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Having children changes your marriage in ways that are unimaginable to you before you reproduce. It's miraculous, holding in your arms a child that is the literal incarnation of your love for one another. And it's risky. Having a child with someone irrevocably entangles you in one another's lives. You can divorce your spouse, but if you have children together, your lives will never be completely separate again. Then there are the standard issue role conflicts, financial problems, the lack of privacy or time for romance, and the division of labor. It's a wonder any marriage survives parenthood.

With a six-year-old, a three-year- old, and an infant, my husband and I don't have a lot of time to devote to sustaining our relationship. There's simply not enough time in the day for anything more than basic maintenance on our lives. Even that is difficult to keep up - bills go unpaid until the disconnect notice arrives, the car's two months overdue for an oil change and I go without bathing more days than I'd like to admit. Adam comes home from work tired and wants some downtime. Meanwhile, I've been home with the kids all day, and I'm just as desperate for a break. Trouble ensues. We bicker about who's working harder, who's more deserving of a break, often in ridiculously legalistic terms, e.g., does time at the computer constitute a break if I'm nursing the baby while I'm surfing the internet? I knew we were both stressed out and tired, but I didn't realize how much resentment we were throwing off until Thanksgiving, when my mother asked me nervously if we were thinking of getting a divorce.

When our oldest child was born, we both worked outside the home during the day, and Drew was in childcare. Co-parenting was easy. We came home tired but eager to be together and with our new baby. When Drew was awake, one of us played with him and the other washed dishes or did the laundry. Except for nursing, Adam did everything I did with the baby. We shared most of the chores, including bathing the baby - a nightly ritual in which Drew and I soaked in the bathtub and Adam sat in the bathroom and talked to us while we splashed and played.

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Compared to our current routine, this seems like an impossible idyll. Now bath time is a rushed affair. We trade out responsibilities as needed - I give Franny her bath until Alec needs to nurse and then Adam tags me out. Then, when Alec's done eating, I cajole Drew into his pajamas and read him his stories. Most nights, Alec has to make do with what my grandmother used to call a "jay bird bath," a wipe down with a warm cloth. In some ways it's easier now that Drew and Franny are older, but the logistics of getting three children fed, bathed and ready for bed are exhausting. And this doesn't even include homework, PTA meetings, lunches, and the late night laundry sessions necessary to ensure that everyone has underwear for the next day.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that we like each other, much less that we're lovers and partners. It's all too easy to use Adam as a punching bag for my resentments, to blame him for all the ways in which things don't go the way I'd like. But it's never been so bad that I contemplated divorce. We joke that the secret to our marriage is that whoever leaves has to take the kids, but there's a grain of truth in that. If it's this hard with a partner, what would it be like to do all this solo?

The sure knowledge that it will get better helps - after going through this stage twice before, I know that eventually we will get more sleep, it will be easier to get things done, the ebb and flow of married life will bring us closer together again. Fifteen years of negotiating one another's mood swings and temper fits also helps. At this point, I'm just bored with most of our traditional arguments. I can't muster up much passion for another round of "who does more around the house" or a good old fashioned game of badgering and stonewalling.

But there's something more than that. Having children is revealing. You can't keep your masks on when you haven't slept in days and you're covered in vomit. Being a parent has brought out the best and the worst in both of us. Parenting with Adam has allowed me to know him more intimately than I've ever known anyone else. It's added a depth and texture to our relationship that I could never have imagined before we had children. I've seen my husband in a vein-popping, barely contained rage, trying to reason with a toddler. He's seen me reduced to hysteria and tears by eggs and milk and cooking oil dumped all over the kitchen floor. We've said bitter, hateful things to one another in the wee hours of the morning, when we should have been catching a few hours of sleep, but neither of us was willing to let the other one have the last word. I've listened to Adam spin elaborate bedtime stories, watched him comfort a teething infant with amazing patience, laughed and danced and roughhoused with him and the kids until we were all too worn out and too silly to do anything but collapse in a giggling puppy pile. Who would I share all this with, if Adam wasn't around?

I don't really think having children has made our marriage stronger. If anything, it's revealed all the hidden fault lines, the fragile places where stress and chaos threaten to break it all apart. But it's also given us the glue to hold it all together, cracks and chips and all.
About the Author:

Melissa Lipscomb lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Send feedback for Melissa to disturbance@austinmama.com and visit her blog


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