My husband has never been a particularly demonstrative man. I have no doubt he loves me, because his actions consistently bear this out, but he has always found it difficult to say the words or display his emotions. He is reluctant to hold my hand in public; bit the inside of his cheek until it bled on our wedding day to stop himself from crying as I came down the aisle.
If there is a problem in our relationship he will email me rather than risk a row, setting out the issue like a staff memo so it can be worked through without raised voices or slammed doors. Even when I nearly died giving birth to our first child he was the model of calm; so much so that my sister, a doctor, told my mother that he clearly had no idea of the magnitude of what was going on. Yet he did. Years later, when a close friend’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer he casually remarked to me that her husband “must be going through the same hell I did when I thought I’d lose you.” Stunned, I probed further – so he’d known it was that bad? Of course, he replied, but sobbing and shouting weren’t going to help.
Early on his emotional reticence was the source of a fair bit of conflict. To my shame, I can still recall some monster fights that I realise, in hindsight, I initiated simply so as to provoke a reaction from him. I achieved my aim – I saw him angry, distressed and passionate – but the arguments were draining and destructive, risked ruining an otherwise wonderful relationship. I stopped for fear of driving him away, and because by then I’d met his family and was beginning to understand.
Now in his mid-40s, my husband was raised by relatively elderly parents at a time when boys were still admonished not to cry, to instead take any blow like the man they were years off becoming. His mother, worn out from rearing four sons whilst her husband worked three jobs told her youngest child that he had to learn to fight his own battles, to sort things out for himself and not bother her unless there was blood. His parents love this boy, my husband, I’m sure, but it is a pared-down, no-frills love. They have never once called him for his birthday in the two decades we have been together. They have never held or kissed him in my presence, or told him they are proud of the many things he has achieved in his life. They hug their (much loved) grandchildren when we visit, but not for too long for fear of spoiling them.
So I understand it. I understand my husband gives me as much as he can, and he gives me a lot. He cooks because he knows I hate to; he doesn’t send flowers, but he buys me thoughtful books; he gives me that most precious commodity in a working mother’s life: time apart from our family to sit or think or write, and without me asking. He has endured bad decisions, irrational moods and appalling behaviour on my behalf, and reciprocated with far less of all three. He rarely praises me to my face, but when my first book came out last year friends told me that he’d sent copies of the reviews and details of radio interviews and signings I was doing to our entire circle.
Real love is not sighing declarations or a jewellery box full of bling, I know. It is sacrifice and commitment and a deep understanding and friendship and putting in or up even when you don’t much feel like it. So what if he can’t easily say the words or show his feelings? I know how much he loves me and I understand.
Or I did. I’d stopped waiting for the words, looking for the bling. I was content with my lot, grateful for it. Then the kids arrived.
Having children has opened my husband’s heart. The emotions were always there, but now they are on display. He smothers our son in kisses, even though the boy is seven and starting to squirm out of his grasp. He swoops on our daughter as soon as he is home from work, and she in turn throws herself at his legs, their sheer love for each other made flesh in the force and joy of their reunion. I watch him coaching our son at cricket, hear the words of praise and encouragement offered so freely and so sincerely. I am in the background as he reads to them before bed. Their little faces lift up to him like flowers straining toward the light; he stops to patiently answer questions or ask their opinion; my daughter sits in his lap with her cheek against his as he tells the story and strokes her hair.
And I am jealous. His emotions are on display, only they are not stirred by or for me. His tenderness and gentleness – stopped up for years – flow freely with our offspring, who bask and grow in the outpouring. Watching, my own heart fills too, moved by his adoration of that which I also adore, that we made together. But something else lurks alongside, something harder and more grasping. Something that is put out that it isn’t my hair he is stroking, my voice he is listening to with such rapt and unqualified attention. There are moments when I am jealous of my own children.
We worked hard to have kids. Three years of tests and shots and more negative pregnancy tests than I care to remember for the first; another fourteen months of trying and waiting and hoping for the second. I am thrilled that we eventually got lucky. For all the work and worry involved, becoming parents has unquestionably brought my husband and I closer, has cemented our partnership in a way that no gold ring or spoken vow ever did. We have a happy and fulfilling marriage.
Why then these green-eyed moments? There are days that I see him whispering to our girl as he does her pigtails, hear her bubbling giggle in rejoinder and want to be in on the joke. There are nights I watch him tuck our sleeping son into bed, then bend over and kiss his forehead so lightly and with such devotion that my heart aches because I don’t know if he ever looks like that at me.
When I catch myself feeling this way I am invariably ashamed. My husband is devoted to our children; he has found his emotional voice through their being. What more could I possibly want? Easy. I want a bit more of that outpouring for myself. I want my hair stroked, my forehead kissed, the made-up names and the blatant, barefaced adoration. Seeing my partner with our children reminds me of the early days of our courtship – the excuse-anything, endlessly fascinating, can’t-keep-your-hands-off-each-other-ness of it all, and I want that back.
I talk to a dear male friend and he reminds me that men suffer this too when children arrive, often far more so: that the new mother pours so much attention and time and concern into the bundle in her arms or always, always at her breast that the husband feels shut out, last in line in the best case scenario, utterly unnecessary in the worst. I ask another if this is so and he nods furiously. He loves his wife madly, will never stray. But it’s been six years since their youngest was born and he still doesn’t feel he is ever the sum of her gaze; senses that she is always looking over his shoulder to see if a child needs feeding or washing or her. He watches and waits, hoping this phase will pass, yearning for the old easy pre-partum equilibrium. He wonders if it will ever return.
Compared to that I know I am lucky. My moments of envy and exclusion are only sporadic, and I am beginning to understand them. Talking with my male friends has reminded me that the exchange of emotions is a two way street, is both cause and effect. If I’m honest I’m not sure I always offer my husband the same uninhibited affection and attention that I can begrudge him showing our children.
Then too, they are so open and trusting and obvious with him how could he help but repay that in full? Unlike me, they have no agendas, no expectations, no demands. They are unconditional with him, and that makes him unconditional with them. Love conquers all, but absolute love conquers absolutely.
We learn a new love when we have children. Like acquiring a second language, it’s tricky at times and I’m still not fluent. But I’m getting there.
I’m discovering that the way my husband loves me, and I him, is not the same as the way we love our children, and that I shouldn’t compare the two.
I’m slowly realising something I should have known all along: that parental love is different, is selfless, is less about passion and more about blood. And I’m starting to understand that one commitment you make, but that the other makes you.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem