopened mail, the unpaid medical bills, the car problems, the preschool forms, the flat tire on the double stroller (again). Why are we always out of paper towels?
There was always something. And those were just the small things, the things we tried to figure out while the kids were awake. The bigger things came after the kids were asleep. I'm not happy in my job. I don't feel loved. I don't feel respected. You work too much. You don't support me enough. I don't feel appreciated. I don't feel... anything. I feel invisible.
Learning to co-parent two kids in the trenches was taking a toll on us. Every night we collapsed into bed equally grateful for and defeated by the life we'd created together.
Forget words of affirmation and quality time; there was a new love language in our house: sacrifice. I got up early so he could sleep for 30 extra minutes. He stayed home with both kids so I could leave the house wearing real pants. Ironically, the best way we showed love to each other last year was by giving the other person time to sleep or do something fun with their friends. We showed love to one another by being apart, not by being together.
We confessed all of this -- and more -- to our marriage counselor after a particularly horrific fight. This feels hard, we told her. We haven't slept in a year. She nodded empathetically, reassuring us that a lot of parents with young kids struggle with these things. She made some practical suggestions, and prayed over us. We left with work to do, both on ourselves and on our marriage, but it felt good to know that we weren't alone.
At the end of last year, I was left with a haunting thought: This is not our best love.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and I'm willing to admit that last year was a year of desperation in our house. It was the year of Why Can't You Love Me Better? and Why Isn't This Baby Sleeping Yet? and For The Love, Will Someone Please Take These Children For Two Measly Hours So We Can Be Alone?
Our love was tired last year. Exhausted. Running on fumes. Sometimes it was all we could do to say the words as we breezed past each other in the hallway.
"I love you."
"I love you, too."
And those words aren't hollow. Even from the trenches, we know what they mean. We remember holding hands on that hot day in July, promising to love each other forever. We remember how the words felt then: easy, hopeful, significant. And we'll remember how the words feel now: complex, desired, frantic.
But when it comes to love and marriage, words usually aren't enough.
As Bob Goff says, "...love is not stationary."
We're sitting at a high table on an ordinary Wednesday night, the week after New Year's. I'm wearing rose-colored lipstick; he's wearing his new Christmas sweater. I order an elderflower gimlet and he orders a beer. We clink our glasses together, putting one hard year behind us and welcoming a new one with hope and optimism. We toast his new job, my new literary agent, the fact that our youngest child is finally (praise God!) sleeping through the night. We agree right then and there over a plate of warm french fries: we want our love to move this year.
We want a proactive love, an intentional love, a love that is not merely surviving but a love that is thriving. 2015 knocked us down quite a bit, but we're real good at getting back up. And maybe that's what marriage is all about during this season of raising young kids: helping each other get back up.
It starts with extending a hand, making a small move. I bought a letter board so we can leave each other love notes on the wall. He lined up a babysitter for Valentine's Day. Last week, we listened to a podcast side-by-side in the kitchen while I mixed cookie dough and he washed dishes. Baby steps.
It's a new day, and a new year. This marriage is covered in prayer; this house is covered in grace.
I'll show you our best love.
It will not be perfect. Nothing ever is. We will still screw up and say sorry and kiss each other in the kitchen and throw an "I love you" into the air for good measure. This is how we grow. This is how we rebuild.
This is how we show our kids what love is: something you do, not just something you say.
Love moves. Just watch us dance.