During our August vacation last summer my husband, Tyler, had his first extended encounter with my life as a stay-at-home Mom. We spent three weeks travelling around Italy, staying primarily in self-catering apartments or villas. While this set-up is ideal with young children, who need space to spread out and play and who rebel if asked to eat too many restaurant meals in succession, it means that Mommy’s vacation looks much like everyday life. I still have to cook, do dishes, and wash load after load of laundry, as well as getting the kids ready every morning, organizing all the snacks and paraphernalia needed for day trips, and arbitrating the daily disputes and crises that inevitably arise with close siblings. I do not mean to suggest that I did all of this with no help from Tyler. He certainly pitched in with the food preparation and the child-wrangling. But it was his vacation too, and since I was used to all the daily tasks of child-caring, I generally took the lead. At some point during the third week of our trip, most likely after some insignificant but traumatic episode of toddler rebellion, Tyler collapsed on the couch in exhaustion. He turned to me with a new-found respect in his eyes and said:
“Don’t get me wrong. I love spending time with the kids, but I don’t want to switch jobs with you!”
I have to admit I was highly gratified by this tacit acknowledgement. Much as I treasure the opportunity to take this time off from paid employment to focus my energy and my ingenuity on raising our little ones, it is really hard work! I sometimes feel like 35 is simply too old to be caring for a two-year-old and a five-year-old, who require endless supplies of enthusiasm and physical endurance. At other times I feel that I need another ten or twenty years of maturing to be able to respond to them with the wisdom and patience they need and deserve. Nevertheless, I work very hard at the job of mothering and my husband’s appreciation for that work means more than anyone else’s.
On this year’s August vacation, however, it has been my turn to come to a new appreciation of what my husband does as my co-parent. It is not simply all of the things he does for and with the kids (bathing, playing, carrying, disciplining, etc.), or even the way he does many things I cannot do (like tossing them high in the air and catching the wriggling mass of giggles this creates, while playing in the pool). What has really struck me on this holiday is the way that he steps in to handle things when I am at my wit’s (or patience’s) end. My husband has a way of coming to the rescue, and he does so without playing the hero.
A simple, but very telling, example is the best illustration of this quality. Our hotel room in Athens was small but more than adequate in all ways but one: the sofa bed. This second bed, which allowed a fifteen square meter room to accommodate our family of four, really does not deserve to be included in the category of sleep surfaces. It had by far the worst mattress I have ever slept on, and that competition includes some fairly robust rivals. It felt like it was constructed entirely of thin springs, which had worn unevenly over a long life of hotel guest abuse, with nothing but a thin layer of upholstery fabric to hold it together. We arrived in Athens late in the afternoon after three long days and 30 hours in the car. Our first stop was the roof top pool, then showers and dinner. It was not until we were all semi-comatose with exhaustion and ready for sleep that we opened the sofa bed. Tyler simply pulled it out and set up the inflatable bed rail for Alaina’s side, then crawled in with no comment. I was too tired to really pay attention to that act of self-sacrifice at the time, but in the blazing light of the Athens morning I could easily see just how far Tyler’s 6 foot 4 inch frame was hanging off the edge of the bed. I immediately decreed that he couldn’t sleep on that bed again, even without having yet felt the mattress. That night I felt it – all night long. Have I described yet just how bad that mattress was?
On the third night I knew that neither Tyler nor I could hope for a decent night’s rest on the sofa bed. Unfortunately, one of us had to try since our kids are at an age where getting them to sleep in a hotel room requires the night-long companionship a parent. Trying to stay positive, I reasoned that at least part of the discomfort must derive from the mattress’s position atop the rickety metal frame of the pull-out couch. So, Tyler man-handled the unwieldy mattress off of the frame and somehow managed to balance it precariously on his back (since there was no available floor space in the tiny room) while wrangling the bed frame back into the sofa. Since Tyler had not shrunk nor the mattress expanded in the process, it was obvious that I still needed to sleep on the repositioned mattress. The change had made a marginal improvement, very marginal. By the fourth night I was desperate. My sleep deprived brain reasoned that, since the kids were also exhausted by travel, sight-seeing, and swimming, their exhaustion would remove their need for parental bed-sharing. I was able to convince Princess Imagination that it would be really fun sleep on the couch cushions while the Gigglemonster slept down on the floor. By putting his favorite short film on the video player as an alternative to a bedtime story the Gigglemonster also happily climbed into bed to watch. Tyler and I had 30 blessed minutes of hope that the kids would drift off to the soothing twang of Tow Mater.
Any parent of a toddler will realize just how futile that hope was. The moment the movie finished the Gigglemonster realized that Mommy was not in the bed next to him, and that this was a crisis of monumental proportions. If possible, our Greek surroundings have actually magnified our son’s already significant oedipal complex. He launched himself at me screaming “I need Mommy!” and without a word Tyler moved to the mattress on the floor, leaving me and my little Momma’s boy the comfortable bed for the rest of the night.
It is not simply Tyler’s willingness for self-sacrifice that impresses me. It is the way he just does it, with no comment and no need for effusive gratitude. I am conscious that my own acts of self-sacrifice are not so silently born. Following the nights I slept on the mattress-of-discomfort its abuse of my body and my sleep cycle was a major topic of conversation. But even though the ill fit of the mattress for Tyler must have made it even worse for him, he didn’t complain. He was doing what was needed to help his family, and there was nothing to be said. This is what I mean about the way Tyler comes to the rescue. He doesn’t play the hero, he just is one.
Last Monday Tyler and I celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary. For those of you who are counting, that means we were married at the tender age of 23. I often say that, in our case, marrying young was a wonderful gift because it allowed us to grow up together. Even though we are not “just kids” any longer I feel like that start in our married life, that orientation toward growing up and growing together, is continuing to bless our marriage. On this August holiday Tyler’s comment about my role changed slightly. “I don’t want to switch job with you, but I do love this — being with the kids like this.” That simple shift in what comes after the “but” shows Tyler’s on-going growth towards the joy that I find in motherhood. I only hope that I am also growing toward the kind of self-giving love that I get to see every day in my Hero.