Catherine Cameron: Ships in the night
I started to change. We, started to change.
Although raising a child is one of the most rewarding gifts life has to offer, many first time parents aren’t aware of the challenges their relationships will face, as they experience the rollercoaster of sleep deprivation and the relentless busyness that is being a parent.
But why aren’t we more honest about these challenges?
As soon as my husband and I found out we were to be first time parents, the elation we felt was indescribable. Every step of my pregnancy brought us closer together as we marvelled at this growing little life we had created. So focussed on the health of our unborn baby, we never once stopped to imagine how becoming parents might alter or change our relationship.
The only word that sums up how I felt toward my husband during my first week in hospital after giving birth is pride. I was proud he was mine. I was proud he was my girl’s daddy. I was proud of how he seamlessly stepped into his role of father. On returning home in a cloud of euphoria, we tackled the journey of parenthood together, side by side.
And then slowly, reality started to creep in. My husband returned to running his business, seeing me take over the night shift to provide him some sleep for work. Soon, we were sleeping in separate rooms and it wasn’t long before I began to feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and alone. In reality, I was never alone. He was always there for me, always willing to be by my side should I need him. But in my sleep-deprived state, the long nights of solitude began to eat at my sense of reality.
I started to change.
We, started to change.
The first thing we lost in our relationship was time. Before our daughter, every day, we made time to talk and ‘check in’ with the other. We both knew exactly how the other was feeling. Once our girl arrived, this ‘checking in’ stopped. I stopped knowing how his day was, how he felt, or what he was thinking.
Soon everything, and I mean everything, became about her. Conversation. Plans. The temperature of the room. Noise levels. Visitors. We even ate around what foods would or would not affect her (through my breast milk.) Communication became yelling over her cries, whispering as she slept, or talking about who was doing what to help her and when. Even if we were given a rare opportunity of alone time (once we went out for lunch without her – I repeat, once) all we would talk about was babies, babies, babies.
Because she was my entire world, and he was still able to maintain balance, our perceptions began to change on what was important. For me, it was transitioning my baby from one swaddle to another, attempting to extend her naps, re-settling, calculating awake times, and watching her play with new toys. Although these things were important to him, they were ground breaking to me. I began to perceive his less enthusiastic responses to my elation at things like finally cracking a successful nap routine as disinterest. Although his reactions were rational, this annoyed me.
Often, we would let the emotions we were feeling in coping with a baby effect the way we felt toward one another. If she was screaming, we would angrily yell at each other across the room, unable to hear over her cries, unable to stop the screams. Our perception of each other became warped and we began to radiate our frustrations and hurt at seeing our child upset onto one another.
Conversations were never finished, emotions never dealt with. We went to bed at different times. We woke up at different times. Often we would run into each other without uttering a word, dare he wake the baby in my arms, dare I tell him I wasn’t coping and burst into tears.
Suddenly, we became ships in the night.
Jealousy began to rear its ugly head. “Why does he get to sit down and drink his morning coffee? Why does he get to talk to people on the phone without being interrupted? Why does he get to go out for an entire day wearing nice clothes and talking to adults? Why am I feeling so overwhelmed? Why isn’t he?’
And so, the bickering began. ‘Who does more? Whose job is harder? Who’s had the most sleep this week? Who consoles her the most when she’s crying? Who makes the most excuses?’ I became angry. He became distant. We became bitter.
Where did my husband go? Why had we stopped laughing? How were we living together, but feeling like strangers?
I remember texting my friends, calling my sister, begging for answers. ‘What has happened to us? Why are we fighting? Is this normal?’
I was constantly reassured that yes, this was normal. Normal? This? Then why didn’t you warn me? Why did no one say anything before?
But then, I would never have believed them. As with every aspect of parenthood, the sleep deprivation, the all-consuming love, and the animal instinct to protect - you cannot understand the intensity of these things until you are experiencing them yourself.
Today my girl is 5 months old. Now I’m not going to tell you (as many people told us) that when she was no longer a newborn, things miraculously fell into place. I’m not going to tell you, she sleeps 8 hours a night while we eat lamb roasts by candle light, and dance to slow music. And I’m also not going to tell you, things are exactly as they used to be, and we plan to renew our vows in Honolulu and tattoo each other’s names on our backsides.
Instead, I am going to be realistic. I am going to tell you, we are still facing challenges. I am going to tell you, we are still tired. Some days, we still forget to ask how the other is feeling. Others, we still forget we are on the same team.
But what I will tell you, is that without him, I would be rocking back and forth in a dark corner. I will tell you, we have learned to communicate better. I will tell you, we are honest with each other, and careful not to form assumptions on what the other is dealing with, or feeling. I will tell you, we are embracing change, rather than running away from it. I will tell you, we are celebrating our girl’s milestones together, and letting ourselves see these as a reflection of our successful parenting. I will also tell you, we have swapped romantic dinners for brunches, and walks on the beach with the pram. And we have swapped dinner parties to days of watching our girl marvel at the small things we forget to marvel at ourselves.
Today, I am in awe of how far we have come. We have been through challenges we could never have imagined, and come out the other end stronger and wiser; together. Nothing can take away from the moments where he has blown me away as a husband, and a father. I will forever cling to those moments - him wiping the hair from my face as I have cried from exhaustion, or listening to him singing to her in the other room and feeling my heart swell. No change, no challenge, no speed bump, and no sleepless night will ever alter the fact that this man, my husband, has given me the greatest gift I could ever have hoped for.
And for that, I owe him my life.