The first year of our marriage was wildly, ridiculously hard. Like, “when is this going to end I am not sure I can take another second of it” hard. Like, lie awake at night figuring out the easiest way to get out of this mess hard. Running away crossed my mind more than once. At 40. I am not sure that’s even a thing for adults but it sounded totally fine at the time, good, even.
We got married on lovely spring day, blah blah blah. Even after all our preparation, a post for another day, we had no idea what we were getting into, but hope believes all things. We spend the first two months of our marriage living separately because we couldn’t get the timing right on house sales and moves and cohabitation clauses. We had a family sleepover or two, and waited. We decluttered and packed and helped the kids think about new rooms. We were married, but it didn’t seem that different, or frankly, even real.
Move day walloped us. For some reason, we thought it would be a great idea to move both households in on the same day. That meant two full trucks unloading, six kids underfoot, and all the emotions of the move sloshing around for everyone. Luckily, the kiddos were with the other half of their tribe for most of the weekends, so Gabe and I had lots of uninterrupted private time to stare at all the stuff we’d deemed essential. So. Much. Stuff. Before we’d gotten half the boxes unpacked, the kids were home for the summer. Then the real fun started – honestly. They had a terrific time together, and really enjoyed each other’s company, and Gabe and I began to relax a bit into our roles as leaders of this bunch. We were doing this! We were amazing! We high-fived often. Still, six kids is an unreasonable amount. We once spent a whole day just feeding them (prep, serve, clean, repeat).
We took our first family vacation to the beach that summer. It was a terrific success, as defined by kids mostly happy, Gabe and I still alive at the end of it. We came home riding high. This six kid blended family thing was going to be, as Gabe had promised, easy peasy. The day after we got home, I opened the door to a sheriff serving Gabriel papers in a legal dispute. Two weeks later, our dog, a nervous nelly shelter rescue, attacked our new neighbors beloved lap puppy. Two weeks after that, Gabe was unexpectedly laid off (entirely unrelated to the legal stuff). The following week, I was laid off. Now seems like a good time to mention we were land barons at the time – one of our houses hadn’t sold so we were in two mortgage territory. Life marched on – we were still unpacking, starting school, adjusting to our new life together. We were overwhelmed by the day-to-day work of our life together, and drowning under the weight of the additional legal and professional issues we faced. It was brutally, unexplainably hard. I remember walking home from the bus stop every day praying through gritted teeth that no one would get sick. That was the only thing I could imagine that would worsen our situation – and I was white-knuckle gripping on to the fact that we were all physically healthy.
That fall passed in blur. Gabe was absorbed in seemingly endless legal discussions and preparation, mourning the loss of his job, and home all day, every day. I found a temporary gig at my employer, delaying my layoff by 9 months. That meant I was working from home in a still unfamiliar office, in a new job, with a new husband under incredible pressure home all day, with me. We had to put our dog down – a decision we made painfully after consulting with three vets and a behavioral specialist. The kids were devastated. All this on top of our regular life going on around us – six kids with activities, forgotten homework, bedtime stories. Navigating the formation of our family – who parented when, what each child needed, what mattered to all of us or just some. Our cup runneth over. We began to unravel.
Gabe and I are so much alike we often have the same thought at the same time. Our shared brain makes us really good at games like Taboo and Charades. Trust me – you want to be on our team. We are take charge, take action people – crossing off items on a to do list jazzes us and in better days, we referred to ourselves as a power couple. If things break, we fix them. We are a team. We rarely disagree. So we were shocked to find ourselves fighting. And not politely disagreeing, really fighting. And not once or twice that first year, but often – regularly, even. We spent Halloween weekend barely speaking – in hindsight that’s quite a feat given that weekend included six kiddos, trick or treating, three separate parties, and a dozen hot dogs made to look like mummies. I began to retreat into myself. I couldn’t figure out why this was happening. I love him so much, and am so powerfully connected to him, how could this first year of marriage be worse than the last year of my marriage before my divorce? Maybe I had made a terrible mistake.
