My marriage is 13 years old today, an awkward adolescent with limbs too long and a face full of acne, but showing some potential and promise now. Bless it. Here is my anniversary story, a brief history of mistakes and graces.
We got married way too young, by most thinking people’s standards. I was 21 and he was 20 and we had about $80 between us unless you count the student loans, then we had about negative $39,920 between us.
He was a junior in college and working retail part-time and I was a recent graduate making minimum wage with no plans and no pressure to make any. We were broke, but we felt free. Our days were filled with tacos, beer, and friends. Our little apartment and 15-year-old cars were all we needed in the world.
Did you know birth control only works if you remember to take it? Spoiler alert, I did not know that.
About a year after our wedding, Eli was born. What a sweet gift he was for two idiots who clearly didn’t know what they were doing! At two minutes old, he picked up his little head from my chest and looked straight into my soul before bobbing it around to survey the landscape. I can still remember his fingernails on my skin as he tried to figure out exactly what I was.
The next year was hard. It was really, really hard. Fresh motherhood can be treacherous sometimes. Kyle worked long hours and worked hard on his degree. I worked at a daycare so that I could be with Eli and we just squeaked by, with a lot of help from people who loved us.
Hannah Kate was born the next year during Kyle’s final semester of undergrad. Two babies under two years old is a precious and harrowing experience for anyone, and most of us survive it...but I have to admit, there were times I thought I might not. Those first years of marriage and parenting are extraordinarily exciting, no doubt. So much possibility! But it would be a cruel trick to pretend there weren’t some really hard times, too. We both came into this new family with a lot of expectations and when life didn’t measure up, our tendencies were to dig our heels in and protect what we thought was ours. It didn’t take very long for us to realize we were actually on two separate teams, and we often found ourselves at odds.
We moved to my hometown after Kyle graduated and rented the kind of old house that scares your mother when she sees it. It was the kind of house that is full of character, charm, ghosts, and asbestos. We made it about 5 months. Our rent was $650 and when we received a $700 utility bill, we called a realtor. We bought a little house in a little neighborhood we thought would fit us just fine for at least 5 years. After renting for several years, you could not imagine how excited I was to go to the paint store and choose colors for the walls of MY OWN HOUSE. The year was 2009, so clearly, I chose deep red for the kitchen (really popped against those builder grade oak cabinets, let me tell you) and a deep avocado green for the living room. I was someBODY ya’ll.
Kyle taught high school English and coached football. I taught preschool music classes and wrangled babies. It was good and hard.
Then we met a Mama who needed help and in a matter of days, a 7-year-old named Ameerah joined us. Her mom had made the difficult decision to join the military to give her family a chance at a better life and we wanted to help her do that.
Six months later we were making plans to pack her little things back up and transition her back in to her mama’s care and my heart was in pieces. I had done the thing I promised I wouldn’t and gotten very attached to another mama’s child. I knew I couldn’t keep her, I knew she wasn’t mine, but it was like my instincts took over and panic set in.
My family was about to shrink and it felt so wrong. I didn’t want my family to get smaller, we were supposed to be in the growing phase, not the releasing.
So I did what any level headed, rational person would. I got pregnant, on the first try, just like the other times. I packed all of Ameerah’s things and I did hand her back to her mama, which seemed right and good to my mind, but my aching heart didn’t understand.
We settled back into our old routine, with two little ones instead of three. We held our breath through the first trimester, like all parents do. Right around week 11, I remember breathing a sigh of relief. Our friends and family all knew about this baby and they all thought we were nuts but we were used to that by now.
And then, in an instant, everything wasn’t ok. Spotting and cramping and heading to the doctor’s office, I cried and begged God for this baby. I was making promises and bargains and apologies and holding onto fading hope. I think I knew in my soul it wasn’t all going to be ok. Not this time.
We got to the ultrasound room and the technician found the tiny baby with the tiny, too slow beating heart. We watched and cried as the life seemed to be fading from this terribly wanted baby with each thump...thump. We suddenly felt very young again or maybe we just felt our age. The doctor told us there was a small chance the baby could be ok, so we held our breath and each other's hands and scheduled a follow up appointment for the next day.
The baby was not ok. Sometime in the night that slowing heart beat faded out. I felt like death personified. Like a tomb filled with sorrow and dread. Everything went grey.
We went home and I pulled into myself, cocooning around this baby that would not be, all at once wishing it was over and wishing it would never be.
No one tells you miscarriage can be slow. No one tells you much about miscarriage, at all.
We told our family and friends and kids, and I survived the worst week of my life. I pulled back, hid, suffered this deep hurt alone, because how do you even begin to engage with a story like this? Looking back, I realize that I was grieving more than just a baby. I was grieving my whole understanding of the world. Really bad things really will happen and not one of us will be able to prevent all of them. Babies really do die, no last-minute stunts can be pulled to save them. It was like a free fall into a different universe where I was suddenly just like everyone else and really bad things could happen to me, at any time.
I didn’t think I could ever do it again. I knew a lot of women who had opened themselves up to the possibility of loss again and again, but I couldn’t imagine it.
Time marched on. Ameerah came back when her mom’s military job required it and we felt a little more whole.
That baby ache, though.
Eventually, the ache outgrew the fear and we jumped off the cliff again, this time knowing it could really kill us this time.
