In a book on discipline assigned to Aaron for the upcoming school year, an educator from central Florida more or less ascertains that there is no such thing as bad behavior, that there are only infinite needs. In her book, she says, too, that over the last few decades society has changed insofar as most people no longer live according to roles but live in relationship instead.
It is true that I often tell Aaron of my complexity, that I am at once not completely satisfied to be what has been unfairly coined a “stay-at-home” mom (you know what it looks like when you tell a dog to “stay”?; yeah, there is nothing less like “staying” than trying to care for a toddler). At the same time, I am easily beset by all the stressful demands of the professional world I love.
This summer, we spent a lot of time discussing our needs: “Okay, so if you watch Clara this morning, then I’ll work while she naps and then maybe we can go for a short hike before I have to teach at 5:30. And, tomorrow I’ll watch Clara so you can laminate your solfege words and decorate your room with inspiring messages about singing and dancing.” By “discussing”, I, of course, mean the tired, tedious negotiation of duties and obligations. Calling such chats a “discussion” is a little like when that junk email message keeps “inviting” me to take its survey. Sometimes, if I want to pay Aaron back for leaving his clothes all over the house, I’ll engage him in a discussion about calendars–what we have to do and where we have to be for the rest of the week. It’s really not a very nice thing to do, especially because I know it takes Aaron four times longer to process a simple question like “can you take the trash to the dump today or should I?” than a question like “how can we be sure that what we experience is reality?”
I also like to ask Aaron if we should have an ironing party (that’s right—you’ve been invited to discuss an upcoming and very fun ironing party!) before school starts and iron all of his dress shirts in one afternoon and have another party around Christmas. Aaron might ask me what I think the clicking noise is on the Subaru. We often talk about what’s best for Clara—everything from her education to whether or not we should let her cry herself back to sleep. Aaron cleans the toilet sometimes; I have mentioned that I might one day like to mow the lawn. In this way, I know we do not have clear roles but instead we have that thing that lives between two people who do not have labels for each other but have shared moments and dreams that add up to a life.
Sometimes that thing feels like love and sometimes it feels like stress. Sometimes I think it would be easier if we had unchanging roles that defined an unchanging relationship rather than an evolving relationship that defined our evolving roles. It might be easier to know whose job it is to keep Clara from crying and whose it is to keep her clothed in Carter’s and stocked in used toys. Our last discussion was over whether or not Aaron should have offered to rock Clara back to sleep even though I didn’t ask. There might not have been a discussion if I knew that all instances of rocking were exclusive to the role I was cast.
To live, raise children, and maintain things like homes and good credit scores requires so much. Just ask the United States. Given these demands, I don’t think the educator from central Florida is totally right about the switch from roles to relationships. In life’s daily maintenance, it can sometimes feel as though we take relationships at home for granted so that we might have simple roles outside of the home.
After our discussion about whose turn it was to rock Clara, I taught a yoga class and in a moment of weakness, sought refuge in the commiseration of others. I used to approach women strangers with children and say a propos of nothing, “It’s hard, isn’t it? What a big change this has been for us all.” I’ve cut back but still asked a couple women older than me at the gym from my class if they sometimes felt overwhelmed by the details.
Their response was unanimous and reminded me of the two things I thought I would never need in life: money and advice from Oprah. They told me I was probably overdue for a “date night.” “You’ve got to spend time with each other alone, sweetie,” they chorused. “And the rule is, you go out and don’t talk about the children.”
In short, I called Renae, the woman who watches Clara, five minutes later and asked for an hour of her time. Aaron and I went to our favorite brewery and talked about what makes people become zealous, whether we are more defined by the happy or hard times in our lives, and what have been our most defining moments. We have always been really good at talking to each other, and it had been too long since we had a dinner conversation that lasted longer than the amount of time between “more salmon, Clara?” and “no throwing your food at the dogs. ”
I’m grateful that part of my internal monologue doesn’t include the mandate to follow some preordained societal expectation, but I also think that if we’re going to have relationships, then we should really have them, and know that our infinite needs sometimes help guide us in the right direction. And, for me, if that direction looks a lot like the advice column in O, I’m going to follow it all the way to the table for two.