So here’s a typical dinner scene around here in quarantine-land with my cozy little family of three, which consists of my husband, my 7-year-old daughter and me:
“I read today that—”
“Talk to ME!” our child yells.
“Let me just tell Papa something. So I read—”
“You only ever talk to EACH OTHER!”
“Noa, you know that’s not true,” my husband says. “Let your mother speak.”
“I spend all day talking to you!” I say to her, trying to conceal my annoyance that I do, indeed, spend all day talking to only her. “Now I want to tell Papa something. You can wa—”
“TALK. TO. MEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”
“Let us talk!” we both yell.
Has the pandemic stolen anyone else’s marriage?
Our situation, in brief: From the moment our daughter wakes up in the morning until around 5pm, when I insist my husband emerge from his office (the bedroom), I am with our daughter. I am setting up her Zooms, keeping her on or off the iPad, feeding her, and getting her to get dressed and brush her teeth and do her work and get outside and stop melting down, and, let’s not forget, playing with her — all while trying to do my other job, which is to write. At 5pm, my husband emerges and we eat dinner, go for a family walk (during which my husband and I are not “allowed” to talk to each other), read with her, and then — AND THEN. Then, my sweet second grader, who before-pandemic went to bed at 8pm, will not go to sleep until 10:30pm. With me in the room with her.
Tell me, dear reader, when are two partners stuck with their only child in a pandemic meant to have a) a real conversation, and b) sex?
The first few weeks of our quarantine were, I’m almost ashamed to say, vaguely blissful. My husband and I were getting along better than we have in years, surely because things had slowed down; he was more engaged in family life, and we felt grateful and lucky to be safe and healthy. Our daughter seemed to be thriving doing art projects and heading to empty beaches with me in the middle of the week. None of us thought this would last very long.
That was so many months ago now, and, like most families, our situation has devolved considerably and we are deep in survival-of-the-family mode, which leaves very little time for our marriage. And yet, with so little time for our marriage, our family life falls apart at a rapid pace as my husband and I become more brittle with each other. It’s a vicious Catch-22.
“For our family to work,” we try to explain to our daughter on one of our walks, “Mama and Papa need to talk to each other. If we don’t get a chance to talk, our family cannot work well.”
She has no idea what I’m saying, but it’s straightforward: Without time devoted exclusively to marital togetherness — whether that be deep talks, watching “Fauda” or “Better Things” sprawled side by side on the couch, or regular sex — my husband quickly starts to seem like a really annoying roommate who leaves his shoes in the entryway and his dishes in the sink. The chemistry evaporates. The intimacy feels off and forced. I start to think: Why are you still here?
“Date night” has always been a sort of lame joke to most married people I know; I’ve never subscribed to the idea that one night out can actually repair weeks or months of family messiness, anger or resentment just because you give your dinner out a name. But there is actually something rather vital about reminding ourselves of the reasons why we ended up together in the first place, and kid-free time — call it “date night” or not — does help with that.
But how do we find time for intimacy of any kind when our kids never go anywhere, and my kid in particular is so needy right now? It doesn’t feel like the right time to sleep-train (again), or force her to spend yet more time alone when as an only child she is already so lonely. It doesn’t feel like the right time to teach her to become even more self-sufficient when half the time I’m with her I’m multitasking and on a work assignment myself.
It feels like the time to throw up my hands and follow her lead, within reason. Unlike me, she can’t start drinking at 6pm or eat ice cream out of the pint at midnight, or — if we ever had any privacy — have sex to decompress. She’s expressing her anger and stress by clinging to me. I cannot, in good conscience, shake her off.
So what does this mean for my marriage? I’ve learned over the last eight years that “fixing” the marriage actually cannot wait. Putting the marriage on hold for a so-called “better” time to repair things doesn’t work. Something that’s broken doesn’t stay in a static state of brokenness. The bad feelings only multiply, feeding on themselves.
So I know that what my husband and I need is moments, at the very least. Moments of intimacy. That could just mean touching each other as we pass in the kitchen. Talking or cuddling in bed for a few minutes before I pass out and he goes back to his computer to work. Thanking each other sincerely for doing the groceries/ the cooking/ the toilet cleaning. It might mean throwing the kid in front of the TV for a while to get some semblance of privacy.
Our marriages are withstanding more than we perhaps anticipated they could. So are our family units as a whole. The two entities — parenting and partnership — are inextricably linked, but also distinct, which can sometimes be hard to remember. Never before have they been so fused for such a long, indefinite period of time. It’s a new kind of balancing act, one we will one day look back on with awe and sadness, and hopefully not a small amount of laughter.