I was recently in Homebase on a Sunday morning with my two year old. It’s next door to Pets at Home and on a Sunday, while Mabel is at gymnastics, Frank and I go to look at the rabbits and hamsters. We then head to Homebase because we’ve an hour to kill and there’s only so long we can look at the rabbits. Unfortunately Pets at Home are yet to conclude that becoming a full blown free zoo would make good business sense.

A couple walked in to Homebase and the first thing that struck me was that they looked fresh. Freshly washed hair, make up, clean clothes, a bit glowy, lingering touches. I was wearing a grubby hoodie and greasy mum bun and Frank’s clothes were smeared with congealed breakfast. While I would bet money that couple had sex that morning, Doug and I had had a non-ironic ‘discussion’ about how long it takes to have a shit and the inconvenient timing of said shit.

My mind drifted to twelve years ago, when we would wander in to that very same Homebase all post-coital, freshly showered and in search of something like a single shelf that we could commit a whole morning to finding, and we’d amicably agree on the purchase (or if we didn’t, one of us would say ‘oh go on then, if this is the one you want. I love you’) and then head off for a celebratory lunch in a tasteful eatery, cheersing ourselves for how good we were as a team and how lovely it was to be creating a home together.

Fast forward 12 years. After one particularly bickery Saturday, as we were getting ready for bed (Doug stripping to his boxers, me in the less-welcoming ensemble of full length pyjamas, bedsocks, earplugs and an eye mask atop my head ready to bring in the night) Doug asked me to let him hold me. The act of hugging sometimes dissipates the tension that we’ve seesawed between on those days – anger, rage, disappointment, rage, sadness, rage, with some moments of harmony thrown in. And it kind of works – being held and soothed is actually what we both crave from each other but can’t see or admit that when we’re mid-row and it takes one of us to force it a bit, in a non-threatening way.

I think it’s taken me until the last couple of years, three kids in, to be ok that marriage isn’t a straight line, let alone an upward curve. It’s up and down, sometimes we’re in sync and other times we’re disconnected and no number of date nights or ‘we need to talk about things’ is going to help. During those times we feel distant or clash over and over. The same whispered (or raging) rows, the same frustrations, moving silently around the house as if the other isn’t there. Wishing they weren’t.

While I regularly hear how having kids gave someone a new perspective on how wonderful their partner was, having children has sometimes bought out the worst in both of us. The exhaustion, unable to find time for anything – ourselves or each other. Quietly thinking ‘is this it?’, occasionally daring to say it mid row as the ultimate fuck you.

In their recent book ‘Where’s My Happy Ending?’, married couple Anna and Matt look at love and marriage and what it really means to find and keep love in 2020. Anna writes that she didn’t marry Matt on their wedding day, but through five miscarriages, two children, one redundancy and months of postnatal depression. The idea that it’s the challenges that make a marriage feels so far from how relationships are typically depicted. More often, if people confirm that they sometimes row or feel resentment, it’ll be met with a raised eyebrow and an ‘oo-er, they’re clearly on the rocks’. Only togetherness can show how together a couple is. Which is horse shit.

Of course that couple in their twenties with disposable income and time for mid-morning shags could get along. The real test is now, hanging on by our fingernails through the rush hour of life.

Another thing Anna writes about is research from a relationship psychologist showing partners making requests for connection, or ‘bids’. When a partner points something out – say a bird – and it’s not just a comment about a bird, but a request for a response, hoping for a connection. The bit that made me nod most was Anna’s realisation of her response to such bids: “I sometimes haven’t been able to hear him fully through the din of postnatal depression, WhatsApp messages and social-media-induced self-doubt”.*

It’s the thing we struggle to remember when we are struggling. It involves putting my phone down, averting my eyes from the TV/kids/shoes left in the middle of the kitchen and showing an interest in each other like the love struck us of 2006 would have. Giving Doug my focus rather than giving away all my energy and kind thoughts to friends, colleagues and strangers on the internet, leaving behind a pursed-lipped sour puss with misery in her eyes.

A year ago, in ‘Relationships are Hard’, I wrote ‘the biggest surprise of all is realising that marriage isn’t plain sailing and that is ok. I guess when they wrote that whole ‘for better or worse’ some clever stick had already worked that out’.

Not a lot has changed to be honest. We’re still learning, we get bogged down in the day to day. We have enforced hugs and Doug has, so far unsuccessfully, tried to introduce Naked Tuesdays.

Having got through the first couple of years with our youngest Frank, it feels like our foundations are starting to return to something a bit more stable; during those periods when we get a bit more sleep and hormones are a little less rife, in those moments when Frank shows signs he’s no longer a baby and I can breathe a little more easily with the idea that I am me again. The moments when laughter between us comes naturally and a growing recognition that we will one day have more time for us.

We’re still here. We might never return to the heady days of the Homebase couple, but when we do have the luxury of time one day I can promise you this – going to Homebase on a Sunday morning will not be top of our plans.

*pp 30-31 Where’s My Happy Ending? By Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson. The book is available in Create a Package, Create a Man Package, The Book Package, The Unwind PackageThe Vegan Care Package and Matt and Anna’s own package selection

Image from @Sketchymuma Anna Lewis

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