Illustration: Chiara Lanzieri
About a year after our son was born, my wife, Akiko, and I vowed that we would have a date night every month. It was the kind of commitment made by thousands of couples every day, with the very idea of a date night now so cliché, it was made into a middling movie of the same name that thousands of couples have wasted at least one date night watching. (To be fair, Tina Fey was pretty good in it.)
After the turmoil of childbirth, months of sleeplessness, hormonal whiplash and, most significantly, the sudden re-arrangement of your lives around the simple but incessant needs of a fragile new human being, the idea that you might want to regularly reconnect with the person with whom you embarked on this journey is a no-brainer. But you can’t: That person doesn’t exist. When Aki and I went on our first date night (dinner and a movie, with my in-laws babysitting), we made some familiar rules: We wouldn’t talk about Owen. We would not look at photos of Owen. We would not talk about our favourite photos of Owen. But it was our first night away from him, and we kept our phones on. A few minutes into dinner, Aki’s phone buzzed. Her father texted a photo of Owen asleep in his grandmother’s arms. We cooed. Aki put her phone away. Fifteen minutes later, another picture—this time of Owen asleep in his grandfather’s arms. More cooing. Aki put her phone away again.
But then our conversation shifted. We didn’t talk about Owen exactly, but we did talk about all the different ways that life with Owen had changed things—in our friendships, our relationships with our parents, our sex lives and our careers. When we first met, Aki had artistic ambitions like me, and this was one of the things that attracted me to her—I envisioned a bohemian future of creative collaboration, regular trips to various art capitals and a shared studio in the country home that we would buy when she was a successful photographer and/or I was a prize-winning novelist.
In the first year of Owen’s life, she couldn’t spare a minute, of course, to think about her art. Now, she would be going back to work. Between her day job and family, would she ever have a minute to think about her art again? More importantly, would she want to? Had parenthood stripped her of that particular ambition? Was I projecting? (I still had only finished the first 20 pages of a novel I’d hoped to finish before Owen was born.) I worried a little that she might end up resenting Owen for robbing her of time for art, but it seemed to bother me more than her. She was more or less satisfied with her career and loved being a mother. She was content. But was I? We still talked about art from time to time, but those conversations were mainly about what paintings and photographs to hang on the walls of Owen’s room.
We were somewhat older parents, and both of us had thrown ourselves into our new roles with uncommon zeal. Being parents had thoroughly transformed us, as if we had lived through an earthquake or won the lottery. Our love for Owen was endless, ecstatic, embarrassing even. But I also loved how being a mother revealed new parts of Aki: I always knew she was gentle and compassionate, but now I admired her sudden strength, fortitude and devotion, her ability to laugh when a baby urinates in her face.
It’s a common idea that new dads often find themselves envious of the time and affection that children get from their mothers. They don’t like to share—they want to remain the priority. I never felt that. Aki’s profound love for Owen never felt like a zero-sum game—I didn’t feel like she loved me less or showed me less love. If anything, it just felt like there was more love in the house, for each of us. Owen was an equal-opportunity kid, both a mama’s boy and a daddy’s boy, a socialist of love.
But after that first year, when we slowly emerged from the familiar fog of new parenthood, it started to occur to me that I also loved—and now longed for—the person Aki was before she was a parent. I missed the lightness of Aki’s voice, before it was strained by impatience. I missed her bright eyes, before six years of sleeplessness. I missed the lazy brunches we used to enjoy. I missed the fact that the toes of our Christmas stockings used to contain sex toys. As Owen got older and our parenting changed—or, rather, what was required of us as parents changed—we both missed conversations that weren’t constantly interrupted by a child’s complaints or clamour. We missed conversations that were about things other than a child’s complaints or clamour. We were no longer a couple—we were a trio—and the geometry of our relationship was a new math that we both had to learn. One particular image kept returning to me: the two of us napping, day drunk, in a hot hotel room outside of Havana on our first trip to Cuba, many years before Owen was born. Sure, we could take that trip again someday and leave Owen at home with his grandparents. But when we wake up from that nap, no matter how drunk we are, we will still check our phones to see if there is news of our son. There’s nothing tragic about this; it’s just different. The old Aki was gone.
Over time, I realized that, as much as I specifically missed Aki, what I also missed was my own younger self. I missed my own lack of responsibility and obligation and my own youthful passion. Just as Aki has been irrevocably changed by the simple fact of parenting, I, too, have changed. I am both more and less than the man I was, my identity now given new shape by my life as a father. My previous neuroses and anxieties felt superfluous, irrelevant and stupid. But, to a certain extent, so does my previous ambition. Now, I am less concerned with being a prize-winning author and more concerned with being a good father, and that means being a better person, too: more patient, more generous, more loving. Not that I was always those things—far from it—but it felt important to try to be, for all of us. Whenever Aki and I talked about parenting—what we were doing right, what we were doing wrong—the conversations always returned to more fundamental questions about our own values and behaviour. In a way, we have both become somewhat different people—the best versions of ourselves, Aki likes to say—because we are trying to show a new person the best way, we hope, to be.
This is why I try to think of Akiko, and my life with her, in the same way I think of Owen: as a life of stages, phases and milestones. A life of constant change, constant becoming. And just as I watch, with a blend of joy and nostalgia, the different stages of Owen’s life emerge and evaporate, so, too, do I watch my wife now. I watch her as she becomes wiser, more generous, more complicated, more comfortable in her own skin and more comfortable, even, with me. Yes, I sometimes miss the woman I met a decade ago, but every day, I miss that woman less and look forward more to the woman I’ll meet 10, 20 and even 50 years from now. Once Owen is grown, I look forward to seeing how our different selves—exhausted and bewildered by parenthood, sure, but also brought closer together by it—will meet each other anew. We’ll need a lot more than one date night a month.
The author’s name is a pseudonym. This article was originally published online in January 2019.