“The closer we became with the kids, the further we seemed to drift from each other.”

By Jared Bilski
August 28, 2019
Credit: Courtesy of Jared Bilski

Not too long ago the picture was bleak for us. After having a baby, quality time together consisted of me on one end of the couch, my wife on the other, both of us silently starring at our phones. "Wanna watch something?" one of us would ask. "Sure, I don't care," the other would respond, and then we'd go back to our phones until it was time to go up to bed.

Back when we first started dating, my wife always used to say, "I wish it was just us." In those moments, when we were lying there together, it always felt as though life was perfect when it was just us alone together. A few months after our second child arrived, we felt completely different. We went out of our way to avoid engaging in anything that could possibly lead to a disagreement because with the kids and related stressors—stressors present long before the kids came along—we simply didn't have the time or energy to deal with any problems in our marriage.

Credit: Photo Courtesy of Jared Bilski

People like to talk a lot about the dreaded roommate phase of marriage, but I don't think that term is strong enough for what can happen to your relationship after kids. Roommates generally like to hang out. The word itself often conjures up images of video game marathons, TV binge-watching sessions, beers, never-ending takeout, piles and piles of dirty dishes overflowing from a sink you're too busy to clean because of all the fun you're having with your roommate. The only part of that relationship my wife and I had was the dishes. When our family suddenly became five (including a life-saving Boston Terrier named Judith Weiland), we didn't become roommates, we became bitter co-workers who were struggling to survive a shitty (literally) and thankless job. Instead of partners, we became low-level employees who worked for the most demanding and irrational bosses: Our children. Granted, part of the issue was poor planning on our part. Our kids were born way too close together. Some people call it Irish twins when there's only a year separating your children. My wife and I, we called it the NuvaRing tragedy of 2017.

Striving For Sanity

To make it work without losing our minds, we had to restructure our priorities. Our marriage, the entire base of the 4-person, one-canine operation we were running, suddenly become the lowest priority on the list. At the time, it seemed like a safe bet. Our relationship was like a cactus, strong enough to thrive in even the harshest of conditions. In the 10 years before the kids, we'd been through so much together, and we always seemed to come out of difficult situations stronger than ever. But this was different. The more we gave to our children, the closer we became with them. And the closer we became with the kids, the further we seemed to drift from each other. I was prepared for the diapers, the sleep deprivation, the surrender of a social life—hell, I was even prepared the inevitable dad bod. After all, only European fathers and steroid users can avoid the latter. What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the toll having children would take on my marriage.

The worst part was neither of us was willing to bring up how unhappy we were because it seemed absurd to complain about something that, on the surface, was exactly what we'd always imagined for ourselves: A nice house, the best dog in the history of dogs, and two healthy and sometimes happy children. It didn't help that neither of us had anywhere to go for advice on what it takes to make a marriage last long-term. Like many children of the 80s, both my wife and I are products of divorce.

Credit: Courtesy of Jared Bilski

A breakthrough of sorts happened when we both admitted out loud to each other how miserable we'd been. The out loud part was key. In the same way that written words take on a completely different meaning when spoken aloud, so too do those thoughts you keep bottled up and unsaid. It felt liberating to finally say what I'd been holding back for so long.

This type of direct communication—saying here's exactly how I'm feeling right now and why—just wasn't how my wife and I were used to operating. Our communication had always been much more indirect. When things weren't working, we simply changed course. We didn't have long, drawn-out conversations about why those things weren't working. Our approach worked remarkably well when we were the most important people in each other's lives. Now that two pint-sized, attention-craving lunatics have invaded our lives and taken over that role, passive communication just isn't an option. If we don't speak up about the issues and grievances and perceived slights in our marriage in the most clear and direct terms possible when they occur, then those issues are bound to get lost in the daily tornado of life with toddlers.

A New Beginning

I'm feeling a lot better about our marriage these days. If I wasn't, I never would've had the guts to write something like this, let alone share it the always-understanding world of the internet. I think my wife feels the same way. At least, that's the impression I got when I asked her to read this over and she responded with, "You spelled restructuring so wrong. Do you even spellcheck these things?"

My wife and I will never be the same people we were 13 years ago when all we ever wanted was for the world to disappear and for it to be just us. And that's OK. As long as we make it a point to give this cactus the necessary amount water and sunlight—to be honest about what we're feeling, when we're feeling it—then we're bound to come out of the many difficulties that lie ahead stronger and wiser than we were before. We're bound to never wind up in a room together thinking "I wish it wasn't just us."

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July 23, 2020
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