It’s incredibly weird to write a book about your child and not write about your marriage, when you’re definitely married. My daughter Zelda definitely has a dad, his name is Josh, and he’s my husband. He is absolutely not thirty-three Chihuahuas stacked in a trench coat. I assure you he is 100 percent real.
But I committed quite early, in the days of writing essays for public consumption about my life with my daughter, to not really saying anything about my marriage, simply because Josh, as a somewhat public person in his life as an editor and writer himself, never “signed up” for my project. He could have chosen to write about his experiences of fatherhood, but he didn’t. I’m sure his version would be much different than mine.
And there was something too dear and near to me in the thought of writing honestly about my relationship.
But also: I don’t remember that much of him in the first year. I have to try really hard to pull up memories of him sometimes, as if there was a finite amount of space inside me then for storing things.
I know this is more my failing than his absence. It was motherhood-induced myopia, where all I could or would see was myself and my daughter and the various threads that tied us back and forth to each other. It was selfishness personified, a biological reaction. Taking care of a child is so hard, so time consuming: it made sense that our emotions and needs would consume me and that in turn, three years later I would have a blank space for a lot of where Josh should be.
But also: I did spend much of my time with Zelda alone. The weekends were family time, and they were necessarily less stressful, simply because there were two sets of hands, two people to manage the packing up and the setting off. We were happy some days and miserable others. But most of the time he wasn’t physically around. He was just getting mean, panicked, desperate, or even angry texts from me. It’s not that he didn’t suffer the emotional drain that comes with first-time parenthood, but he did experience a lot of it only secondhand.
And even though I did decide to leave him out of my writing largely, I feel I need to say something. I owe it to myself to be honest about how awful that first part of it really was.
Everyone who has ever had a child will say things like “The first year is the worst,” or, “Good-bye to having sex,” really encouraging remarks that make you feel at once superior to them but also very bad for everyone. Sad, because it’s almost always, from other mothers I’ve talked to, true: that blank memory space for me, is partly blank because I expected the relationship I had with Josh to be on hold while I kept the baby alive. I struggled, sometimes alone but often with him by my side, to keep the fucking baby alive. To seem happy around her even if I felt as though I were drowning in the monotony or from exhaustion or the repetition of each identical day. I struggled to teach her to sleep and to make sure she was clean and healthy and happy.
But I soon realized we were succeeding. Our baby was magical and fun and cute and happy. She flourished as we treaded water beside her, hoping that once the struggles passed that we would still have a relationship with each other. That our love would tide us over in the dark times.
Which isn’t to say we didn’t have sex or intimacy or that we didn’t spend evenings together watching TV and eating bad takeout food. We did those things. But there were necessary changes, and it wasn’t hours we lost. We’d both always worked a lot, and Josh had always traveled on business several weeks a year, so we were used to spending a lot of time apart and on our own. It was, mostly on my end, an emotional loss of space for him. I stopped worrying about him in the same way; I stopped caring so much and empathizing with him.
I don’t believe the amount of caring we can produce is finite. But I do know, from the experience of having a child, that the first year of my daughter’s life meant that there was for a while a finite number of places I could spend my love and empathy. I simply had to focus on keeping us alive. And “us” usually meant the two of us. I had to hope that everyone else could wait for a while.
I don’t know why it was this way, only that it was and that I’m not alone, that other women have described similar paths in that first year or so.
I don’t know if I can regret that it was this way because I’m not sure we could have managed any other way. I remember an argument we had late one night, when Zelda was asleep. We were arguing because Josh had come home very late. So late that I was struggling to stay awake and was ready for bed by the time he walked through the door. I stayed awake because I wanted to see him and because I knew he hated to come home to a house where everyone was sleeping; but I was angry to have to do it, because I was so tired. It was a very typical argument of the period.
“You don’t know what it’s like here, all day alone with her. I’m exhausted,” I’d say, trying to work out why I was mad at him and at least partly resentful that he got to physically leave the premises for hours every day. But I was also tired and ready for bed and trying to stay up. I resented a lot those days, and though I didn’t say it, I’m sure he felt it just the same.
Everyone who has ever had a child will say things like ‘The first year is the worst,’ or, ‘Good-bye to having sex,’ really encouraging remarks that make you feel at once superior to them but also very bad for everyone.
“You don’t know what it’s like for me,” he’d say. “I have to leave the house, be presentable, very early, and I don’t get to see you or Zelda all day, and then I come home and everyone is asleep, and I do that for five days a week.”
Both of us were right. For us, being parents at first meant constant competition about the very different levels of the other’s burden and the incapacity for the other to understand that. It is, in hindsight, almost funny.
But that particular night the argument escalated and reached, unlike many previous arguments in the genre that had resulted in annoyance and stalemate, a revelation, at least for me.
“You can accept this or not: this is reality for now,” he said, I thought a little harshly. I was prepared to bite back, thinking of how to respond, but he went on: “You will always have spent more time with her than me when this part of our lives is over. Nobody can change that. You can resent me for it, but you should also know that I will always be jealous, even if it’s nice for me to get to leave. I can’t get this time back, and neither can you.” I wasn’t sure whether he was actually jealous of me, but I took that night as a win.
It’s not good to feel better about yourself because your partner expresses pain. But sometimes you have to accept realities. Sometimes you make the best of what you have on offer. I wouldn’t change it, I guess.
Josh taught me the value of a good old-fashioned, out-loud fight. He taught me that early in our relationship; it was one of the things I liked about him. I came from a family where many things, from the small and relatively unimportant to the giant and possibly tragic, were often not engaged with openly. We didn’t have huge fights in our family growing up. We kept our thoughts mostly to ourselves. There wasn’t dishonesty: my parents taught me that lying was wrong, and I am still a terrible liar in the very few times I’ve attempted it. But there is a way to be dishonest without lying actively: choosing to say nothing is about the same as an open lie a lot of the time.
Josh came from a family where nothing was off-limits and everything was open to discussion. I was taken aback by their propensity for yelling openly at one another, even in front of interlopers like myself. Back in the earliest days of our relationship, when I was barely a known entity to Josh’s brother and parents, I felt uncomfortable but energized by their ability to make decisions quickly, where my family, the one we now had without my mother, sometimes took hours to decide what to have for dinner simply because everyone failed to speak their mind in a timely fashion.
Every family operates differently. “You’re all like your father!” my mother used to say in exasperation, years after my parents divorced. What she meant was that my brothers and me are sometimes stubbornly silent. And we are. I still feel that well inside of me when I am asked even simple, direct questions: a deep desire to simply say nothing, to refuse. To stay inside of myself. I am deeply solitary in a way that my mother never was.
My mother was, while my parents were still married and we were all living at home together, the decider. She was the one who moved us up and out of the house, who kept the gears oiled and the machinery working. “Time to go!” she’d yodel through the house while the rest of us spun our wheels getting ready. I think my parents were both naturally punctual, but my mother could get a group going far easier.
My parents almost never openly fought in front of us. And though I knew that didn’t mean fights didn’t happen, I felt that Josh and I owed it to Zelda to not fight in front of her.
When Josh and I became parents, it exposed a deep weakness in our relationship. It probably does in everyone’s, really, because a child presents a couple with the first true test of their ability to negotiate, to compromise, to make daily decisions and to relent and to give in to another person sometimes. Buying a house and managing your way through a hair-raising mortgage process is nothing in comparison. Though Josh and I had taken on his personal characteristic of openly and sometimes hostilely attacking each other over, say, how good the films of Paul Thomas Anderson are, the stakes of so many of the arguments we’d had over the years before Zelda were extremely low.
The thing is that parenting is actually easier when you’re on your own, without someone there to question the choices you’re making. And since I was often the one alone with Zelda, I made many of the decisions myself.
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To be clear, Josh wasn’t an absentee father; he was simply a parent who worked a lot. There were plenty of times, thousands of hours, where it was the two of us together. And it was then that we fought for the first time over things that seemed to really matter. I found that I couldn’t remain silent. I would correct his parenting or simply take over entirely. I found myself disagreeing openly with even small decisions he made.
He was not fond of this emerging tendency in me. I’ve always been a know-it-all corrector. This is not an attractive or good quality, and I sometimes try very hard to keep my thoughts to myself. But as I’d lay in bed at night with the baby monitor humming beside me, being hard on myself for the way I’d treated him during that day, for saying, “Don’t make a big deal if she cries,” or, “Don’t turn the heat on now, it will wake her,” I’d often come back around to the other side in my internal dialogue. “Wait a minute,” I’d say. “He’s the whole reason I’m so disagreeable to begin with! He’s the one who showed me that speaking my mind was the best policy.”
