David and I had our first conflict as parents when Tov was about 10 days old.
We thought we were ready for conflict. While I was pregnant with Tov, we heard a lot of advice and warnings from other parents: You’re going to be exhausted and frazzled. You’re going to lose your temper with your spouse. You’re going to resent him/her. You’re going to argue. So over-communicate, prioritize your spouse, go on date nights.
David and I talked about this before Tov was born. Let’s always have grace with each other, we promised: We’re going to help one another. We’re going to communicate. It’s all about teamwork. We got this, partner!
I wish life works out exactly as our promises. I wish I have more grace than my best intentions. But even if I’m the most even-tempered, sweetest person in the world, I still won’t have enough grace during those unexpected, out-of-control, aggravating, I-hit-my-limit moments that unleash the worst parts of me.
No, the grace manufactured out of my own willpower is never enough. I need the pure, limitless, naturally-flowing grace from a source who’s perfect, someone who has so much abundant grace that He willingly sacrificed Himself for sinners who rejected Him. I need Jesus.
If you’re a long-time Christian, how familiar does that sound? I knew that. I know that. This is basic Gospel 101 that my parents and church have hammered into me since I was a young girl. And yet…why, during the times when I need this gospel truth most, why does it suddenly seem so unnatural, foreign, and irrelevant?
It was dinner time. David and I were having takeout for dinner: pad see ew and green curry. David, as always, needed something sweet to finish off the meal, and he remembered there was a half-eaten Milk Bar corn cookie in the fridge. The cookie was tucked way back in the fridge, so he had to wiggle his arm in…and in the process, knocked over the plastic bottle filled with breastmilk. The bottle tumbled onto the floor, hitting at just such an angle that the lid popped off, splashing its content across the kitchen.
“Argh, damn it!” David exclaimed.
“What is it?” I asked. I was still finishing my curry and hadn’t seen what had happened.
“I spilled your milk,” David said, sighing and ripping out some kitchen paper towels to wipe up the mess.
“WHAT!” I shouted. “All of it?”
And then I lost it. “I HATE YOU!” I screamed.
David stared at me. “You hate me? Excuse me?”
We stared at each other for a couple seconds.
He wrung his hands. “I’m trying!”
For some reason, that irritated me even more. I felt like David was making the spilled milk all about him, and by then I was sick of hearing him talk about how exhausted he is. What about me? I’m the one who gave birth! So I silently watched David clean up the mess in burning-cold silence, my rage frothing. Then I said, my tone prickly with irritation, “Why couldn’t you have been more careful?”
David didn’t say anything, but he made a motion of pulling his hair in frustration, which further pissed me off.
I should explain myself. Often, men accuse women of flying off the handle for no reason. But such an incident never happens in isolation. That milk David spilled? It was only about 2 measly ounces– but it was 2 ounces that I had spent the past 16 hours collecting. That included an hour’s session of power pumping at a godawful time in the morning until my nipples were swollen and sore, only to collect a thumb’s worth of measly milk. Each nursing and pumping session was discouraging and defeating. Meanwhile, we were in the midst of a terrible formula shortage, and Tov was still below his birth weight.
So I was worried about Tov’s lack of weight gain, frustrated about my slow milk supply, incredibly tired from lack of sleep, and somewhat resentful of my sudden downfall from a free, independent woman to a walking, bleeding cow– all udders and leaking fluids and foggy brain, my days and nights filled with nothing but the mundane, mind-numbing tasks of keeping a newborn child alive. I missed my freedom, just the taken-for-granted joy of being able to brew a cup of coffee and drink it hot without being interrupted by a crying baby. I missed the freedom of reading late into the night and going to bed whenever I want, the basic freedom of functioning as an independent, well-rested, well-fed human being.
Then I looked at my husband, and his life didn’t seem to have changed that much. He’s still working; he took only two days off while I was at the hospital. He’s still going on two walks a day. He’s still working out every morning. He still eats three meals and three snacks a day, and is able to sleep through the night. In my mind, my husband got to keep his routine, while mine has been shredded like confetti. And before I realized it, resentment coiled around my heart.