I began to obsess over this mistake – it felt huge. It involved our six children, our extended families, everyone we knew. How on earth were we married just six months earlier and now I was feeling trapped? Our situation felt impossibly hard. My take action, Type A personality took over. If it was a mistake, then something could be done to fix it. Get counseling, read books, separate, something. This couldn’t be the right thing for the two of us or for our children if it felt so hard. I had to do something, anything, to make this easier. If being together was right, it should be easier than this.
And there it is. The lie. The “should.” When I could quiet my anxious mind and really pay attention, I realized that “should” was driving the bus. This should be easier. We should be talking more. Gabe should be calmer when we interact. I should stop focusing on myself and be more empathetic toward him and the children. Should, should, should. I started to shift my focus from what should be to what was really happening.
What was happening is that each of the adults in our house were adjusting to a marriage and living together. That’s a big deal by itself, as anyone who’s ever been married can tell you. We were also adjusting to three new kids in the house. Imagine picking up your neighbor’s kids, whom you know well and like, and plopping them into your daily routine – for the rest of your life. Mind boggling, right? We were living it. We were still figuring out how this house creaks and sighs in the night and how many showers we can take before we run out of hot water. I missed my dog padding around with me as I worked. We left all our comforts of home in our old houses, added a bunch of new people who were also feeling out-of-place, and mixed well. Oh, and we were both staring unemployment in the face. Two boring, predictable 20 year corporate careers over in the span of three weeks.
When I studied psychology in college, I learned about the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. It’s a tool that predicts the chance of a stress-induced health breakdown based on what stressful events have happened to you in the past 24 months. Basically, you answer yes or no to a list of stressors that have happened, and it gives you a total point number. If that number is under 150, your chances of a health breakdown are low, between 150 and 300, your chances are about 50/50 and above 300 points, your chances of a stress induced health breakdown are greater than 80%. On a whim, I took it. My score was 352. Gabe’s was 371. What was happening is that this situation felt hard and all-consuming because it was hard and all-consuming.
That realization – that this new life felt difficult because it was difficult, not because it was wrong, helped. Not immediately, and not it a Magic Eraser on a smudged wall kind of way, but it helped. It felt a lot like when the L&D nurse reminded me, in hour 17 of labor with my first, to let the pain wash over me rather than trigger a reaction. Unlike other pain, labor pain doesn’t mean something is wrong, she explained. It means hard, messy work is happening to bring new life into the world. If you let your body react the way it does to other pain – tensing up, retreating – the work will be harder. I began to let the hard, messy work and pain of this new life wash over me. I tried to give more grace to the people in our house – this was hard all around. I tried to treat myself kindly, getting enough sleep and watching how my inner voice sounded. I started walking our new puppy daily and closing the door to my bedroom when I needed to step away. I took care of myself because I was doing something hard. Removing the “should,” eliminating my reaction, and focusing on what was happening and what I needed to keep going made things easier. Not easy, but easier.
The year marched on. The house finally sold. We survived the holidays by removing most of the pomp and circumstance (no one noticed). Early in the new year, Gabe’s legal issues resolved successfully. Our new puppy potty trained. We still fought, but found a counselor who worked with blended families and started seeing her every other week. We planted a garden. Gabe landed a job that he was excited about and went back to work. And then it was spring, and it had been a year.
We celebrated our family-versary by having brunch at our wedding site, bowling, and watching our video and looking at the photo albums. Truthfully, I didn’t feel much like celebrating, even then. I felt busted up and exhausted. Gabe did too. Those two getting married in the video seemed like naïve dingdongs. I wanted to shout “watch out!” like you do to the unsuspecting teenager walking into the woods in a horror film. “Turn back! It’s crazy in there.” But, like so many things, we’d told the kids we were going to celebrate and so we did. Turns out, that celebration was exactly what I needed. I watched our people watch that video – really watch it and talk about what they’d been thinking. I watched them laugh at how nervous they were and remember what fun the Kool-Aid bar had been. I watched them talking comfortably at brunch and nearly all order the same thing. At the bowling alley, Jack ran over breathlessly to tell me what his big brother Simon had won him in the arcade. I saw our tribe one year later, with relaxed shoulders and real smiles and easy interaction. I saw the new life delivered by the hard, messy work of our first year.