Whatever You Do, Stay on the Same Team

Friday, April 21, 2017 - 5:00 am

Whatever You Do, Stay on the Same Team

My husband John broke his foot and ankle a couple of weeks ago. He was running, as he so often does, on a steep trail in the beautiful Berkeley hills when he heard a loud crack. He knew it was bad immediately — the piercing pain, the immediate shockwaves running through his body.

So for now, well for at least six weeks, my usually busy, energetic husband is stuck on the couch with a bum leg. He’s the kind of guy that normally exhausts those around him; a friend once asked me how much John slept each night, convinced that the only way he could accomplish as much as he does is by seriously depriving himself of rest (he sleeps a pretty normal amount, for the record). While my daughters and I can wander around the house doing a million weird small activities for hours on end, my husband needs to get out and go on adventures.

My first thought when I started to consider the consequences of six weeks of sedentary life for my husband was that his mental health was endangered. Running is his way of processing the world, his day, his emotions. I guess he’ll have to develop new muscles, I thought to myself. The emotional kind, of course, not the physical kind.

My second thought, in terms of consequences, was for myself. Six weeks of a partner who can’t lift our baby, much less anything else. In our relationship, I am the Chief Financial Officer (I pay the bills, do the taxes, handle all paperwork, etc.) and my husband is the Chief Domestic Officer (he does laundry, the cooking, the cleaning). The first time I did laundry in our cohousing facility was a couple years into us living here and I managed to wash and dry a tortilla (amazingly, it stayed intact). I guess I’ll have to develop new muscles, too, I thought, cringing a little bit. The domestic kind.

So a few weeks in, how are our new muscles developing?

Well, I’m exhausted. Bone tired. I get the girls to sleep and all I want to do is crawl into bed and lie there in the dark quiet for a few minutes before inevitably crashing. You know that feeling when your day is so packed that lying down feels like a kind of primordial exhale? It’s like that every night. Turns out that the layer of domesticity that John normally performs is the exact amount of extra work to defeat me daily. Bonus: my gratitude for him is renewed ten-fold. And relatedly, I feel a tremendous amount of empathy for parents whose partners don’t shoulder the burden fairly with them. (Or, wowzers, those who have no partner at all.)

As for John, he’s binge watching The Americans, a Netflix series about secret Russian agents on U.S. soil in the ’80s. Or that’s what he told me when I asked him how he’s processing his emotions without being able to run. I won’t watch it with him, so I’m not exactly sure that this is a healthy answer (I’m pretty sure it’s not). But you know what? It’s kind of working for him, so who am I to judge? His bonus: being injured has given him deep empathy for people with disabilities. He notices every crack in the sidewalk. Every little thing feels harder, even as he knows it’s not permanent.

Here’s the truth: I haven’t turned into Martha Stewart and he hasn’t turned into Brené Brown. We are who we are, just stretched further. I wish I could tell you that this challenging period has brought us to a new spiritual plane, but I’d be lying. He’s certainly lowering his standards of cleanliness, which is no small thing for a guy who grew up with a white glove test. I’m not freaking out about doing a disproportionate amount of domestic work, which is also no small thing for a girl who grew up determined not to replicate her parents’ unequal distribution of labor.

If anything, it’s codified my biggest discovery of co-parenting and partnering: whatever you do, relentlessly attempt to stay on the same team. If you can do that, everything will be okay. It’s you two, together, against the toddler’s stomach virus; one of you rushes her to the bathroom, the other one strips the bed and gets the laundry started. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. All night long.

It’s you two, together, against the perfect storm of spring break, pink eye, and torrential weather; one of you hides in the bathroom to try to meet a client’s deadline, the other invents a new game involving every blanket and snack food in the house.

It’s you two, together, against the black hole of bedtime manipulations; sometimes one parent literally has to tap out and the other one has to head in, game face on, ready for battle with the bizarre and talented manipulations of a 3.5-year-old.

And after you’ve left it all out on the field, you collapse onto the couch and laugh your asses off. And eat ice cream. And thank your lucky stars that, though you may not be spiritually evolved, you are at least together in the craziness of raising small children. Being broken and tired is inevitable. Which, in the end, is a spiritual lesson in and of itself.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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  • Elizabeth Thompson

    Loved this! and thank you for mentioning disability. As a disabled person trying to bring humans into the world, dangerous discourses about my fitness as a parent and partner can be disheartening. There is remarkable value in reframing disability as something requiring creativity, innovation of approach and teamwork. That the world is not built for bodies where both legs don’t work the same, or both hands, any part of the body, for that matter — is a way for ableism to creep in where it’s better to resist and find new ways of loving, doing family and shared labor. Thank you for writing and sharing, Courtney.

  • I love this article! I appreciate it from the perspective of raising a child without a partner after my husband died (when my son was 11 months old); AND from the perspective becoming partnered again when my son was 12 years old. When I had no partner, I was exasperated (or, to be completely honest, enraged) at people who did have partners but didn’t appreciate them. When I finally got to remarry, I was mindful of how lucky I was to have my husband as a partner in life. Remembering how grateful I am to have him helps SO much to “keep us on the same team” when life’s inevitable struggles make me want to complain.

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