by Sarah Hughes
You know when you hear a song for the first time and it stops you in your tracks? Because it must’ve been written especially for you, right? Well if you’re married with young kids, you need to listen to ‘Pressure Machine’ by The Killers… and wait for it to hit you right where it hurts. It perfectly sums up the frantic chaos of modern families where both parents work and there are literally not enough hours in the day to fit in painting your toenails, never mind reigniting your intimate life.
The clue’s in the title; we’re living in a pressure machine. And sometimes it feels like it’s only a matter of time before some part of that machinery malfunctions, blows up or stutters to it’s premature end, filling our lives with steam. From speaking to my girlfriends over the years, it’s clear to me that marriage itself is not the problem; most of us would still choose our husbands all over again if we had the chance. It’s the 937 daily tasks and insane volume of life admin that come as part and parcel of having kids that really turns up the dial on that pressure machine.
Pre kids, work and career felt kind of… exciting you know!? The options that lay ahead for me and my peers felt endless. And when we were at work, we were truly present and focused. Post kids I’m no less ambitious, possibly even moreso… it’s just that 37% of my brain is always distracted by pesky kid problems. Did the eldest son eat breakfast before he left for school? Does the middle son’s Fortnite addiction mean he’s more likely to end up in jail? How can I stop the youngest son thinking it’s hilarious to flick the middle finger in school..? In short, kids play havoc with your productivity.
Pre kids, our social life was taken for granted. It was a given, you know? We lived in London and made the most of everything the capital had to offer. It was one long cocktail party. Post kids, trying to negotiate a night out in my local with my mates requires Brexit-level talks. Especially post Covid lockdowns where it seems there is so much catching up with friends to be done. Everyone is just hugely over-committed, and kids social lives and hobbies tend to take priority. Oh and while we’re on the subject of socialising; woe betide you if it looks like you are getting more time away from the kids than your husband is. That two night spa break you had for your 40th birthday will be held against you until your 80th birthday.
Pre kids, like in most marriages, me and my husband couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Post kids, if we make eye contact I class that as a win. But you know what; I’m not going to feel guilty about that. We still love the bones of each other, still find each other attractive, but most nights after we get the kids to bed and finally put our laptops away at some god awful hour, we barely have the energy to speak. There are no words more romantic to my ears than; “Shall I make us a cuppa and we can watch Succession?”
My friends who have much younger kids than mine tell me they are so ‘touched out’ by the physical affection they give their kids, that their partner is liable to get a ninja kick to the knackers if he so much as comes in for a peck on the cheek. It’s easy to see how the more affectionate partner in the relationship can feel rejected, and how that rejection can add to even more pressure in the pressure machine.
So can a marriage withstand this type of prolonged pressure? To put a finer point on it; can a marriage survive the arrival (and raising) of kids? I mean, ask me again in another twenty years for a more accurate answer. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert, but after two decades with the same man and over a decade raising kids with him, I do like to think I’ve got some insight.
When I’m an old lady I will give two pieces of advice to my grandaughters (please let there be grandaughters… I’ve suffered enough talking about male parts and the off-side rule during my motherhood):
Firstly; Marry somebody who is kind. Yes I know this one seems really obvious. But raising kids is a long, hard slog. Do not sign up to do that with someone who you don’t know in your bones is a good, honest person. Look at how he treats his Mum, his sisters, how he talk to the the waiter. All are good indicators of how he’ll treat you and your kids.
Secondly; Don’t expect to be happy all of the time. Especially not in these manic pressure machine years. Of course there will be moments of utter bliss, where you glimpse at your husband laughing hysterically at a private joke with your eldest, or snuggling into your youngest while telling him a brilliant bedtime story off the top of his head. Your heart will swell to the point where you think it might burst. You’ll feel so happy, so lucky, surrounded by love. Minutes later you’ll be struck by a football boot to the head or someone will tell you they’ve wee’d in their pants, and the magic moment will be shattered. But never fear; in another six months or so another magic moment will come around. Six months flies by.
Seriously though. There’s a deeper happiness, a contentedness in appreciating the small moments as your kids grow up. And that’s something only you and he/she have… Genuinely, nobody else is that bothered about hearing how good your kid is at violin or how long they slept last night, no matter how much they pretend to be. Only you and your partner are truly invested in that. That’s part of your togetherness, your bond.
And if you can keep your marriage in tact through the pressure machine years, it bodes well for the nice bit doesn’t it? You know, the bit after the kids have gone, moved out, flown the nest. You’ll have all the time in the world to do what you want then… no secretly putting nights out on the calendar then seething to see your husband has already done the same. But that empty nest phase of your life is going to bring it’s own challenges isn’t it? I like to imagine that I’ll mainly be reading in the bath (without someone coming in for a poo) or going on holiday (without having a screaming kid either side of me on the flight); but maybe, just maybe, we’ll find we miss them when they need us less. Parenting is after all the permanent pull between wishing time would speed up so things get easier and not wanting to wish their childhoods away. Spoiler: it doesn’t get easier as they get older. They just get more ruddy hobbies that you have to taxi them to and from.
Of course marriage shouldn’t be like a really long episode of SAS: Survival. We’ve got to want to be in it. Not just for financial security, or because we couldn’t cope raising the kids alone. A marriage that makes you feel sad, anxious or trapped is a waste of your one precious life, and no doubt a bad environment for your kids. No, we’ve got to believe in our hearts that we are in a good marriage. And what it means to be in a good marriage will differ between couples.
My favourite writer Caitlin Moran talks about exactly this in chapter 3 of her spectacular book, More Than a Woman. It is, she says, very easy to find someone lovely and kind and not horrible, who you fancy… the hard bit comes in every single moment after. She writes that marriage is seen as the ultimate prize, the happy ending, the moment you have ‘ Won at life.’ No wonder then is it, that it can all feel a little mundane and turgid once we realise that we don’t get to live in a castle and flounce about being a beautiful lusted-after princess for the rest of our days. She also tells us, and I wholeheartedly agree; that because marriage is in essence a private endeavour between two individuals; we have no template for it!
The thing about a marriage, whether it involves kids or not, is that nobody can really show us how to do it. It is a very hard, complex jigsaw puzzle that we must try to solve together every single day. And yes that might sound arduous, frightening even. But it’s also a huge honour to have that person choose you to be on their jigsaw team, on both the good days and the bad days. Even during the times when you can’t find a single correct piece and bring absolutely nothing to the games table… if your partner wakes up the next day and says, “I’d like to keep trying that jigsaw with you if you want? I still choose you.” I’d say you’re in a pretty good marriage.