We had this argument out loud occasionally, too. “You’re the reason I am this way now. I was much easier before,” I’d say unhelpfully. If there was a shred of truth to it, what good did it do me to say it aloud? And so, the circular way of thinking completed itself and began anew.
We agreed on most things. We were politically aligned. We usually liked the same TV shows. Our temperaments worked well together. But parenting is a crazy test of a relationship. I can’t say we did better than other people. But we didn’t judge ourselves too harshly, and ultimately, we sort of came to an agreement.
I won most of the arguments. We basically did and still do most of the parenting the way that I want to. That doesn’t mean I’m always right. I’m wrong sometimes. And though Josh is not naturally disagreeable, he is also not a grudge keeper. In that first year or so of Zelda’s life, he extended to me a great charity in not holding too much against me.
At home, my mother was the “cool parent.” I wanted to emulate that much of her. I wanted to be cool. I think of myself as a cool person with good ideas. I know that’s a funny way to want to be perceived, but it’s true. I wanted Zelda to think of me as a cool mother. My father was firmer and in some ways more fearful to me. If he said, “Go clean up your room,” I did. With my mother, I could often negotiate. “Come help me?” I’d ask. She didn’t always say yes but I at least felt comfortable, and entitled, to ask.
But I was soon taken aback by the realization that Josh was the cool parent in Zelda’s life, especially once she began to talk. “Daddy,” she’d say when I asked who she wanted to read her stories at night. It didn’t matter that she seemed to prefer him sometimes simply because he was easier to manipulate. I’d leave the room, letting him read, and then stand in the kitchen seething as I heard her stretch bedtime by another twenty minutes. “I need to go potty,” she’d say. “I’m thirsty,” she’d say. “I need a tissue,” she’d say, and he’d fall for it every time.
I wasn’t angry with him over these things. Well, I was at first. But I’ve grown to accept this dynamic. I am the decider, like my mother was before me, but in that role I’m also unequivocally the boss. Zelda knows she can’t fuck with me. She doesn’t fear me; I’ve tried so hard to ensure that she doesn’t fear me, and there are no signs that she does. But she does not disobey me very often. These days she simply says, “Okay, Mommy, two minutes more,” when I tell her how long there is until dinner.
I respect and accept this. I don’t need to be everything to Zelda. I don’t need to be the cool parent. She has Josh for that.
We agreed on most things. We were politically aligned. We usually liked the same TV shows. Our temperaments worked well together. But parenting is a crazy test of a relationship.
When my parents separated, when I was getting ready to enter tenth grade, I was relieved. I’m not sure why, exactly, but, I hoped that their separation would lead to my mother drinking less. That hope turned out to be, like many others, unfulfilled. At the time of the separation, with my oldest brother, David, already at college, we decided that my brothers and me would stay with my mother. We wanted to stay with our mother too, because, well, she was the cool parent. Over the years, and with her increased drinking, we knew we could slide under her radar easier than we could my father’s. I remember once telling my dad I was going to the bus stop (which was at the end of our driveway and visible from any of the many windows at the front of our house) and then tried to sneak around the back of the house and through the backyard. The truth was that I had no intention of going to school that day: I was headed to Emily’s. I don’t know why my father was late going to work that morning; usually he left before I had to get on the bus. Either way, he was waiting at the back door for me as I tried to slip into the yard.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I missed the bus,” I lied, poorly. “I’m walking to school now.”
“I watched you watch the bus go by,” he said. “Get in the car, I’ll drive you to school.”
You couldn’t get shit past my dad. I realize now that that’s how I am as a mother. But I will be the first to admit that I am uncool as a mother. I’m in charge. As Zelda says, “You’re da boss.”
If we’d never had children, I believe Josh and I would probably never have been truly confronted with this need to learn how to make decisions together, how to relent or come to an agreement even if disagreement remains. You can’t simply keep arguing forever when another person, the child, needs your answer now: someone either needs to come around, or they need to allow the other person to win.
And I learned something else: my fear, based on my own experience, of Josh and me fighting in front of Zelda, was somewhat useless. Of course we argue in front of her. We don’t yell at each other violently, but we are, I have accepted, disagreeable people. My fear of open confrontation has died very hard, and my fear of hurting my daughter has been washed away like sand on a beach, slowly over time: she’s absorbed so easily into this little family of ours, Band-Aids and all. We are who we are. She chimes in when we argue with her own opinion more often than not. And it’s so obvious she knows and is secure in how much we love her.
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From NOW MY HEART IS FULL by Laura June, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Laura June Topolsky.