Year 1, then golden?

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Let me first preface this post by saying that I actually had some reservations about writing about the first year of marriage, though many have asked me to.  The reason?  I feel protective.  Not just of SHL, or of myself, but of our marriage.  It takes a lot of guts (or stupidity, depends upon which way you look at it) to be able to put your marriage out there for all to see, to judge and to compare, and quite frankly that doesn’t sound so appealing!  Having said that, I’d love to hear from you on what’s been your most challenging issue as you entered into matrimony yourself.

Picture this, if you will:  A friend of mine who is also still a newlywed and I find ourselves in a friend’s kitchen the other evening, whispering out of earshot of our husbands and other friends.  The topic?  The first year of marriage.  “Is it challenging or is just me?” my friend asks quietly, a concerned look on her face.  “It’s not just you,” I reply, and I can see her instantly relax (there’s something to be said for a shared experience).  We both went on to agree that while being newlyweds has its perks and we love our husbands greatly, adjusting to marriage has been a challenge, and clearly a challenge that we feel we have to whisper about in the kitchen so that others don’t hear.

Yes, the first year of marriage certainly is an interesting one, that’s for sure.  And it seems that my good friend and I are not the only ones who feel this way, though there seems to be some kind of hush-hush around it, sort of the way there is around a miscarriage, divorce, or cancer– Words always said in a whisper.  A few weeks ago I went in for my yearly MRI of my liver/abdomen; a task I must do every year and probably will for the rest of my life to ensure that the cancer hasn’t spread.  As I was getting my IV for the procedure the nurse, who I see every year and who I remember because she always seems to put me at ease saw my wedding ring and we began to chat as she pushed the needle into my vein.  “How long have you been married?” she asked, and I told her that my husband and I had just gotten married in October.  “How about you?” I asked since I saw that she had a wedding band on as well.  “3 years,” was her response, and then she added,  “The first year is the hardest.  If you can make it through that, you’re golden!”  We laughed, and then I admitted that I appreciated her honesty.  And not for the first time I thought to myself– That piece of information seems like something that I have heard covertly from other women before, almost for fear that if they said something like that too loudly all eyes would pierce through them like daggers and then what?  They’d explode?  Perhaps what other women are whispering about would have been helpful to know before I got married?  Just as a heads-up?  Hey, by the way, kind of thing?  Not that I wouldn’t have still married my husband, of course, but at least I could have known that feeling that marriage is an adjustment is normal!  A “hey we’re in this together” kind of camaraderie between women seems comforting.  The nurse and I agreed that we wish more women would actually talk about the ups and downs of the first year of marriage honestly.  And while I have tons of great stuff to say about the ups (we laugh constantly, treasure our time together, support each other emotionally, and find excitement about creating this new life together and the adventures that brings), being married has its challenges as well.  What I hear most people say is that it’s blissful.  So if you have anything different to say, you’re certainly not going to say it to the woman who just used the word blissful, now are you?

So why is this, I began to wonder?  SHL and I knew each other for a couple of years before getting married.  We lived together before we got hitched.  So what is it about actually saying “I do” and wearing that ring that seems to cause a shift somewhere? Well here’s a possibility:  Expectations.

Which brings me to the question:  What is a “good wife?”  and because the two seem linked in many ways,  “What is a “good mother?”  For me, I grew up watching my Dad go to work and make the money, and my Mom do just about everything else (pretty typical back then).  My Mom was the kind of wife and mother who seemed to know how to make the perfect matzoh ball soup, how to sew on a button or make my costume for a school play, how to fix my little teddy Roosevelt when he started falling apart at the seams (literally), how to smartly save money at the grocery store and how to splurge on the exact right thing for our birthdays.  She helped us with our homework, chaperoned our school field trips on what seemed like an almost monthly basis, drove us to every birthday party and Bat Mitzvah without ever getting lost even if it was in another state and she’d never been there before, and knew just how to make an amazingly elaborate and delicious birthday cake with a Care Bear in yellow frosting or even Pacman with the exact layout of the Atari game on a sheet cake.  She packed our car with all necessities for the Cape every summer (always seeming to think of everything) and then later on planned more intricate family vacations (like to Russia), picked out the perfect dress for those special occasions, threw parties like nobody’s business, and knew what “french cuff” meant and where to shop for my Dad’s favorite shirts.  She rolled up her sleeves with two little ones and painted and wallpapered our bedrooms herself despite the fact that one of us (I’m pretty sure my brother) was to scribble all over that wall when he was supposed to be napping.  She made the world’s best tuna fish sandwiches and always cut them into squares because she knew it just tasted better that way.  And it did.  She created these amazing picnic lunches for visiting day at overnight camp when our friends would just “happen” to walk by our well-known spot by the lake for even just a tiny taste of her chicken or brownies. And most importantly, she comforted us and listened to us and kissed our scraped knees and made us laugh and did it all so effortlessly.  She was (and is) the most capable woman who I know.  Not easy shoes to fill.

