Tuesday, February 22, 2011

This is not an indictment

Have you heard of Joyce Carol Oates? Some say she’s one of America’s greatest living writers. (Don’t feel guilty. I keep meaning to, but I’ve never read anything by her, either.) She recently completed a memoir – A Widow’s Story - about her relationship with her husband. In it, she tells how, after nearly 50 years of marriage, she found out that their relationship was not what she thought it was. His death was sudden, and in going through his things, she found notes about a relationship with another woman and a psychiatrist telling him that he was “love-starved.” Now, Oates questions how well she really knew her husband, and her recollections of their life together are altered.

This woman’s sad story wedged itself in my head today because lately, I’ve thought about how the presence of a child can change and strain the relationship between a husband and wife. I don’t know if Oates and her husband had children, but I know it’s tough – some say impossible – to ever truly know another person, no matter how much time you spend together, no matter how much you live through together. Every one of us harbors thoughts that we share with no one, and the width and breadth of those thoughts can make a big difference in a marriage – even more so when children are in the picture. Children take up so much space – physically, mentally, emotionally – that it can seem easier to set a perceived slight – sometimes just an annoyance, other times some event or thoughts that need to be dealt with – aside because there are other, more pressing matters – diapers, a feeding, a sink full of dishes – that require attention. We ignore it in the present in the name of keeping the peace or just getting things done, but it doesn’t go away. Other people are more prone to this than others, or at least it seems that way to me the older I get. I’m especially prone to it, as Linda can tell you.

And now we’ve arrived at the real reason for this post. There have been times over the past weeks when Linda has suggested that I do this or that with Violet, and some of her suggestions have left me feeling provoked. This past Saturday, for example, I was heading downstairs to do schoolwork, just as I do every Saturday, and Linda stopped me, saying, “Violet’s in a good mood. Hold off on your work for 10 minutes and spend it with her.” Now, I know this was an innocent comment on her part, but some small part of me couldn’t help but hear her words this way: “If you walk downstairs and choose work over your daughter, you’re a bad father.” I did want to spend that time with Violet, but I also know me, and I know that if I have something pressing to do, it’s hard for me to relax and enjoy doing something else. I told Linda as much, and I went downstairs, trying to get to work but really just stewing about her perceived judgment about what I should and shouldn’t be doing. Eventually, my annoyance faded, but obviously I didn’t forget about it because here I am writing about it. This isn’t the only time it’s happened, either, she has made similar comments, and the ironic part is that I caught myself making similar comments to her, too, but there never seems to be the right time to bring this stuff up. Why ruin a good night with a potentially explosive conversation? But I read that story about Joyce Carol Oates, and it was like a bucket of cold water being dumped on my head; there but for the courage to open my mouth go I.

So I’m putting it down here because most nights I read my post to Linda, and when she’s listening, she’s in a very receptive state of mind (at least she seems to be). I know I can do all the right things, be as open and honest with my mate as possible, and still find out after she’s dead that she was a polygamist Russian spy, but I figure if I try to put most of the things on the table that need to see the light of day, then I can find some comfort in the fact that I tried. Wish me luck.

94 days old


  1. Bill, she's not saying those things because she's judging to, and she's not saying them to annoy you. And clearly you are a great dad! She's probably saying them because she's home with Violet and sees all of Violet's good moods, whereas you're at work and miss most of them. She is probably just trying to make sure you get your share of the good stuff.

    And perhaps she needs five minutes to herself. But mostly the first reason.

  2. Maybe it's called "teachers home on break syndrome"!

    Rob and I have a much needed (i.e., overdue) date night tomorrow. Yesterday was our explosive conversation of perceived slights after I picked a fight. Status quo needed a little rock and roll. Now we're laughing about it already; we must be growing up.

    Ten more days of swim season, then daylight savings, then spring! Bring it on!

  3. I don't know if I can be of much help since my husband has said more than once that he lost his best friend when our daughter was born. Having children does change your relationship with your spouse forever. However, shared parenting also enriches your life beyond anything else possible!
    I consider Joyce Carol Oates's story a cautionary tale. I was struck by their "highly unusual marital practice of not sharing 'anything that was upsetting, depressing, demoralizing, tedious — unless it was unavoidable.'” I believe it is essential to have those "explosive conversations" or the issues never get resolved and you don't truly know the other person. A good alternative is to write down your thoughts if the time for talking is not right.
    Good luck!

  4. Amy - I know you're right. My little voice is too sensitive sometimes.

    Amy BG - the explosive conversations are so hard to get through, but they release so much tension, don't they?

    Anne - Thanks for wishing me luck - we had a long, looong conversation - but it was a good one.