My husband and I have three children all under the age of 6. To say it’s busy in our house is an understatement — even just buttering toast for all of us takes time and effort. Keeping faces wiped, hands clean, rooms picked up, and tears consoled can become Herculean.
Add two dogs and ADHD into the mix and things get downright ridiculous. Walls are crayoned, toys broken, the dogs steal food. There are kisses and hugs and cuddles, too, but also screaming, diapers, and fights. En masse, our children are not easy, so it’s far simpler to have two adults patrolling for trouble.
But still, my husband lets me sleep. It would be easier to wake me. It would be easier to drag me out of bed and make me parent, despite my irresistible need to doze for hours every afternoon. We don’t know if it’s a medication side effect, an autoimmune problem, or a sleep disorder but we do know that somewhere around 4 PM, the fog draws down and by 5 o’clock I’m all but useless.
It would be easy to make me parent anyway, but he doesn’t. He teaches a full day, which means school from 6 AM to 4 PM, and then comes home to parent solo. Some days he doesn’t even get a breather: I all but throw the baby in his direction before retreating to the bedroom.
I’d power through if he guilted me, pass out for the night when the kids go to bed at 8. But he never makes me feel guilty. He never makes me feel like less of a parent. He scolds me if I apologize, tells me everything is fine. He never complains. He barely says he’s tired, though I know he only averages five hours of sleep a night.
This, I’ve learned, is love.
I’ve never felt so loved as when I lie down to sleep at 5 in the afternoon, the kids shouting behind the bedroom door, the baby yelling that he pooped. I know they need to eat and get washed and taken care of, but it’s been taken from my hands. And when I wake up two hours later, I can trust that everyone will be fed and clean, the house reasonably picked up.
My husband loves me.
I used to think that love was wild. Love meant driving 80 mph into the sunset, blasting Eminem and daring each other to drive to Vegas and get married. “I’ll do it if you will,” we volleyed back and forth, wind in our hair, until only a hunger for dinner called us home. This marked my relationships for a long time. Love meant yelling protests into a microphone, news cameras rolling; love meant rock climbing, despite — or maybe because of — my crippling fear of heights.
Love was a series of grand gestures. One of my exes stood outside my dorm window with a boombox blasting Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes. My heart pounded in my throat, and I watched him, his eyes locked on mine, as people began to gather and stare. This performance was as much for everyone else as for me; the point wasn’t that he was re-enacting Say Anything, but that everyone saw him doing it and so he made me the girl who had a boy reenacting Say Anything. This was love, I thought: a string of dramatic performances realized and validated only with an audience.
I believed in Hollywood and what they sold me. Love was loud, was never lived-in but ever new, always in the first lush flush of romance. People went to bed in a shower of rose petals. Like Jack and Rose in Titanic, they never let go. They frolicked on windswept beaches, like in The Notebook. Culture told me a certain story about love, and it was this: you’d meet your soulmate, the only one for you, in a magic rush of cosmic luck and then you’d walk off into the sunset together. And there was no after, just golden lights going on forever.
I deeply believed this … until I met the man who would be my husband. He didn’t give me roses every day for a week, but he cooked me dinner. He refilled my water glass and carried my bag. Instead of scrawling “I heart Chris” in chalk all over campus, I cleaned his bathroom. I helped him with his homework and picked him up an extra Red Bull at the gas station. This was the tenor of our relationship: a quiet sharing, a gentle conscientiousness for one another.
It became even more important when we had kids. When our first son cried, my husband was the one to pick him up even though the baby slept in a co-sleeper on my side of the bed because it hurt my stitches to lean over and lift him. He never complained when I made him stay awake for night nursing just so I wouldn’t fall asleep. (Of course, we both fell asleep anyway.) But his willingness to wake up and to (try to) stay up — this was love. I’d found the real thing at last.
I see this same love when he looks at our children. He’s a co-parent, not a doofy dad who can’t give them a bath or put them to bed. He disciplines and parents at least as much as I do, and I’m a stay-at-home mom. He does the cooking and he never complains when I ask him to change the baby just so I don’t have to get off the couch. I try to do the same for him. And in spite of Hollywood, despite the ideas of wild love, and love as audience participation, we’ve discovered something together. I match his socks; he lets me sleep.
Truly, truly, this is love.