By Elizabeth Newdom
So, this is how it happens, I thought.
Only moments before, my husband, Eric, was standing with his back against our kitchen counter, arms folded tightly across his chest, eyes too tired to meet mine. I stood on the other side of the kitchen island, frozen and speechless, a black hole swirling between us.
“I am not happy,” he said.
I figured it must be his job again, the demanding boss, the towering responsibilities, the long commute. We had moved four states north for what was supposed to be a new life, excited to live in a blue state. Everything was going to be better: better politics, better job, better climate, better.
Our son was almost two. By now, we had seen the dark side of postpartum, had survived the shock and awe of early parenthood. We knew what waking up inside a changed marriage felt like—the blur of unrecognizable surroundings, the fear of learning new terrain.
Despite coming out from the shadows of that early period, here we were, strangers in a strange land, in every way imaginable. Me, standing in front of the cold, grey sink. My husband, now brooding in another room over the steely words he’d just uttered.
Before we became parents, we spent hours lying on our bed, bent together in a crescent shape, both of our hands rubbing my spherical belly, daydreaming about what to name our child afloat in my womb.
At that time Eric gave in to my 10pm cravings for tortilla chips with queso. He helped me pen a birth plan that included candles and a two-hour playlist. He designed the owl decals on the nursery walls and painted the room canary yellow.
After the baby, lips that once smiled easily became strained and tight; hands that had reached for one another now held an infant or a diaper bag. Eric would forget to brew a new pot of coffee. I would buy almond milk, when he wanted cashew. We would take a million pictures of our child but none of us. We would ignore attempts at romance. Forget to schedule date nights because we never needed them before. And stopped using pet names, referring to each another instead as “Mom” or “Dad.”
It wasn’t just that we became parents. I turned into a mother, and this sea change brought on behaviors I couldn’t have expected. I became the Mother goddess, the one who had carried our child and birthed him, the one whose body produced his sustenance. The one who knew the best temperature to heat his oatmeal, the best shoes to buy when he started walking, the best way to hold his hand when crossing the street. I knew best because, well, Mother knows best.
I barked commands at my husband like a drill sergeant giddy with her newfound powers. Right, left. Right, left. Right, left. Right. Never realizing the damage this was doing to our relationship.
And so it was on that night, standing dumbstruck in front of a climbing pile of dishes, that I realized I had no idea how to repair my marriage. I only knew I couldn’t do it alone, and I couldn’t do it with my partner either. By this point, I had sought advice from therapists, online Moms’ groups, and articles on the internet. I tried massage, yoga, and meditation.
I started running three times a week, and I wasn’t even a runner. But for months my husband and I continued to live in relative silence, retreating to separate rooms in the hours before bed.
And then, a friend introduced me to an acupuncturist with a reputation for healing emotional trauma. Despite my skepticism, eight days later, I found myself lying on top of crinkly white paper.
While I looked up into the fluorescent glow of the light fixture, needles barely bigger than a strand of thread were placed into precise points in my hands, head, and feet. I was like a butterfly pinned to an album, anchored and exposed.
Within minutes my breathing deepened and a current began to move through my body. I felt a slow shifting, an unnamed sorrow emerging from a deep well.
For several weeks I continued treatment, and the ocean of sadness that had been lying dormant within me began to flow. A deluge of tears made my body shake and shudder in unexpected waves: when watching my toddler in his crib, waiting at a red light, or returning my cart in a grocery store parking lot. I didn’t know exactly what I was grieving for. Perhaps it was for the weight of motherhood or for a marriage I no longer recognized.
As the crying lessened, I began to catch a new expression in the mirror. I no longer saw sadness or contempt. Looking deeper into my own eyes, I could see through the layers of the Russian doll: past the roaring ache of labor, past the gleeful couple spooning on the bed. I could see all the way back to the woman my husband fell in love with, standing somewhere inside the mother I had become.
Two months from that night of anguish when I believed my marriage was over, Eric and I were speeding down the road in his shiny, silver car. And I caught him stealing glances at me as he braked for yellow lights and stop signs.
“You look different,” he said, his eyes softening.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You look like you again.”
So, this is how it happens, I thought.
This is how a mother can remember herself, and a marriage can begin to mend. This is when I stopped wondering if I’d come home to a packed suitcase. When I had healed enough to fully recognize my husband’s experience. When we began to schedule date nights, take photos that didn’t include our kid, and re-watch our wedding video on anniversaries.
When we remembered we were more than parents. We remembered we were in love, after all.
Elizabeth Newdom teaches writing and literature courses at a community college in Frederick, Maryland. She and her husband, Eric, are celebrating their 11th wedding anniversary this month. Follow Elizabeth’s ever-evolving journey on her personal blog, The Astronaut Wife.
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