Not everyone can take a vacation. But they can do this.
The first time my husband and I went to couples therapy, we sat on the same couch, legs crossed toward one another. Smiling, holding hands. We glazed over our fairly new marriage and our life with a toddler with half-truths and the occasional giggle to keep the mood light. We talked about our families—there was plenty to discuss to diverge from marital strife. We said nice things about each other. We were good conversationalists. Easy patients.
A handful of times, I visited the office on my own. “How normal is it to feel angry all the time?” my 25-year-old self asked my gray-haired therapist. “It’s normal!” she replied, having already diagnosed us as a young, inexperienced couple who was perhaps too hopeful about what a family could look like. She gently briefed me on some of the harsh realities of marriage with children. I didn’t mention what was circling inside my head—that I wasn’t sure I had wanted to get married, but we already had a child, so what difference did it make? That when the father of my baby proposed to me, I felt dread instead of joy. That we only rarely had sex.
We’d been through a lot, she said, and it made sense to feel ungrounded. First, an unplanned pregnancy. Then our daughter fell gravely ill and recovered, yet I still couldn’t discuss it without crying.
“I believe you still have some PTSD from all that,” she said.
“Yeah. I think it’s called ‘intrusive thoughts?” I asked though I knew all too well the name for the constant panic and routine visions of something tragic and gory happening to my daughter.
The therapy sessions soon fizzled out. My husband and I were fine, the therapist said, or mostly fine. What we were feeling was a result of stress from harsh life transitions. Not to mention the monster of an identity crisis that comes with them; the first few years of parenthood are intensely terrifying. I already knew this, but she told me anyway.
“You’ll settle in,” she promised. And I tried to believe it. I waited patiently for waves to stop crashing over my head. Even though I still felt them dragging me to shore, I breathed deeply and tried to swim with the current.
By the time my second baby was six months old, I thought about disappearing every single day. I knew I would never drive myself off a cliff, but I was deeply miserable. With a colicky baby who woke no fewer than 27 times a night, a clingy, pissed off four-year-old, and a husband constantly traveling for work, I felt like a desperate shell of a wife and mother. Being a person apart from those roles didn’t even occur to me because I didn’t have time to be one.
Each night my husband was away, I’d call him at two or three a.m. and say nothing—instead, I’d wail into the phone. I couldn’t string words together, so I’d just cry and hope some of my misery would rub off me and onto him. When he’d return home, I’d practically fling the baby at him, lock myself in the bedroom, and sob. I still wouldn’t sleep. My heart raced. I felt enraged and secretly plotted my impossible escape.
We landed in another therapist’s office, that of a nearly retired white-haired yogi who played guitar. By the second session, it was clear that nothing about our life was sustainable. “Do you want a new job or a new wife?” he looked hard at my husband and asked. And with that, he understood. Almost instantly, he sought (and found) new work.
Soon, my daughter whined a little less. Our baby slowly began to sleep in longer spurts—and by the time he was a year old, I didn’t think about falling off the earth every day. Maybe we were healed. Life felt manageable. But actual happiness? I had started to believe that wasn’t really the goal once the bed is already made.
Last week my husband and I sat in a third therapist’s office, one I promised myself to tell the whole truth in. As soon as I began to divulge the explosiveness of our last few horrible arguments (which occurred in front of our kids who are now seven and three), I found a box of tissues in my lap. I shared anger and disappointment I had toward my husband whom I felt to be unreliable and simply living alongside us, rather than with us. I explained it’s been six months since we’d had sex and I didn’t even care. “I hate who I’ve become,” I breathed into a tissue.
The therapist sympathized with my anger and simultaneously encouraged my husband to maintain his own feelings.
“You’re in a really hard place right now, but it won’t last forever,” she promised. I smiled and nodded. I wanted to say I’ve heard this all before. I’ve been hearing it for eight years. I believe it won’t always feel impossible, this life of ours, but what if I never settle in? What if I’m never happy?
We overstayed our appointment by 20 minutes. She was patient and lifted us up—encouraging us to “ride the upswing.” We made a follow-up appointment, went out to dinner, shared beers, and stuffed our bellies until walking to the car felt more like paddling upstream.
The next morning I woke up with plans to work. The children were with my mother, but I couldn’t focus. Instead I jotted a few sentences here and there, paced the house. I reminded myself to relax my shoulders, breathe deeply into my belly, focus on the present. I’ve been practicing these techniques since my daughter was born, since I said “I do,” since I became a mother again.
Later in the day, I decided to do a long, hard workout on my front porch, hoping it would lift my mood. The kids sprawled out on my yoga mat, even though it was drenched in sweat. They whined and complained and pulled things out of the refrigerator until I was easily more desperate for release than when I began.
It was a Friday night, the end of a long week, and my husband was working late again—it might as well have been Monday morning. When I grew tired of the kids hitting one another, throwing things, and trashing the house, I poured a giant glass of red wine, turned on the TV for them and went back onto the front porch. I let myself cry, just for a few minutes, with no idea when my husband will be home, if he will engage with the kids, or look me in my eyes.
I am unspeakably lonely. The upswing is over. I still haven’t settled in.
Artwork by KAREN HONG