Last week, in between trying to adjust to my new work-from-home reality and worrying about whether or not my kids had completed the schoolwork I’ve largely been trusting them to do on their own, I spent a few minutes fantasizing about watching the sunset over Paris. I imagined sipping champagne and sharing pistachio macarons from La Durée and let visions of picnics underneath the Eiffel Tower and the sparkling lights of the city at night dance around in my head. Then, I quietly returned to the dull reality of my life in the midst of COVID-19 isolation and accepted that when I celebrate my twentieth wedding anniversary on April 8th, it will not be in the City of Lights, but barring rain, it instead will be on our back deck, with our kids and it will be as plain and ordinary and as special and love-filled as good marriages so often are.
When my husband and I got married, I still imagined a life filled with adventure and travel.
He proposed to me in Cathedral Grove in Muir Woods Park outside San Francisco. We still took lots of weekend trips to visit friends. And we both dreamed of travel. I thought for sure we’d celebrate our big anniversaries with shared adventures in fabulous places. On our fifth anniversary, we had a two-year old and I hadn’t slept in two years. I honestly don’t remember what we did. I’m pretty sure we got a sitter and went to dinner, but honestly, it’s a blur. I might have bought my husband a leather recliner as a gift. I do remember I set a goal of going to Paris for our tenth anniversary. But ten years came and went and I’m pretty sure the stress of staying home with two small children, one of whom was getting occupational and speech therapy, and trying to juggle a freelance writing career, while my husband was throwing himself headlong into his career gave me pause enough to wonder if we’d make it to fifteen years, much less twenty. At fifteen years, my husband was traveling around the world for work. He saw London, where we had spent part of our honeymoon. He also traveled to Athens, Greece; Amsterdam; and all over India. When he visited the Taj Mahal it was not with me, his loyal, loving, and steadfast partner, but with a work colleague. When he wasn’t traveling for work, he was exhausted from being gone for weeks at a time and craved the comfort and ease of home while I longed to be anywhere but there.
And here we are at our twentieth anniversary. I still long for travel and adventure and escape from the ordinary.
Yet, I have learned through all these many years that love and marriage are built, not on the golden-glow moments of the highlight reel, but instead on the quiet, peaceful moments of togetherness when the kids have gone to bed. You might remember the first TV show you binged together while staying up all night with a newborn waiting for the next feeding as fondly as you remember some grand adventure. The elements that make a marriage real and sustainable, unlike in the fairytales we buy into in our youth, aren’t always the sparkly, magical moments. Let’s face it; those are rare and fleeting, otherwise, they wouldn’t be special.
No. Marriage is built on the ordinary and mundane, but also the difficult and challenging experiences and how you handle all of them.
The ordinary moments may be calm or chaotic. The challenges may try you and your partner and take great commitment and understanding and require you to change and adapt and move out of your comfort zone. Unconditional love and accepting a partner, flaws and all, goes a long way. So does being flexible and willing to change.
You build a marriage on sacrifices like carrying the weight of being the financial provider while your partner finishes school or stays at home with your children; you build it by staying home with those children even when you dream of something more and understanding that your partner’s job that keeps the roof over your head and food on the table means they work long hours or travel sometimes. You build your marriage on the spaces in between that allow each of you to be independent, interesting individuals. You build it on being apart and then coming back together to share quiet laughter over shared jokes or tears over the death of a favorite character in a favorite show. You build it standing by the hospital bed when your partner has suffered a loss beyond all comprehension or by holding their hand while they await a diagnosis. You build your marriage on shared memories of your baby boy laughing every time he hiccups or the time you rushed to the emergency room, both covered in his blood when he took a tumble but then you realized he was fine so you just went to Target, still covered in blood, instead.
Love and marriage are choices you make, not once, but every single day.
Do you show up as your best self or your worst or just the person holding on by their fingernails and how do you respond to the partner showing up, not as their best, but as the one struggling? Blinded by romance, how many of us could see this reality when we said yes or popped the question and took our vows?
I sometimes think of marriage like giving birth. How many of us would do it if we actually understood the strength required and the pain we’d endure? If you knew marriage would mean sacrificing your dream of living on the West Coast so your job change would be less disruptive to your family or that you’d take on raising your kids alone for six months while your husband lived on his own in another city would you choose it? Would you choose it if you realized that instead of entertaining friends and spending romantic weekends away while your kids visit their grandparents, you’d spend endless hours discussing who’s doing which chore, reading bedtime stories, grocery shopping, cooking, planning meals, paying bills, and worrying about your kids before falling exhausted into bed and spooning after watching a TV show or movie because you’re too exhausted for anything more romantic? But this is what marriage is and there’s so much beauty in it when you’ve embraced it.
It’s change and calm and peace. It’s being the one who calmly reminds your partner they’re coughing because they have tree allergies and pollen is everywhere and that they’re not dying of COVID-19. And it’s making yourself remember to turn off the closet light in spite of your ADHD because it shines in your partner’s eyes. And it’s sending your partner flowers when they’re hurting or baking them a special dessert because it’s Tuesday. It’s a squeeze of the hand or a kiss on the forehead when you leave in the morning and quiet conversations or just doing your own thing in companionable silence at day’s end. It’s countless little decisions that collectively outlast and outshine all the starburst grand gestures that dot the celestial map of marriage. I love this quote from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society… “I don’t want to be married just to be married. I can’t think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can’t talk to, or worse, someone I can’t be silent with.”
So, yes…all of those things, the beautiful mundane and the extravagant challenges survived deserve to be celebrated and I hope that once this pandemic is over, I get to go on a grand adventure with my husband or at least out for a nice dinner and maybe a hike.