Almost fourteen years after the doctor declared, in the wee hours of a hot summer morning, "It's a girl! She's beautiful! Look at those gigantic feet!" my husband and I struggle, as parents and as spouses.
"This is supposed to be a love story," you're thinking. "I thought I was reading a series of essays on Valentine's Day and parenting."
But the very best love stories, I think, are of conflict resolved. And all the baby (or big kid) steps it took to get there.
Year One: Trust. The parenting books were not the Bibles they claimed to be. Introducing more than one food at once or starting with apples instead of peas would neither kill our baby from anaphylactic shock nor cause her to reject vegetables forever. There was more than one way to put on a pair of baby tights. Walking through our city neighborhood at night with a crying baby in a front carrier would not result in a mugging but, rather, in a (briefly) sleeping baby.
Year Two: Generosity. I was pregnant. And I was sick. Sick like Princess Kate. And I could not handle baby poop, puppy poop or my own poop. My husband had to deal with all three. Plus Clifford the Big Red Dog every morning at 5:30 a.m. I, on the other hand, was growing another baby, despite barfing up my breakfast, lunch and dinner ten or so times a day for what turned out to be eight months. We owed each other big.
Year Three: Patience. Two babies in two years. A very small house. Diapers, and sippy cups, and board books, and bedtimes, and Cheerios on the floor times two. A can't-be-missed ball game on TV, an evening book group complete with wine and brownies, both falling just at the moment when a toddler pulled her baby sister's hair and then wailed when that same baby sister slugged her with a handful of Legos. And we lived through it. I'm not saying we laughed (at least not then), but we survived.
Year Four: Organization. Kid #1 started preschool and brought home 32 crayoned masterpieces a day. Kid #2 got 94 ear infections and required a new prescription with each one. I commuted eighty miles each way to work, while my husband starting running his own business. Somehow, we got mostly matching socks on the baby's feet each day and even once remembered when it was our day to bring a peanut-free, sugar-free snack to 22 three-year-olds. At night, we located clean wine glasses. They were usually in the dishwasher. We had it going on.
Year Five: Forgiveness. A setback. Two preschoolers. Two different preschools. Two jobs, each obviously more important, stressful and time-consuming than the other. More ear infections. Slammed doors. Not by preschoolers. Apologies. Sometimes even spoken. Fortification with the new knowledge that setbacks are not the end of the road.
Year Six: Teamwork. Our beloved Red Sox finally figured it out. So did we. Two jobs became equally important. We shared the goal of getting our now-kindergartner to transition from circle time to counting time, lest her ancient, rigid "teacher" send her out into the hallway to "think" again. We started a vegetable garden: him tilling, me planting. We cooked the single resulting carrot together: me peeling, him slicing.
Year Seven: Understanding. Our children, it turned out, were not the perfect, miraculous creatures we'd always believed. The little one needed speech therapy. The big one needed counseling for her 6-year-old fears. We weren't perfect, either. I needed to lose a few pounds that I could no longer legitimately call "baby weight." My husband needed to drum up some new business or throw up his hands in defeat. We all needed to let go of the need to be perfect. Slightly smudged wine glasses? They would do.
Year Eight: Compromise. We gave up. And then we came up with a new plan. To move 300 miles away. For me to take a job that paid a lot more and required me to commute a lot less. We left the grandparents, the Red Sox, the quiet cul-de-sac where our children learned to ride their two-wheelers. None of us really liked it. We accepted.
Year Nine: Independence. To make the move, we had to live apart, at least temporarily. My husband commuted from New England on weekends, and I got the kids settled in. Our third- and first-graders learned to coordinate their own outfits, make their own sandwiches and find the right school bus home. My husband learned to let me make the "whether to phone the pediatrician" (not as often) and "whether to fire the new nanny" calls (definitely yes) on my own. Despite a $3,000 bill from the vet and a visit to the ER for my sliced-open-on-a-box-cutter finger, I somehow kept the children, the dogs and myself alive. My husband stayed alive, too -- fueled by supermarket salad bar Caesar salad. We kept our mouths shut and trudged on.
Year Ten: Joy. Together again. In one state. In one house, even. Our daughters spoke Spanish and danced African dances. They read each other bedtime stories as we listened. They ate salad. They liked it. We adopted a wiener dog. My husband and I bought a king-sized bed. We couldn't believe what we'd been missing.
Year Eleven: Friendship. Our kids started liking some of the same TV shows we did -- and bonded over some we didn't. They went through seven dozens skeins of embroidery floss, making friendship bracelets. When my husband and I finally made it home after being stuck in a Chilean earthquake while on vacation, they gave us several bracelets each. At night, we traded. We wore them until they fell off.
Year Twelve: Appreciation. Middle grades were the bomb. Our kids did fun projects about world cultures and space exploration, and sometimes they even remembered to tell us about them sooner than the night before they were due (South African food is hard to come by in the Philly suburbs at 10:30 p.m.). My husband learned to cook. I learned to use those clippy hangers for pants instead of tossing my clothes on the elliptical at night. We noticed.
Year Thirteen: Selflessness. My husband sacrificed some of his pride and got behind my career; the economy had sucked a lot of the life out of his. He drove the kids to skating and French horn practice, then served up meatloaf for dinner. The kids took turns sitting on the couch with the wiener dog and even let me have her for a snuggle at the end of a really hard day. I let the kids spend the summer with their grandparents, even though I missed them every minute. It was important to them. It was important to my husband. But I didn't let them take the wiener dog.
Year Fourteen: Respect. My husband respected my quenchless desire to build a patio with our tax refund. I respected his wish to wait until after the Fourth of July to buy patio furniture. So what if we sat directly on the hot stones for two months? No point in getting all worked up about it. The kids could pretend to be firewalkers, skipping and jumping in bare feet from end to end. And my husband and I? We could have a nice glass of wine right there in the middle of the yard, looking out at all we had built.