We’re thinking of having a baby. But…I dunno. All of our friends have already had kids or are pregnant now and my partner and I keep noticing that everyone seems so freaking miserable. Like, with each other. We had a couple over last night who have a 3-month-old and they could barely be civil to each other. My girlfriend actually cried once. And they were only here for two and a half hours! Also, my parents are divorced, like everyone else’s parents. My mom often blames the decades old rift on the “stress” of having three stair-step babies.
So, what’s the deal? Babies seem pretty straightforward and cute and cuddly and everything. Plus people keep having them all the time. On purpose! How is it possible that they kill all the fun? Why are babies relationship murderers?
Dear Maybe Not,
When the baby comes, he’s so small, so soft, and so perfectly human. Look: his hands, his tiny perfect hands; hips and knees and lined palms; the dark caverns of his ears; his microscopic eyelashes. After all those months of dreaming, there’s a brand new person lying on your chest and you have to take care of him.
Then all at once the questions come. Decisions must be made. Are you going to breastfeed? Do you want him circumcised? This is a vitamin K shot; is that OK? Should we do the exam in your room or the nurses’ station? What are you going to call him, every day, over and over again, for the long century of his life?
And that’s just the first five minutes.
The questions are relentless. They demand answers. They ram their tiny heads against your windows like moths seeking light. Should you give him Tylenol? Does he feel warm to you? Did that poop look strange? Do you think he needs his hat? Is that tag itching him? Should we turn the heat up? Is it time for another nap? Can you put “children’s” sunscreen on a baby? Do you think he’s hungry?
You and your partner must furnish the answers. There is no one else. Sometimes you agree. Most of the time, even. You agree a lot. But there are so, so many questions that even a tiny portion of disagreements feels like an awful lot of fighting.
Here’s another question: If there are an average of three decisions to be made every hour and the baby is awake for 16 hours and you and your partner agree 85% of the time and you’re each averaging about four hours of sleep per night and it’s been eight weeks since either of you has eaten a warm meal, how many knock-down drag-out gloves-off fights will you have between Monday morning and Wednesday afternoon?
In your old life, before the baby, you and your partner would sometimes fight. The big fights you would resolve with discussions that would go late into the night. The little ones would send you, seething, to your separate corners. You would sulk, silently, until circumstances forced you to interact. You might need to know where he left the checkbook. He might have to make a sandwich while you’re washing dishes. The sore spots heal. The anger just sort of gets rubbed away in the rhythmic bustle of everyday life.
Once the baby comes, that never happens. You’re still raw from the fight about whether the stroller straps are too tight when you have to launch into a new argument about whether it’s peanut butter or honey the baby isn’t supposed to have. You can’t ignore each other because you want him to tell you it’s OK to give the baby ibuprofen because it seems like his teeth might be bothering him again but you don’t want to be solely responsible in case the baby’s liver fails because that happens sometimes with ibuprofen, right? Or is that Tylenol? Or is that just if you mix it with alcohol? You’re not sure, but you’re sure your partner will be sure.
There are a million decisions every day and you’re never going to agree on all of them and nobody’s sleeping and you’ve never fought with anyone so much in your entire life and the stakes are the highest they’ve ever been for anything in your life EVER EVER EVER because the baby, dear god, the baby is just so perfect and fragile and his little brain is still forming and folding and please please please you just don’t want to screw it up please god please.
It’s an endless stream of guilt and indecision and conviction and hope and fear and everything is so emotionally fraught and complicated. You just want your partner to hug you, but he’s still mad because you told him he was putting the baby down wrong. Sometimes you think about how much you want him to like you again and cry and cry and cry. There are days when it seems impossible to be a great mom and a great partner at the same time.
In the morning, sunlight comes streaming through the windows in the kitchen. Your partner holding the baby while he makes coffee and his hair is all smashed down on one side from his pillow. It’s quiet and for a moment there are no questions to answer. When he turns to look at you, his eyes are ice, but then the baby burps loudly and he softens. The coffee smells familiar, like your old life, and the baby, though not so tiny anymore, is still perfect.
The question of your marriage is one you keep answering again and again and again, in your head, in your heart, in long talks with your mother. When he asked you to marry him, you said “Yes!” Exclamation point. Now, sometimes, you think “Yes.” Period. Or “Yes…” Ellipsis. Sometimes even “Yes?” Question mark.
And that might be the crux of it, Maybe Not, the reason your friends are having such a hard time. Babies don’t murder relationships, no. But they do come with a lot of questions.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of “Why We Never Talk About Sugar.” Her work has appeared widely in print and online. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com or follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch