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Marriage After Kids

How Marriage Changes with Kids

We were talkers before we were breeders. My wife and I discussed books and actually found time to read them. We lingered over coffee and the Sunday paper and didn't worry about someone shredding and eating the pages. We talked over candlelit dinners with no inkling that someday we'd end every meal on all fours seeing how much of it had wound up on the floor.

Somewhere in an upstairs closet, behind the cartons of toys and children's clothes, sit boxes of love letters. Words held Maja and me fast through years of separation as we moved around the country between jobs. When we wed, we read aloud passages from these letters. "Someday down the road, I want little ones bouncing into our bed and waking us up in the morning," I wrote in one. "I want to raise brilliant young kids in the most unorthodox ways. I'm counting on your genes for a little help."

Nature took its course, the children arrived, and now we really need help. I liken my marriage to a once-great civilization that was sacked when a horde of Viking dwarves came ashore and had their way with us. Since then, it's been a saga of trying to communicate while the barbarians are at the baby gate.

Dawn. I shuffle into the kitchen and find a note from my wife. "Put out recycling, empty trash, pack school lunch, put laundry into dryer. I'm going to sleep in. P.S. I love you." This is as close as we come to a love letter these days. The night shift has left a memo for the day shift.

A few minutes ago, I was ripped in a most untimely fashion from the womb of the warm bed. The first scream came before the sun was up.

"A fire truck can't fly!"

"This one can!"

Our two sons, ages 3 and 6, were locked in a full-throated debate about the aeronautical capabilities of a toy fire engine. Then my older son proved it really could fly, by hurling it at his brother's head. Thunk! Another high-pitched wail.

Maja groaned beside me. The message was clear: Your turn. (She's eight months pregnant and needs to sleep.) She flopped over and restacked the pillows, which have multiplied over the course of her pregnancy and come to resemble a sandbag dam.

I hauled myself out of bed and shuffled into the boys' room. I tried to coax them into their clothes, but from their protests, you'd think I was trying to stuff them into whalebone corsets. They have yet to embrace one of the fundamental rules of civilization: no tantrums before coffee.

I hustle them downstairs and now begin the first negotiation of the day, breakfast.

My oldest flops on the floor and bawls when forced to eat cereal instead of toast. Apparently, I've ruined his life. Sliced banana with that? When I turn around, my younger son has disappeared. Moments later, he begins shouting from the upstairs bathroom.

"Wipe!"

Uh-oh. He's violated the quiet zone. I rush upstairs as the hallway echoes with chants of "WIPE! WIPE! WIPE!"

Too late. My wife emerges from the bedroom. Another rude awakening.

A few minutes later, we're all crammed into the kitchen. Maja and I are like two satellites that must take advantage of the brief time they have orbited within range; we download information in bursts. Doctor's appointment this afternoon, school meeting tomorrow, grocery list, basement pipes getting ├×xed. There's no such thing as a non sequitur: As soon as you think of anything that must be communicated, you have to say it before you forget it.

"Sharon called you last night. PUT DOWN THE BASEBALL BAT AND EAT YOUR CEREAL."

"There's a squirrel nesting in the garage, and it fell on the windshield when we came home last night. Is the milk gone?"

"LEAVE YOUR BROTHER ALONE."

"You already poured it in your bowl."

"That shirt doesn't match your pants."

My coffee gets cold. Now what were we just talking about?

The sexual revolution mandates that my wife and I both work and share responsibilities around the house. The communications revolution bombards us with electronic chaff all day long. With all these so-called revolutions, it's no wonder we're living in anarchy. The art of conversation with my spouse is kind of like the Spanish I took in school: I used to be fluent but now ... ¿Qué?

We tag-team like professional wrestlers, and we're just as absurd. It's the Viking Dwarves vs. the Old Farts, and we're getting our asses kicked. I wake and get the boys dressed and fed. My wife wakes and — tag! — I go to work. I pick up our younger son from school, go home, and wait for the nanny. Tag! My wife comes home from her job. Tag! I bolt out for a run. After dinner, I wash dishes while she gets the boys into their pajamas. Tag! I brush their teeth. To her for the first storybook. Back to me for the second. My wife leaves for an outing with her moms' group. Tag. Tag. Tag ... I fall asleep with Curious George on my chest. I'm all tagged out.

All this craziness courts trouble. Over many weekends as the family handyman, I've learned that one principle of husbandry applies to both house and marriage: A little maintenance now prevents a lot of decay later.

When we don't make time to talk, our foundation cracks and alienation fills the void. Our sense of family citizenship turns into zero-sum individualism: I've washed the dishes every night this week, and you went out with your friends to some wine bar. And who spends $12 for a plate of artisanal cheese? I stayed up until midnight sewing Halloween costumes, and all you did was buy a couple of bags of crappy candy. Which ran out. Small interactions become proxy wars for larger struggles. You feel you're not getting enough love, so you're going to make damn sure you get the front section of the paper at breakfast.

The trick, of course, is finding time to communicate to shore up the bedrock. So we cram conversations into the margins. We leave Post-it notes on the bathroom mirror and memos on the kitchen counter. And we find ways to work around our kids, for whom parental conversation is like a mud puddle: It looks so peaceful they can't resist stomping right in the middle of it.

First we tried the old trick of spelling out words, which only ensured that our firstborn became literate by age 5 ("That spells 'ice cream'!"). Next we developed a code that I call Obtuse Obfuscation: If we're returning home late and I want to say, "Let's drive around until these guys fall asleep" — a statement guaranteed to ignite howls of protest in the backseat — I phrase it as, "Shall we continue our operation of the vehicle until certain parties succumb to accumulated fatigue, at which point they may be conveyed inside without protest?" My wife responds in kind, and pretty soon we sound as pompous as classical music announcers.

For awhile, e-mailing from work made our communication more productive than it had been in years. We could dash off a message before the thought evaporated, and it didn't matter if one of us wasn't paying attention: The message would sit in the inbox until opened and read.

In fact, our e-mailing worked so well that it soon replicated all the problems of verbal communication. I wanted succinct, actionable information. My wife wanted connection. She sent musings about child rearing, office gossip, and copies of stuff she'd read in the newspaper. I sent her numbered bullet items.

One Monday I'm rushing to catch up on work when my computer chimes with an incoming e-mail. The subject line: "bird feeder info — we should fill it."

Huh?

"This time of year, keeping that bird feeder full is very important to the little feathered ones ..." I scroll through the message in disbelief. There's page after page of stuff she's copied from some birdwatching website about the feeding of nuthatches, purple finches, chickadees, and titmice. She's acting as if failure to deploy our bird feeder immediately would be the moral equivalent of Silent Spring.

Then it hits me: I married a spammer.

Being a male, I react predictably to information overload. I filter. (That's my version, anyway. She would say I just tune out.)

"Did you get my e-mail?" my wife asks me over the phone. I look at my inbox, where her messages form perfect, uninterrupted columns.

"Which one?"

"About picking up the kids tonight."

"What did it say?"

Her voice takes on a sharp edge. "Someone has to get them in half an hour."

A few weeks before the baby is due, my phone rings.

"I was halfway through an e-mail and realized that it's probably not the most efficient way to communicate," says my wife. "We'd have to go back and forth five times. So I thought I'd just call you."

We make a pact: That night, we'll catch up.

It's nearly midnight by the time we collapse into bed. The house remains silent except for the snoring of our two boys in the next room. A trapezoid of moonlight falls on the quilt and silhouettes the bulge of my wife's belly. She lays my palm across it. "Feel this," she says. The baby is kicking.

And that night, we act like we're young again. We actually talk.

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