My wife and I married when we were young, especially by today’s standards. We met in college–the first day as it so happened–and were exchanging vows by the time we turned twenty-four. Rachel was pregnant with our first child by the time she was 25, and we shed any remaining childhood innocence by the time we turned 26 as we grappled with the reality of what it meant to be parents. I’ll never forget my mom wondering aloud how I would handle the effect a baby would have on my well-worn routine. She was right to wonder. I lived life the way I wanted to live it, when I wanted to live it. That meant watching nearly every Mariners, Seahawks and Trail Blazers game. It meant going to sleep when I felt like it, and getting 8-9 hours of rest every night. There was enough space in our pre-child lives to accommodate such splendid rigidity. These were, after all, the quirks that defined us.
Sleepless nights, a crying baby, dirty diapers, and a social life that only The Unabomber could appreciate challenged us as individuals and as a couple. Life, for me, had been like a lake, with experiences accumulating over time without much change in location or make-up. Now it was much more like a river. Life was rushing at me, and it was never clear where the next turn was coming from or if rapids were ahead. Navigating those waters was tough. I had to jettison things that I had once considered sacred, and truly find what the rocks in my river were going to be–which things would define me that everything else would have to flow around. Only I was not going through this alone.
Rachel had her own transformation. Her professional life was in question. Her circle of friends was changing. Her life was in service of another’s. It was during this time that we established a rule in our marriage that would eventually become a bedrock for our relationship.
The stress of our transition into parenting triggered a defense mechanism in both of us where any request for individual time was met with some combination of guilt and bartering. I could go watch a movie with my friends, but only after we agreed on when Rachel would get time to go out for a massage. She could go out for a jog, but only after I complained about the time she was choosing to do so and reserved my time to go play basketball. It was exhausting. It was petty. It was unloving.
There came a time when we realized that not only were we going about it the wrong, but were were 180 degrees from right. Making your spouse feel guilty for wanting some independent time only guarantees you will have that weight to bear when you need some time yourself. Requiring a tit for every tat makes each spouse an anchor instead of a propellant. It is cycle that breeds cynicism and contempt instead of trust and joy. And so we decided that the answer from then on would be, “Yes.”
We agreed that no matter what the request was, no matter how inconvenient it was to the other, if one of us asked the other for time away, the answer would always be a guilt-free, “Yes.”
It was a revelation. Being a parent and spouse was no longer an obligation. It was a choice. Both of us were equipped with enough innate guilt that we had no interest in taking advantage of the other given this new arrangement. This put the burden on the requester to determine what was reasonable and what was important enough to ask for. Each time I would ask Rachel for time to go out and she would respond with no strings attached support, I loved her a little more. I trusted her more. I wanted to return the favor. This became a rock in our river.
Approaching our relationship in this manner helped prepare us for the stress and strain that adding a special needs child can have on a marriage. Saying, “Yes,” is much more difficult when it means looking after two kids and one of them requires full-time attention. Thankfully, we had plenty of practice in the years before Nate was born. Nate is now eight, and the rule is still in full effect. Rachel will soon be traveling overseas for ten days while I watch the boys. I travel regularly for work while Rachel watches the household. She has girl’s nights out. I have Seahawks games.
We continue to grow and change and explore what life has to offer. Marriage, kids, special needs kids are often wielded as weapons that deter wives and husbands from getting the most out of their lives. It is a natural, instinctive reaction to circle the wagons. Those instincts betray you. Life cannot be lived inside circled wagons. Rachel and I have been lucky enough to discover that it was never our quirks and routines that defined us, it was our ability to let go of them. I look forward to giving and receiving my next, “Yes.”