I remember the feeling. It was just after my oldest son was born and the family had gone home, leaving my wife and I alone with Jack. I remember the feeling of being overwhelmed and under-rested. I remember every day being a blur, a Vaseline covered lens that made it hard to know which way was up and which way was down.
I remember how lonely it felt.
For the longest time, it was the two of us. It was my wife and I against the world. She was the center of mine. I was the center of hers. And there was Jack, this new person in our life. Her center shifted. For her, I realize now, it had been a gradual shift. As our son grew inside her, they became connected. Somewhere, in some instinctual place she knew him. She loved him. She fell in love with him.
For me, it was a sudden shift, a hard turn away from the life I knew to another one, one I didn’t understand — a life in which I was no longer, and perhaps never again would be, her number one priority.
The adjustment was hard for me. There were the logistical shifts and pressures on schedules and responsibilities, for sure. But it was more than that. I felt like an outsider in my own family. I felt abandoned, pushed aside. My ego had a hard time dealing with it. It felt like my wife was looking at Jack while I was looking at her.
Don’t misunderstand me. I loved that little boy right away. I cried the moment the nurses handed him to me. I stayed up all night with him to let my wife rest. For months, I paced our tiny living room floor in the middle of the night, rocking him back to sleep, comforting him when he needed it. I committed immediately to being his father. But the adjustment to being a family, rather than just a couple, was harder. It took more time.
My wife, always decisive, couldn’t understand why I felt left out. In her mind, the calculation was simple. Jack was the most important thing. She was right, of course, but I couldn’t help but think there was something wrong with me.
I remembered that feeling yesterday while having an IM conversation with a friend who recently had her first baby. She loves her son. She is focused on him. But, she admitted, she wasn’t sure about her relationship. She admitted that there are times when she’s not sure she’s willing to put in the work on the relationship, not if it comes at the cost of attention that might be spent on her baby.
“Is that normal?” she asked.
“I think so,” I wrote back. “As a mother, your priorities change. The hard part as the dad is accepting that you are never going to be number one in her life anymore. It takes time. Relationships involving kids aren’t always about love, they are about commitment. Not conviction. Conviction is passion. Commitment is about weathering through because you know it’s the right thing to do and having the faith to say someday it will be better and the wisdom to know that, when the child is young, that day is more than likely not today.”
I’ve been thinking about that ever since. I’ve been thinking about how my marriage has changed since that day nearly 12 years ago when Jack was born. Two more kids. A lot more struggle. A lot more laughs. We’ve grown and changed as individuals, as parents, together. There were lots of times we could have given up, but we didn’t. Our commitment was stronger than any jealousy or ill will, it has been stronger than any other option.
This weekend, I’m home alone with the kids. My wife is on a girl’s trip, which means I get some time with my kids. I looked at them this morning as they tucked into breakfast, as the smiled and laughed, as they pulled together to get out the door for my son’s early basketball game and I thought back to those first early days as a dad. I thought back to the struggle and the jealousy. I thought back to the feeling of being cast aside and I smiled.
I may have felt like an outsider back then, but now that was a long time ago. That was ego standing in the way of the greatest thing to ever happened to me. I love my kids more than anything else in the world and I stand a little taller knowing that they love me just as much or more. I love my wife and the mother of my children and am grateful they are the same person. I feel closer to these four people than I ever imagined I could. So I smiled when I thought back to that feeling because I knew it was necessary. I knew I had to grow up, to go through that transition to be the person I have become. I hardly recognize the person that I was.
Relationships, family, parenthood, we tend to think of them as binary, as either good or bad, strong or rocky, a joy or a pain. The truth is that they are all of these things simultaneously. Your relationship to your family is quantum, it is everything at once, shifting slightly or greatly moment-to-moment. And the longer you do it, the more you come to rely on those shifts, to count on those swings and to appreciate them for what they are: the best parts of life.
We loaded up into the van and headed out to the game. The kids asked me to put on some music. My daughter said she loved me. Dylan said he was proud of me. Jack told me I was cheesy and I loved every single second of it. Later today they may argue about something stupid. I may get frustrated when they can’t decide on what they want for dinner. They may push back when I tell them to go to bed. I’ll love every second of that too.
And when my wife comes home tomorrow, I’ll give her a kiss and she’ll ask me how everything went and I’ll tell her, “it was awesome, but I’m glad you’re home.”