Finally the inevitable happened: Dawn and I had our first real fight since I got her pregnant. I was not prepared for this. It started because, of all things, I was being protective.
At least, that's what it looked like to me. But perhaps I should have learned by now that I have no idea what will upset my wife until after it happens. You'd think, after two and a half years of marriage preceded by six years of dating, that maybe I'd know by now that I know nothing. Socrates knew he knew nothing. He made a virtue of it, in fact. But then, Socrates was, from all accounts, married to a shrew of a woman, while Dawn is the epitome of the caring, loving, supportive and understanding wife. Also, we don't know how long it took Socrates before he said to his wife, ``Xanthippe, I have no idea what's wrong with you.'' He may have been quite old. So perhaps I am not quite so far behind the curve as I feel.
Certainly, when it comes to upsetting my wife, I am not so much behind the curve as right in front of the fastball. And I usually forget to wear my cup. Of course, this disagreement was no exception. It all started when Dawn wanted to go out for a walk.
Dawn's been going out on walks for a while now, maybe a year. Walking is one of those little exercises that doctors always tell fat people will make a big difference in their lives and health. ``Start by walking a few minutes every night and you'll be in better shape in no time,'' they say. Like everything doctors have been telling fat people for the last hundred years, this was just used to wash the hogs before being given to you. Nevertheless, Dawn likes to walk; I do too, but generally I prefer a purpose to my walking. If we're, say, walking to Dairy Queen for ice cream or walking to Dunkin Donuts for, well, doughnuts, then I like walking. If we're just walking with the only destination being the starting point--home--then I can just stay right where I am and feel that I've accomplished as much, only faster. Then I have more time to catch up on my TV Guide reading.
But Dawn has bought this walking thing hook, line and Reebok, so she tries to get out walking a few nights a week. Usually, she gets our friend Elizabeth to accompany her, and sometimes Elizabeth's husband Joe and I come along. More often, Joe and I are exhausted from a long day of typing at our computers--we're both programmers--and we sit around in the apartment drinking iced tea and talking Kant or Hume or P.J. O'Rourke or some other philosopher. But as comfortable as I can be in my reclining sofa with a cold drink to hand, I'm not completely comfortable with the idea of our wives walking around the city at night unprotected. Sure, we live in a fairly quiet suburb; but it's really only quiet because it's a suburb of New York City. Almost anywhere else in the world our town would be considered a bustling and crowded metropolis. Also, it's a great big scary world out there. Bad things happen all the time. And although the probability that a bad thing will happen to you personally is really small, if it actually does happen to you the chance is one hundred percent. And what else matters?
I don't want to give anyone the impression that I'm paranoid. I try not to be. I don't think you can live your life in fear all the time. I drive my car lots of places, even though driving is probably one of the least safe things I do. (It doesn't help that I'm not very good at it.) I do go out in the dark and I don't have those little non-slip stickers stuck in the bottom of my bathtub. But I do believe that, if you can reasonably reduce the chances of a bad thing happening, you should. So I don't jaywalk unless I've looked both ways. I don't defrost meat at room temperature. I don't leave the oven or the iron on when no one is home. And I keep a flashlight in the nightstand drawer next to my bed so, should the lights go out, I don't bark my shins on everything in the whole apartment to get to the circuit breaker box. (Of course, any time the lights go out, I'm somewhere besides my bed, so I end up barking my shins on everything in the apartment to get to the nightstand. No system is perfect.)
So all of that is why Dawn got mad at me when I wanted to accompany her and Elizabeth on their walk. All right, perhaps that's not why she got mad at me. She got mad at me because she felt I was being overly protective. She couldn't understand why I let her walk with Elizabeth all by themselves so many times before, but suddenly this time I wanted to go.
``What's going to happen?'' she wanted to know. ``You're not going for me. You're going for the baby. You care more about this baby than you do about me!''
This was a chain of logic I was not prepared to follow. I tried to explain that I was never happy about her walking around alone before, and now I was just acting on that.
``It's a simple cost-benefit analysis,'' I explained, trying to be rational. ``If you go out and leave me alone''--Joe had to stay home to study for his philosophy mid-term, believe it or not--``what am I going to do? Log in and check my e-mail? So I might as well go with you.''
