In the book A Severe Mercy, Van and Davy are a couple in love and trying to stay that way. As they think long and hard about what makes people fall out of love, Van and Davy discover something they call “creeping separateness.” A couple might start pursuing different interests that take them away from each other, or they may fall in with different circles of friends. Van and Davy determine to ward off this creeping separateness by sharing everything—if one reads a book, the other would read it shortly after. If one could not attend an event, then both would decline. Out of this effort to share everything and avoid separateness, the couple makes the choice to never have children. Pregnancy and childbirth and the realities of motherhood are experiences Davy could have that Van could never share, no matter how much he might want to.
I used to think that was crazy—and then I got pregnant.
While Robert and I do have separate interests, we share enough that we are quite bonded. We’re best friends, and we have an egalitarian, respectful marriage where gender differences don’t come up that often. But now that I’m well into my first pregnancy, I realize that since the positive test, I felt a wall go up, or a chasm open, between my husband and myself.
While he’s been incredibly supportive and involved during the pregnancy, there’s only so much he can do. I was the one slain by fatigue every day in the first trimester, nauseous and vomiting and only able to eat bagels with cream cheese while he went his merry way. I’ve been the one driving downtown for doctor’s appointments, peeing in cups and getting blood tests and cold gel smeared on my growing belly. Insomnia, leg cramps, weight gain, researching natural birth and breastfeeding—this is my lot as an expectant mother. My body is growing and nurturing a life; his is the same as it ever was.
It’s hard not to feel now like my husband is a different species from me. I’ve started to bemoan the inherent patriarchy of human pregnancy and childbirth—why must I carry the child, birth the child, and then sustain the child with my own body? Why can’t we be like penguins or seahorses and share the burden? Not only that, but I started to look around at men everywhere with less … respect. It’s easy to think their lives are so simple! Their bodies change during puberty, sure, but after that, they are more or less reliable and unchanging vessels until old age. Women, on the other hand, must deal with a lifetime of hormonal shifts that affect our skin, our hair texture, our moods, our body shape. Every single month our bodies cycle through change, they stretch to their limits with each pregnancy, are sucked dry with each baby, must regulate again afterward, and then comes menopause! A woman’s experience of being human is remarkably different from a man’s, even if you only take into account physiological factors.
There’s something so isolating about pregnancy, and now that I’m a few weeks from my due date I’m so excited for Robert to meet our baby, for the two of us to share the experience of her. But at the same time, I fear that the end of my pregnancy will just be the beginning of this separateness I sometimes feel from Robert. I hear friends complain about their husbands—good men, quite involved in the care of their babies. But they claim what even a good dad can do doesn’t hold a candle to his wife’s instinctual caretaking abilities. It’s not just that she’s the only one who can breastfeed; she holds the intoxicating smell that calms her baby down, she has the intuition and foresight to know what the child needs or will need at any given moment. It’s worse when the husband works and the wife stays at home—he carries on with his grown-up, workaday life filled with other adults, uninterrupted lunches out, quiet commutes home. She is thrust into a totally new dimension; one dictated by the bodily needs of small humans, set to background music of light up sing-along toys or Daniel Tiger. I just read a blog where a stay-at-home mother muses about the great divide between herself and her husband:
Sometimes I get annoyed that on the scale of self-sacrifice, I feel like I’m at an 8 and Joe is at a 3. Sometimes I feel like saying, you are a child compared to me. The things you’ve given up, the frustrations you encounter, they are so petty compared to what I do everyday. […] I think about him going to the gym a couple times a week and spending an hour in pursuit of nothing but a better physique, walking out to buy lunch in a cute cafe and eating it at a table by the window, having a meeting over drinks in the evening. I am almost aghast at the differences in our daily lives right now. […] I wonder, will he ever catch up to me? Or will it have just been me all these years, becoming infinitely more patient, or more beleaguered, as the case may be?
Peering into the horizon of my future as a stay-at-home mother, these sentiments scare me because I already sometimes feel like this; like I’m sacrificing my body to bring this baby into the world, but she will not just be my baby, she will be our baby—even though my husband is basically getting her “for free.” (And to those husbands who say their part was putting up with the pregnant wife … no. Stop.)
I’m trying to reframe things. I’m still trying to think of us as a team, with different roles supporting our life together. He’s making the money. It’s not easy, going to work every day. It’s not easy, commuting through traffic or dealing with office politics or having to be indoors on a beautiful day. And I’ll be the one holding down the fort. Sure, it’s not easy doing all the “grunt work” like cleaning and grocery shopping and cooking and the majority of the diaper changes. But someone’s got to do it, just like someone’s got to make the money. It doesn’t have to be a man/woman thing. It doesn’t have to be a “my sacrifice is bigger than yours” thing.
I want to teach our kids that when you’re in a family, you all work together to have the life you want. You help each other out, pull your weight, play your part. You’re thankful for the efforts of the other, and you voice that thanks, even if it seems basic, like, “Thanks for giving the dog a bath,” or, “Thanks for working so hard, even when it’s not fun.” If we focus on our day-to-day tasks, it’s easy to feel separate, walking on opposite sides of a great divide. But when we take our eyes off ourselves, we can see that we’re both building the same thing—a life, a legacy—and we’re building it together.