“I’m just, so, tired,” I said to my husband, staggering toward the kitchen table and tenderly sitting down. The pain from the emergency C-section a week ago still felt fresh, and the demands of an extremely hungry newborn left me feeling perpetually hungover.
“I’m tired too,” he said.
Those words sent me into a rage.
I felt the heat rising from my hips, where I was sitting across from him eating dinner (a dinner he made, I should note). I stood up, furious, speechless: My teeth meeting like magnets, the pressure radiating along my jaw.
He was tired? I didn’t see his breasts swelling and leaking milk at a pace only rivalled by a fire hydrant. And I didn’t see him changing a bandage from an emergency C-section in between tidying up the house. ALL WHILE KEEPING OUR FIRST-BORN HUMAN ALIVE. I mean, how could he possibly be tired? I had earned The Most Exhausted Person in the House Award.
I harboured that fury, holding onto it like a precious stone and then wielding it like a weapon, whipping it out during arguments, at a speed few baseball pitchers could rival. I would randomly pull it out during fights about who does what, letting him know that, in fact, I was the more tired one—I worked harder!
And just like that, I began to resent my husband.
Going from near blissful—“Wow, won’t this be so exciting: a baaaaybeeee!”—to begging and pleading with the universe for a night that would bring a mere two hours of consecutive sleep was a shock to our systems. We were hormonally unbalanced new parents, who felt like we were, at times, flailing—or even failing. For some absurd reason, felt like now was the time to start keeping score. My mind wandered, comparing our workloads—laundry, dishes, feeding, diapering, storing too-small clothes, making doctor’s appointments, giving vitamin D drops, re-stocking medicine, managing milestones. I felt like I was handling the majority of the home chores and the baby, although I don’t know why I was surprised. I had been forewarned about this by just about every female friend I had.
But with time, sleep and some improved communication about each other’s needs, we fell into a more balanced groove, adapting to our new roles as cleanup crew (me) and line cook (him) for our son, now a curly-haired tornado of a toddler.
Until baby number two arrived, and suddenly there were double the diapers, messes, and mouths to feed. I reached a boiling point one night when I was figure skating in my daughter’s diarrhea in the wee hours of the morning this past winter. I was huffing and puffing, sending telepathic messages to my husband (who was all cozy and fast asleep in the next room), expecting him to rush to my side with a hand mop, natural floor cleaner, and gallons of sympathy in hand.
But all he offered was a snoring symphony from the next room.
When I brought up what happened the next morning, frustrated and confused as to why he didn’t come to my rescue, he retorted with, “You didn’t ask.”
Cue the silent rage.
When I ring up Lindi Lazarus, a child and family therapist in private practice in Toronto, she assures me that it’s normal to feel some resentment toward your other half after you have a child (or two). “It’s a major identity shift for all parents,” she says, as I feel the cortisol starting to lower. “There’s increased demand from your children with less time for sleep, sex and yourself.”
When I bring up the diarrhea dance, she sympathizes with my frustration. “You wish he could just figure it out, and it’s not unusual to feel that way even when he can’t read your mind.” I smile to myself, feeling validated. “But,” she starts, “it’s important to be clear on what the expectations are, which will prevent resentment.” My smile fades.
Prevention. I’m adept at doing things in the rest of my life to keep the walls from crashing down: I meal-prep quinoa on Sundays to avoid a refined carb crash at the office during the week, I meditate to keep my stress from exacerbating my fine lines, but when I think about vocalizing my expectations to prevent a larger argument later, I fall silent. I guess I imagine that after 18 years together, he should know exactly what I want at all times. And sometimes he is quite good at responding to my needs before I vocalize them.
But, I wondered: Is there a way to communicate my expectations of him without sounding like I’m delegating to a junior member of my team? There is, says Lazarus. Be specific about what you need from him rather than focusing on something that feels like a critique, she advises. “Instead of saying, ‘you never help me,’ try saying, ‘I am very overwhelmed right now. Can you please give the baby a bottle for me?’”
In my heart, I know that every time I ask for help using clear language and avoiding judgmental hyperboles, he’s happy to help, and, to my recollection, has yet to refuse to a request. And he is constantly praising me for all of the things I do—but sometimes, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, my mind relentlessly itemizes the negatives, which have a way of eclipsing all of those kind comments.
But I’m motivated to work on better communicating our feelings in order to model that behaviour for my kids (and, of course, to strengthen my marriage), so Lazarus suggests I explore emotion coaching, a parenting technique that helps children identify their feelings. “It’s funny how we have so much empathy and compassion for our kids, but we forget to validate how our spouse is feeling too.” Essentially, the three-step process involves giving immediate attention to the other person when they’re experiencing a big feeling, labelling the feeling they’re experiencing and then identifying what led to that emotion surfacing.
So now, when I hear him say he’s tired (he finally feels safe saying that again, after I declared it a mot non grata for so long), I force myself to recognize that he too might actually be tired! I’ve worked on showing empathy while articulating things that might exhaust him too—a full-time job where he is constantly on his feet, chronic knee pain and a long commute—and, of course, recognizing that he is a huge help with the kids in a myriad of ways.
Lazarus reminds me that these short years are a temporary glitch in the grand scheme of things. And I’m certain that this period—when we are in the thick of responding to the needs of our tiny, beautiful humans, with a little less time and patience for one another—will strengthen the bond we’ve built, and deepen our ability to empathize.
Before I know it, our two children will no longer be young, and I’ll be looking back at these sleep-lite, poo-dense years with rose-coloured glasses and tears streaking my face. And who will hopefully be sitting across from me during dinner, with the wild years of parenting our minis behind us?
My darling husband. And I’m sure he’s going to be a lot more tired then.
This article was originally published online in November 2018.