One evening I turned to my husband and said, “I figured out why this works.” He looked a little wary. I said, “It works because we both feel like the other person is doing us a favor.”
We have started a new phase in our marriage. We’d become parents to a beautiful baby girl a few months before we had this conversation, but while parenting was a momentous change, this was a bigger deal for me: my husband quit his job as a nurse, and I became the primary wage-earner with my oh-so-highly-paid (not) job at a nonprofit organization. And we both love it.
Which surprised me, because this is the situation I was most afraid of back before we got engaged.
Back then, my husband (to be) was a struggling massage therapist. (So, flat broke.) He loved the massage part of his work, but hated the business part, so unfortunately never got the chance to do much of the massage part. I have a lot of deeply ingrained ideas from my family about the value of working a forty-plus-hour week. It was clear to me early in our relationship that my then-boyfriend would be perfectly happy being unemployed as long as he didn’t have to worry about money, whereas I got twitchy when I was working “only” one job while also in college full time. Back then, I saw this as a major failing on his part. I imagined that to feel comfortable building a family, either I needed to be like my parents—my mom took care of my brother and me while my dad worked in an office—or be a modern do-it-all couple and both work so we could afford to put the kids in a fancy Montessori or Waldorf or Reggio Emilio daycare. Instead, I envisioned a future where I would loan him thousands of dollars to start one failed business after another, while he would sit at home and play video games and, I don’t know, eat bon-bons.
But he went to nursing school and worked his ass off. (Seriously, it may not last as long as medical school, but nursing school is no joke.) We got engaged, then married, and the first year we filed joint taxes our double income seemed bogglingly high to me. And then he lost his job, and was unemployed for nine long months. And it was kind of awesome. Don’t get me wrong, he was depressed and I was terrified. I think he’s still a little traumatized. But even with the depression and terror and the soul-crushing task of applying to job after job, my husband lost some of the constant stress I’d gotten used to seeing while he was in school and then working. And I would come home from work to a mug of hot tea and a clean kitchen.
I slowly realized that where I got a deep satisfaction from working, a feeling that even when it was a slog to get through the day I was accomplishing something, he got a similar feeling of accomplishment from doing dishes and laundry. Where I felt like most household tasks were soul-crushing repetitive tasks where as soon as you finished you just had to do them again, he felt similarly about going to work day after day. It became clearer and clearer that this was a fundamental difference between us… and it was a really, really awesome difference.
Eventually he got another job. We both worked full time and saved a bunch of money and only got the kitchen clean when we had guests over. And when I got pregnant, even though his job paid more than mine, the idea of me staying home while he worked full time no longer made sense. So we took a hard look at our expenses and saved as much as we could, and twelve weeks after my daughter was born I kissed her and my husband goodbye and went back to the office.
I was really nervous the first few weeks. I would come home from work and immediately sit down with the baby, leaving my husband to finish cleaning the kitchen or folding laundry (seriously, baby clothes are tiny—how do they create such huge mounds of laundry?) or getting dinner on the table. I kept thinking to myself, isn’t he resentful? Isn’t he upset I’m not doing half the housework? When I asked him to change a diaper in the middle of the night, was he secretly thinking of all the other diapers he changed while I was at my office drinking coffee and having conversations with other adults? But he didn’t seem resentful. He seemed cheerful, sleep deprived but somehow fundamentally relaxed. He was actually apologetic when he didn’t get the house clean on days when the baby refused to nap.
Finally I figured it out. I was grateful that he was washing dishes and doing laundry and responding to an infant’s instant and repetitive needs so that I could go to my office and drink coffee and talk to adults. I felt like he was doing me a big favor. I wanted to make sure he knew how much I appreciated what would feel to me like a major sacrifice. Meanwhile, he was grateful that I was getting up early and fighting through rush hour traffic and sitting at a desk all day so that he could coo nonsense words at his daughter and go on long walks at the park and be on his own schedule. He wanted to make sure I knew how much he appreciated what would feel to him like a major sacrifice.
So there we were, spending every rare minute we had with each other trying our hardest to express our deep appreciation. The things I thought would be hardest on our relationship were actually improving it. Overall, our relationship has become so, so much better during the most sleep-deprived year of our lives. I hope that regardless of how our lives and our family change over the years ahead, this is what I remember: how to be grateful.
Photo from Marina’s personal collection