Dawn was in no way going to be rational about this. She was going to be emotional. In fact, I believe that much of the misunderstanding between the sexes comes down to the fact that often, women are communicating on an emotional level and men are communicating on a rational level. Men can't respond in a way women can understand--and vice versa--because they're not communicating on the same line. This is not to say that one is better than the other--each response, the emotional and the rational, is appropriate at one time or another. It's just that, when you try to switch circuits, things can get confusing. It's rather like I tried to call Dawn on the phone and she answered with a digitally encoded electronic message, or like she took a plane to meet me but I took a car.
So she was not rational about this. ``Are you going to keep me from getting shot?'' she retorted. ``No! So what, do you just want to be there when I die?''
Knowing that the two of you are speaking different languages and being able to speak the other's language are two different things. I knew she wanted an emotional response of some kind, but I had no idea what it should be. ``Yes,'' I replied, ``I want to be there if you get killed.''
This was not the right answer. I don't know if there was a right answer. The three of us ended up walking half a block before Dawn turned around and stormed home. Elizabeth and I watched her until she got almost all the way there and then I walked Elizabeth home, because I didn't want her walking around alone either. As we walked we talked. I asked her if I was wrong.
``I can see both sides,'' Elizabeth told me. ``She's right that you never felt you had to come along in the past.''
I had to agree. ``But things are different now. I mean, she is pregnant.''
``That doesn't mean she needs to be babysat,'' answered Elizabeth.
``I suppose that's true,'' I said.
``And,'' she added, ``while I don't like to use this excuse, her hormones are really weird right now.''
``I know that's true,'' I said.
Elizabeth let herself into her apartment and I walked the few short blocks home, thinking.
I am certain that it is difficult being pregnant. But I'm finding that it is also difficult being the best husband you can be--especially if, like me, you haven't had much practice. I try to help with housework and I try to be understanding and undemanding. I try to be protective without being more obtrusive than I already am. (It's hard for a guy of my size and temperament to be unobtrusive.)
It seems to me, too, that it's possible my protectiveness is as biologically based as Dawn's hormonal variations. I imagine that she could be putting out pheromones designed to make the male endocrine system kick in to protective mode. Certainly, I'm more protective than I have been.
Nevertheless, I work at keeping my feelings, in this regard at least, to myself. I try not to be unreasonable. I put a lot of effort into this, but I am only human. I do occasionally slip.
For example, Dawn and I were discussing the possibility of her needing an operation to remove the cyst on her left ovary. The doctor had intimated that recovery time might be longer than it ordinarily would for an operation because they want to reduce the chances of complications when the patient is pregnant. Thus, Dawn might have to spend a fair amount of time at home instead of working right after the surgery.
``What will I do with myself?'' she lamented. ``I'll be home all that time with nothing to do. I'll go crazy! How will I keep myself occupied?''
``Easy,'' I answered. ``You'll have dinner ready for me when I come in the door after work. And you'll keep the house clean, and do all my laundry, and wash all the dishes--''
``You're a pig,'' Dawn said.
``I am not,'' I replied, and rebutted in a way that has become standard for me whenever my wife calls me a pig: ``Male pigs do not expect female pigs to serve them. That's just how it is. I'm a human.'' I use this same argument if she catches me looking at an attractive woman (besides her, of course). ``Male pigs do not appreciate the female pig's form. They're just interested in reproduction. I have no interest in reproducing with that woman. I'm a human.''
``You're still a pig,'' she answers, undaunted.
But all of this was as nothing before the argument we had when I tried to discuss attachment parenting.
``Attachment parenting'' is a philosophy of child-rearing propounded by William Sears. I hadn't read a lot of what he'd written, but I had read a couple of his essays, and he seemed very interesting. I thought he had a lot of good ideas. For example, attachment parenting begins when the new parent staples (or ``attaches'') their newborn baby to their chest.