OK, so now this post is becoming more like an “Ode to my Mother.”  But still, I wonder:  Does SHL expect me to be a perfect wife?  And someday a perfect mother?  And is my Mom really perfect, or was I just so enamored by her deep devotion and love to our family that I never picked up on the times when she maybe, just maybe, messed up?  Maybe there was a time when she burned something while cooking (Come to think of it, her burning the garlic bread every single time quickly became a family joke).  Maybe she didn’t always know how to do our math homework or waited for our Dad to get home to work on that science project, and maybe she got lost driving us somewhere.  Perhaps she did a load of laundry and mixed colors, turning our clothes pink? Maybe I just don’t remember her not feeling confident because I was too little to remember, or too busy thinking that my Mom was superwoman to maybe realize that she didn’t, in fact, know everything?

But let’s not forget:  This was also in the 70’s and the 80’s when it was pretty normal for women to stay home and do all of these things while the men were at work.  My Mom promises that when she got married she didn’t know how to make a brisket or throw a dinner party, but soon learned (and enjoyed it).  And here I am:  34 years old, in my first year of marriage, and proud of myself if I make eggs for breakfast for my husband.  The laundry?  He generally does his own.  The ironing?  Well I hate ironing and am a firm believer that you can put things in the bathroom while you take a steamy shower and it pretty much works out the same.  My husband does the vacuuming and takes the cats to the vet.  Welcome to 2011, and welcome to my marriage.

The truth is, my husband is pretty independent.  He lived on his own for a long time before he met me, and was responsible for himself.  So he learned how to do his laundry, and how to cook.  And when he first moved here from Canada to be with me, he couldn’t work because he had no green card.  So I was the one who went to work every day, made the money, and came home to him putting dinner on the table.  Talk about role reversals!  But because he had the time and I didn’t, he started doing things around the house and was the one to go grocery shopping, for example.  At first it felt fine to both of us (maybe a bit weird, but fine), as we knew that eventually he would get his green card and begin working, and things would probably shift and have to become more “equal” when we were both out of the house during the day. SHL did get his green card shortly before we got married last fall, and he began working.  And as happy as I was that we were both now working, given my ” I have to be anxious about something” problem (that’s for another post), suddenly, I began worrying about expectations.

My friend agrees that these expectations that I speak of are tricky. She too has expectations for herself, also perhaps partly based on what she saw her mother doing as she grew up.  We talked (or whispered, I should say) there in that kitchen about who should make dinner, who should clean, who should make whose lunch for work, who should get the oil changed and who should grocery shop.  And as I stood there having this conversation it began to occur to me:  There really is no right or wrong answer to any of these questions; its how you and your partner decide it should be, and it’s a decision that has to feel right for the both of you, and nobody else.  And in order to figure that out, you have to talk about it!  For SHL and I it’s very often not divided into stereotypical roles because of my diagnosis of degenerative disc disease and also because a lot of his clients are in the late afternoons/early evenings– so if he’s home while I’m at work there may be things like grocery shopping for him to do.  I just can’t physically stand in the kitchen making dinner for an hour, or bend over to vacuum under the couch.  So I do other things, like pay the bills, plan our social calendar, head up the apartment hunting or over the past year the wedding and honeymoon planning (and thank you notes!).  I go to the drugstore, bake him his favorite cookies when I can, help him with fliers for work and listen to his coaching stories with enthusiasm and genuine interest.  I take care of the cards and gifts when family and friends celebrate special occasions.  I try to at least have something ready for dinner when he comes home late from work (my back won’t allow for anything too elaborate but I do make a mean frittata and try to make sure he gets his greens in).  I clean as much as I can, even if it means just doing the dishes and making the bed.  I drop off the dry-cleaning.  I do what I can.  He does what he can.  Most of the time it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  But for the most part we talk about it, and  I express to SHL how uncomfortable I am with not being able to do things like make dinner or clean because my back.  He understands, but that doesn’t change the fact that I feel like I am disappointing.  Like I am not being a “good wife.”  Like I am not something that clearly I should be.

And then there are other, different expectations that don’t have anything to do with cooking or cleaning and that I hear comes up frequently for couples.  Expectations perhaps around in-laws (how often will we see my parents vs. yours?), money (you bought WHAT?), and sex (everything from the frequency decreasing to just being on totally opposite schedules or having kids).  And somehow all of these expectations seem to have shifted since getting married, and if you think about it, the shift makes sense and in a way, should happen.  There is a kind of anchoring that goes on when you pledge your commitment to another in the form of marriage, and then often times you find yourself trying to figure out the boundaries with your family (I can say that about my mother, you can’t!) while keeping your spouse (and your parents) happy… You may now have joint bank accounts which can add a certain amount of stress if you have different ways of dealing with money… And things that bothered you before you were married (the way he slurps his soup, for instance) may now seem to be under a microscope given the fact that you have now said yes to forever.  And these will be life-long issues if you don’t talk about them (hell they may be life long issues even if you do talk about them!).

And while talking about it may seem daunting, take the conversation that I had with SHL a couple of days ago, when I admitted to feeling guilty to not being the wife that I always thought I would be (and should be) because I’m not slaving over a hot stove or sewing his loose buttons back onto his shirts.  You know what he said?  “I just want you to be whoever you want to be.  I just want you to be happy.”  And the truth, despite the pressure I put on myself to be this perfect woman who clearly I am not?  I am, at the end of my non-making dinner days, happy.

And if that’s not worth all of the challenges of the first year of marriage, then I don’t know what is.

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