On Balance

Published on April 15th, 2014 | by Jennifer Berney

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JENNIFER BERNEY on SYMBIOSIS, TIME and FAMILY

My partner Kellie was never sure she wanted kids. She didn’t grow up toting dolls around or playing house; she was more interested in wrestling with her brother and biking like Evel Knievel.  She liked children just fine, but feared the havoc they’d wreak on her life. She liked her own time—time to tinker on the house, to learn new skills, to lend a hand to any friend with an interesting project.

I liked my own time too. As an introvert, I was accustomed to long hours of solitude, which I used to brood, to write, and to run long distances. But I had grown up wanting children; at six, I had begged my parents for a sibling and when my baby brother arrived I pretended he was my own. At eighteen, when I came out to myself as a lesbian, I had a vague notion that this might complicate the baby making process, but I was determined not to let it stop me.

And so, since Kellie and I had chosen each other, we had the same debate for years, a debate about if we would have kids and how we would do it, a debate that always included the question: “What’s wrong with the way we are now?”

The question, of course, was Kellie’s, and I could only answer: “Nothing.” It was true. Nothing was wrong with our lives. We had friends. We had interests. We lived comfortably. And, by my own definition, the two of us were already a family on our own.

But the word felt abstract to me. Family. We belonged to each other, but we belonged to the other things that called us. Kellie belonged to her list of projects, and I belonged to my office. We needed each other, but what did that mean exactly? If I had a flat tire or locked myself out of my car, I could count on Kellie to show up within five minutes. And with me around, Kellie could count on finding fruits and vegetables in her life. These things were nice to have, but we’d both lived years of our lives without them.

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Somehow, even though I lacked a clear and rational argument, I convinced Kellie to have our first child. In turn, she talked me into our second. Through parenting together, our status as a family has become unambiguous to me. When I say “I need you,” I know exactly what that means. Parenting has required each of us to see beyond our personal inventory of needs, to combine our worlds, to serve a common purpose. We are now, in a word, symbiotic.

This symbiosis began in pregnancy, as the embryo asserted itself from inside my body, demanding that I sleep all the time, that I eat only potatoes and oatmeal.

The embryo, and later the fetus made demands on Kellie too, though they were smaller and fewer. Drive your wife home now, it said. Do the shopping. Phone in the prescriptions. Put that other kid to bed.

My older son is five now; his brother is nine months. The home we share is 900 square feet, which means that if I am managing a tantrum while Kellie is relaxing—say, reading a book with her feet on the coffee table—it’s impossible for her to remain in blissful ignorance. If I say “I need you,” she’s in earshot. The book gets dropped, the feet come off the table, and she relieves me before I burst into a tantrum of my own.

Or, when the baby cuts four new teeth in a single week, we divide our sleep strategically. For us to share a bed and lose sleep together is dangerous to our family’s ecosystem: we’ll get up in the morning bleary-eyed and fumble around the kitchen, humorless and in each other’s way. It’s better to send Kellie to the couch where maybe she’ll sleep through the hourly wake-ups. I can be a human pacifier all night long, and in the morning trade the baby for a precious hour of sleep.

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Our selfish pleasures, too, must work their way into the system. I warn Kellie a month before marathon season is upon us because it means that her Saturday mornings will soon belong to the kids. Before we had kids, I could run for miles and miles whenever—who was there to care? And, funny thing: I relished it less. Time was less precious then.

Before we had kids Kellie and I watched movies every night, we had friends over every weekend, we had grown-up conversations whenever we wanted and yet somehow I always thought I was busy. I mean, if people asked me how I was, I’d say busy. I laugh at that now.

What was wrong with us before? Nothing—our lives were free and sexy and rewarding with far less puke and poop and far more time in bed or on the couch. We were deliciously self-centered, but it was too much of a good thing, like drinking only milkshakes when what your body needs is water. It’s a lonely thing to not be needed constantly. It leaves the door wide open for angst.

These days we gripe about being busy, and I believe this time we mean it. I think to the day some years from now when we begin to reclaim the bed and the couch, when time becomes a little less precious, a little more our own. And I dread that day while longing for it.

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About the Author

Jennifer Berney

Jennifer Berney lives in Olympia, Washington with her partner and two sons. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child,  Hip MamaThe Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes.  She blogs at goodnightalready.com . @JennBerney



6 Responses to JENNIFER BERNEY on SYMBIOSIS, TIME and FAMILY

  1. Poneloya says:

    Gorgeous, gorgeous. I know exactly what you mean.

  2. Gregory Gipson says:

    I don’t have children myself, however, I think this is the most beautiful thing that I have ever read in my life! Thank you with happy yet melancholy tears on my face…

  3. Danila Rumold says:

    I have an eight month old and was just thinking today how parenting has gotten me out of self centered fears. And although I have been in a partnership for 11 years, I remember that feeling of loneliness which could creep in. Today I have no room for loneliness, and can also only hope for an hour of sleep (on the weekend when my partner is home) after the baby wakes up. Good to know I am not the only nighttime pacifier.

  4. Titi in Training says:

    Thank you for this. I find it beautiful and inspiring. However, if I may, I’d like to question your reference to a childless life as “deliciously self-centered.” While one can read this description as testament to your own personal experience, it rather dangerously constructs a cliched, binary stereotype between people with children and people without. Because your piece opens with Kellie’s uncertainty about having children, you situate your story in this crossroads space. Clearly, you have experienced incredible joy in your decision to have children, but to have or not to have children are both selfish decisions. Yes, being a good parent requires selflessness, but the decision to have a child is also a “deliciously self-centered” one.

    • Jenn Jenn says:

      Thanks for your comment. I did, as you mention, mean it only as a reflection on my own experience so I regret it if it reads as a generalization that is applicable to all couples without children. Certainly, I think that there are many ways to be selfless in this world–with or without children.

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