Well, okay, that's not what attachment parenting is about. From what I'd gathered from my small amount of research, attachment parenting is about keeping your newborn in close contact with you as much as possible--perhaps sleeping with them in your bed, holding them often, paying attention when they cry, and so on and so forth. It sounded like a good philosophy to me, so I mentioned it to Dawn as we took the train home from work together. I had spent some time in the Barnes & Noble on the way home from work leafing through a couple of Sears' books and wanted to make a visit to the bookstore with Dawn to maybe look over the books together.
Naturally, Dawn wanted to know what I'd found out so far. I told her.
``He sounds like an ecoweenie,'' she said.
I suppose Sears does to some extent. ``He is, I guess, a little bit,'' I answered.
``When did you get this touchy-feely?'' she asked.
``Um,'' I said. ``It's not about being touchy-feely per se--''
``You just want to bring up a yuppie kid,'' she said, getting angrier.
``I do not,'' I protested. I was losing ground and quickly. ``I just want to bring up a happy kid.''
``I'm so fed up with books and people who tell you how to do things, who tell you that if you do this or don't do that you won't have a happy kid.'' This discussion was getting very heated. But, like a nuclear pile past its critical mass, there's nothing that can be done except watch the explosion. Preferably from a safe distance. I haven't yet found the safe distance from Dawn.
I tried reason again, because, like the philosopher said, if the only tool you've got is a hammer, all your problems look like nails. In my case, I know the problem isn't a nail, but I try hitting it anyway. ``Look,'' I said reasonably, ``It's not about what we should or shouldn't do. It's about getting information to make our own decisions on what we want to do.''
``You know,'' she continued, ``Our parents didn't do any of that weird stuff. They didn't let us sleep in their bed and they didn't breastfeed us and they fed us Gerber and we turned out happy. Are you unhappy? No, you're not. And neither am I. We didn't need any of that stuff to make us into happy kids. We turned out fine. I'm sick and tired of Bradley telling you you have to have two eggs a day and no pain medication and our friends telling us that we have to do this and do that and do the other thing. Do you have to breastfeed the kid? I don't THINK so. So you want the kid to be breastfed. But you're not the one who has to have this kid attached to you. Are you going to be pushing this kid out of your body? No, you're not. I am. And if I want anesthesia, I'm going to get it. Yes, I want to breastfeed. Yes, I want to have this baby without medication. But if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. And you and your judgemental books and our judgemental friends and families are just going to have to deal with it if it happens! Okay? Is THAT ALL RIGHT WITH YOU?!''
``That's fine,'' I said, very very quietly. Seeing that no matter how many times I hit this problem with my hammer it was not going to become a nail, I decided that discretion was the better part of carpentry and kept my mouth shut. This lasted all of five minutes.
``Now you're bitchy,'' Dawn snapped.
``I am not bitchy,'' I said. And I'll admit it now--I said it in something of a bitchy voice. I was feeling a little put-upon.
``You are too,'' she snapped back.
``I am not,'' I said, perhaps even more bitchily than before.
And it started all over again. But, eventually, we always reach something of an agreement. Or at least I give up. Usually, after a long time of bickering back and forth, we get to the heart of the matter, which, like getting to the human heart, is sticky and messy and kind of gross, but really necessary sometimes to fix things.
Dawn finally told me what was really bothering her, and after that, I couldn't very well be bitchy any more. And by then dinner was almost ready anyway, and dinner really is the pits if you're mad at each other. That helps to speed up the process of making up.
``I have a lot to worry about,'' Dawn told me as I cut up the chicken for dinner. ``I have to take care of class two nights a week, Glee Club one night a week, work every day, commuting home, I have to worry whether or not I'm going to get an operation for the cyst, watch what I eat and exercise when I can. On top of all of that I've had a splitting headache for a week and I'm nauseous all the time. And on top of all of that, I'm pregnant. I can't be worrying now about how I'm going to bring this kid up or about breastfeeding or any of that--I've got enough going on right now. I'm exhausted.''
And she was right. She does have too much on her mind to have anything added to it. As a good husband, I should be taking as much as I can off of her shoulders, not adding to what's there, even if I think I'm just having a regular discussion. I shall have to watch myself more carefully.
But I do have one question: Did the founders of the Women's Movement know what they were getting their daughters and granddaughters into?