This time, we waited a little longer to share the news and we proceeded with caution.
This time, we brought home a healthy baby boy named Abe. This time, unfortunately, we also brought home quite severe post-partum depression. New vocabulary like Enfamil and failure to thrive and prozac became very familiar. Again, we survived.
Kyle completed his master’s degree, we bought a bigger house and a bigger van. We also got a big dog and each took on more demanding and stressful jobs, while navigating family life with 4 kids now and always always always just barely enough. Barely enough rest, barely enough money, space, time, barely enough grace for each other. But look at us, we made it.
A few years later, in 2016 we really bit off a huge bite. We sold the shrinking house that had at one time seemed so big. We bought the house we had driven by countless times, pointing, saying THIS ONE. If this one was ever on the market, man, we would snatch it up. We shook hands with the owners and watched them yank the homemade sign out of the yard after our 20-minute walk through. We are impulsive, what of it?
We packed up our belongings and stacked up boxes for what we swore would be the last time. And then, one night as I was getting dinner on the table I started doing some mental math. Ok, so today is the 15th...hmm...that’s odd...oh my gosh...wait a second. A quick trip to CVS and a bottle of Aquafina later and I was staring at TWO LINES. TWO. Pregnant. Positive. Again.
The next day we closed on our two-income dream house. There were exactly zero ways we could afford the house we literally just bought if I didn’t continue earning money, so I convinced myself that I could do it all. Work through this pregnancy and get right back at it after a short maternity leave.
I couldn’t. I didn’t.
Shep’s birth ushered in a period of buckling down, doing hard things, and expecting the God of the universe to intervene that I hope I never recover from. Kyle worked himself quite close to the brink of exhaustion trying to make enough money to keep it all spinning, and it was the greatest gift he could ever have given me. I got another chance to mother a newborn, and this time without the dark cloud of depression. He worked and worked and worked and never complained. I spent all my time with my baby in my arms and running my big kids all over town and it was a good season.
And then one day it wasn’t. It became abundantly clear this was not the life we wanted. There was no house worth working that hard for, even if we did have the very sweetest neighbors who we miss every day. We quickly decided to sell our big house and move into a much smaller one a few streets over. One more time, we grabbed some boxes and got to packing and stacking. The big house sold in a couple of weeks and we breathed a sigh of relief.
But life keeps rolling doesn’t it? A few months after the knots untangled and we broke free from the burden of a house we couldn’t afford we had to buy a new car. And then three kids needed braces yesterday and we couldn’t keep putting it off. And then I needed an expensive surgery. And soon, it was clear that I needed to get back to income earning, at least for now. Selling that house bought me precious months one on one with this gift of a baby and I’ll never regret it. It also got us off the more, bigger, better train we had accidentally hopped aboard. We learned we don’t really need 5 bedrooms, and we could learn to be happy with less than we have now.
So now, in this moment, life is looking a lot different than I expected 13 years ago and even 13 months ago. I’m teaching school again, Kyle’s the assistant principal of a middle school. He is still teaching English online on the weekends so we can do fun things together sometimes and it’s been really beautiful to watch him sacrifice himself. While many dads are watching tv or reading or sleeping, this one is at the dining room table, investing in the lives of children across the world and our life just sort of rotates around him. When he isn’t at one job or the other he is taking someone to scouts or church or dance, folding laundry (not putting it away very often, but we are overlooking that for now), or working on his doctorate degree. We are in an “all hands on deck” season of life and it would have buckled the original us.
Marriage, man. We jumped in with all four feet because it’s what we wanted more than anything in the world. A family, a future, a purpose. We brought our unrealistic expectations, our experiences, our insecurities, our hopes, our DNA, our weaknesses, our lack, our bad habits, our gifts, our weapons of war, our selfishness and rigidity, our favorite cuss words, our addictions, and we laid them all down at the altar of something bigger. Something better. This has been really, incredibly, terribly hard and absolutely the best thing that has ever happened to me. Over the last 13 years we really have died to ourselves for the sake of the other, and that death has been sometimes extraordinarily painful. But I can tell you this without qualification: what has been resurrected in our home is a new life, a oneness I can’t describe or dissect. We have messed up, said the worst, done the terrible, gone to bed livid and far apart, a few times for a string of many nights in a row. We have taken huge risks, failed together, experienced regret and triumph. And have learned, finally, that we don’t actually have to say everything we think all the time and that if we hold on and stay through the night and resist the urge to hide away or walk away, joy really can come in the morning.
We didn’t write our own vows because do people really do that? But if I had the opportunity to say a few words in front of everyone today, this is what I would say...
Thank you for doing your best. It’s enough. Thank you for being so humble and kind. Thank you for showing our kids what repentance looks like. Thank you for doing whatever it takes to be better and do better and for keeping your eye on the prize. Thank you for doing hard things for a long time, and never giving up. Thank you for making me laugh more than cry. Thank you for being brave enough to ask questions lesser men shrink from, what you are gaining in return for the asking is the stuff of broken chains and legacy. Thank you for calling yourself a feminist before I could call myself one. Thank you for being so intense about clean, unwrinkled sheets...I’ve secretly come to love it. Thank you for buying me things because you know I like them. Thank you for listening to me and believing in me and saying the nicest things about me that probably aren’t accurate but still nice. Let’s keep going, ok? I think it’s all going to be all right.