For most of us, the photo at the top of this blog probably accurately sums up our wedding experience. Big celebration with friends far flung, smiling generations of family enjoying one of life’s signposts, hand-picked band playing hand-picked song list, everybody elated and euphoric. That was my experience. And I even took a moment, as someone had counseled me beforehand, to stand in the corner and take it all in. The entire experience was just about perfect, I remain grateful to everyone involved for playing a part in it all, and even now I can’t really conceive of anything that would have made that day any better. Amazing.
Well, I can think of one thing. I wish that someone had pulled me aside and whispered to me something along these lines:
“Hey, this is all really great, just about everyone you love in the world is here today. For you. Your new bride is a vision today, and she’s fabulous. Everyone is smiling, genuinely happy for you. However. This is not what marriage will be like. Marriage can be very hard, and it will require a ton of work. You will learn that the things that are most important to you 20 years from now have nothing to do with what brought the two of you together in the first place, and these things aren’t even on your radar screen right now. How could they be? So I’m just giving you this little glimpse of the future, and you should go back to having a blast in a minute, but definitely don’t file my advice away too deeply in the recesses of your memory banks. A “healthy” marriage, a long-lasting marriage, a foundation for your children, their children, and their children, is not a natural state. Be prepared to work, starting now. Here, take this shovel. And by the way, there is no end to the work you need to be doing. It is constant, and you can never put your timecard back into the clock to punch out at the end of the day. There is no “end of the day.” If you are willing to work, and if you are willing to learn along the way, it will probably all be worth it. But marriage is not wedding cakes, brass bands and fraternity brothers tossing you into the air with your fists punching the sky. Don’t let anyone tell you marriage is easy, that people are ‘soul mates’ whose lives move like an effortless waltz with perfect postures and chins lifted, that it’s all a breeze. Those people are kidding themselves. Still, if you’ve somehow managed to “choose well” — even though you could not possibly have known what that means, and won’t for quite some time — and if you’re truly committed to working hard to keep feeding your marriage no matter what, then this just might work out. Good luck. Keep the shovel.”
That would have been great advice. I’m sure I would have nodded along politely, only half-listening, eager to get back to the party. But that would have been a great card to refer to in the mental Rolodex.
Instead, I’ve muddled along, trying to figure things out along the way as I go, taking my wife on a roller-coaster ride career-wise, for sure. She thought (I thought) she was marrying someone who would enjoy a stable litigation practice for years, work predictable hours, provide a stable base for our family, be home for dinner every night, and live a pretty “ordinary” life. Turns out she married someone who grew weary of solving other entrepreneurs’ problems frozen in time, itchy at the prospect of being stuck in an office rather than out running, cycling or swimming, and eager to run into all manner of burning buildings. Over and over again, with a maniacal grin pasted across my face, flushed with the thrill of it. It is very difficult to ride in the backseat of the roller coaster, trying to be supportive of yet another loop around the track, trying to stifle the nausea and dizziness from all the steep drops and hairpin turns, and trying to effect a smile when I say (again and again), turning to her in the backseat, “Isn’t this great?” It cannot be easy trying to keep up with and keep in sync with someone whose brain works as my brain works. I love how my brain works, but I’m old enough now to realize that I am in the distinct minority on that one. And the roller coaster has taken its toll.
I mean well; I always have. The poem I wrote for Hilary, read aloud by my dear friend Alex at our wedding ceremony, was from the heart. Reading it now, it seems prescient. At least I seemed to know what was important, what would be important, that I needed to work at this thing, and that I was willing to work at this thing. But like our impossibly perfect wedding cake, the poem is an idealized version of real life. Of real marriage. Of what I imagined or expected those things to be. How could I possibly claim to know what was coming down the road? I’m embarrassed now, reminded of the ridiculous hubris of that 28 year-old. Hey kid, rather than writing a love poem to your bride and tying the perfect bow-tie, go pick up that shovel and start digging. You have some real work to do. I love that poem, and I am proud of its words, and I meant them, and still mean them. But it’s just…not…real. It needs more shovel.
Real marriage means never trying to actually win an argument with your wife. You never win. That shouldn’t be your goal. You have to effect some sort of unsteady, but binding compromise. It’s all a compromise, a long series of compromises. Even when objectively you are right, which might objectively be quite frequently, it doesn’t matter. Jamming the fact that you’re right down your wife’s throat? Not a winning scenario under any circumstances. Also, women and men are different species. Don’t try to take the bag of experiences that your wife experiences through her own senses and run it through your own way of processing those experiences. Those are her experiences. And she has her own way of processing things. That has to be respected. Never undermine, at least not intentionally. Show a united front to your children. If she takes Max’s iPhone away for a week in a seeming fit of anger, go with it. Don’t show the slightest hint of reluctance when he looks for your eyes for confirmation that this punishment is, indeed, for real. Get used to the “Father Knows Best” things you’ll hear coming out of your mouth at these times: “Well son, your mother and I agree that…”
And slow down. Sit down next to her. Breath. Look into her eyes. Tell her you love her (because you do). And ask her how her day was. Then just…listen. Make her feel that she is the center of your universe (because she is). Even if you can’t absorb all the details that flow from her lips, remember what drew you to her in the first place. Let yourself be amazed by all the things that have transpired since that day. Allow yourself to be dazzled and amazed by this woman who willingly carried and delivered — twice! — your children. (A man might be wiling to give birth to a child once, but no man would voluntarily do it again.) Be grateful, again and again, that every time you look in the backseat of the roller coaster, she is there. Sometimes pissed, sometimes on the verge of throwing up, sometimes smiling through closed lips. But she is there. She is always there. And I am grateful for that.
So after all these years have passed, and strangely, as many of the things I wrote about in that wedding day poem have actually happened, I still have the shovel in my hand. I’ve wanted to throw it down on the ground and scream at the top of my lungs so many times, just like you. She has wanted to yank it out of my hands and scream out loud. Just like you. That would be way easier than actually doing the work prescribed by my imaginary wedding day advisor. I struggle with all those good things I’m supposed to do that I rattled off in the paragraph before this one. Every day. And I have botched some of them up so many times. Despite my best intentions, I will no doubt continue botching. But I will not throw down the shovel, nor will I release my grip on it. I’m going to stay right here, a quick wipe of the brow and exhale, then back to work, knowing full well that my timecard will stay in my back pocket, that I will never punch out. And I’m good with that.
Thanks for reading.
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