So that 2 ounces of milk? I wasn’t crying over spilled milk. I was mad because I knew how much toil and loss went behind collecting that milk, which my husband spilled while reaching for a damn corn cookie– and he shrugged. And in that instant, I reached for the worst interpretation of that shrug: It wasn’t so much that I didn’t think he cared about the work I’ve put in– I decided he just didn’t even care to know about it. I was suddenly struck with an indignation that he never once asked, “And how are you doing?” So at that moment, the first sentence that shot out of my mouth was an explosive “I hate you.”
Did I really hate him? No. But in the thick of the moment, with so many unprocessed thoughts and emotions swirling through my mind, the first gush out was like projectile vomit– a chunky, sour, undigested mess. I just wanted to say something that slapped my husband in the face, something shocking and sticky and rude, to make him notice me.
You can tell there’s a conflict in our house not by loud volumes, but silence. We did not speak much for the rest of the night. David ate his cookie and went on his long evening walk. I fed Tov and changed his diaper. When David returned, I silently handed Tov to him and retreated into the dark corner of our bedroom. The next morning, things returned to “normal.” We didn’t talk about what happened the previous night. I didn’t explain why I reacted the way I did, and David didn’t tell me how my outburst made him feel. I watched Tov all day. David worked all day.
Having a newborn child changes your marriage. Because of the baby’s sleep pattern, we were no longer sharing the same bed. At times, I felt like we were more roommates than married couple. Nothing was really “wrong” with our marriage– but I could feel the first tugs of strain. I was easily irritated and short with my husband, especially when I felt my expectations and needs were not being met, yet I couldn’t and didn’t articulate what those needs are, because everything was just so new and unfamiliar.
Grief also changes marriage. David lost a mother. I lost a mother-in-law. That’s not even remotely the same grief. Life remains relatively the same for me, and other events– starting a new job, the birth of my son– took precedence. But for David, his life had cracked apart, and he was still holding onto those shattered pieces, unsure of what to do with them, cutting himself every time he tries to glue them back together. For him, every event– especially the birth of his son– reminds him of his mother. For example, Mother’s Day– my first Mother’s Day as a mother, his first Mother’s Day without his mother– made him sad, so we didn’t even acknowledge it.
Grief is a lonely road– nobody really understands this grief of losing a mother until they experience it themselves. People swarm around the grieving person for a week after the tragedy with casseroles and prayers and flowers, but one week, two week, one month later, everybody moves on with their busy lives, whereas the grieving one observes life through frosted glass. But as a wife, I too sometimes felt lonely. We were experiencing the greatest experience of our life as new parents together, but I couldn’t quite feel the togetherness in it, because while I wanted to cry tears of pure joy, David cried tears of loss, and my selfish, tired heart wanted a respite from all those heavy emotions, a break from nursing both a newborn baby and a husband’s broken heart.
At first, I felt guilty for feeling and thinking that way. I should be more understanding, more empathetic, more self-giving, I preached to myself. But then a voice interjected, “But why? You’ve done enough! Isn’t marriage a two-way covenant? What about your needs? Shouldn’t your needs be met, too? Who takes care of you?” So I cast the guilt aside, and instead took on the cross of a justified martyr. I swung between guilt and self-justification. Neither felt nice, but both felt right.
It was reasonable and natural to feel the way I did. I was “right” that a wife needs care, attention, and appreciation from her husband. I was also “right” to recognize that during some seasons, one partner might need more tender care than the other, and this was a season for me to practice self-sacrifice and selflessness. Everything I felt and thought were logical, understandable. But the problem was, it was too logical. My mind was a courtroom, and I was the defendant, the attorney, the prosecutor, the judge, and the jury. There is no room for grace in the courtroom.
I accused my husband of making things all about him. But I too made it all about me– and that much focus on self does not leave room for the Spirit to grow fruits– love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control– all the qualities I desperately need for a thriving marriage.
I needed grace. I needed the gospel, a gospel not just stuck in my head as concepts but living and breathing truths in my daily life.
Continued in Part II…