‘I Miss Us’: On The Relationship Struggles Of New Parents

Affection and sweetness

Most nights we fought, and there was a constant tension between us, a tension that felt confusing, because we were working together to raise our baby, but pulling apart in so many other ways.

The sippy cup spout was still gunky, smeared with the remnants of a half-squished date. I stared at it in disbelief, then shoved it at my husband. “How could you miss this?” I said.

I’d been busy packing the baby bag at that point, in preparation for taking my daughter to Rhyme Time the following morning, and it had been my husband’s job to do the dishes; but his definition of washing dishes involved vaguely waving them under running water at the sink.

He squinted at the spout, then shrugged. “You don’t have to be a bitch about it,” he said.

We’d only recently moved to the city, which was an added layer of stress to the already stressful transition to becoming parents, with its sleep deprivation, zero downtime and chores that never ended. Most nights we fought, and there was a constant tension between us, a tension that felt confusing, because we were working together to raise our baby, but pulling apart in so many other ways. All I knew about my husband at that moment, when he called me a bitch for overreacting about the sippy cup lid, was that I hated him. Intensely.

Even so, I only meant to yell at him. But my hand, driven by pre-menstrual hormones and a year’s worth of pent-up rage, seemed to have a mind of its own as it rose swiftly in the air and connected squarely with his cheek.

I stood there, stunned. The man with the tired eyes in front of me was the love of my life and I’d just hit him. Immediately I apologized, but he brushed me away. “You’re not you any more,” he said. “You’ve become a different person.”

That was last night—a night that marked a new low point in our relationship, and I wondered if other couples found the changes after having a baby as hard as we did.

Today I am on a tram travelling to Rhyme Time, going to a group held for mothers with babies, and I’m hoping to make some friends in a city where I don’t know anyone yet. My daughter is on my lap and together we look through the window at the high rises, the water inlets, the sun shining off the sea. This was all meant to be our new beginning—only it feels like the beginning of the end to me.

I get off at Southport Station, and push the pram down the road to the library. It’s crowded inside. I make my way to the back and squeeze into an aisle bench amongst a dozen other moms. They’re young and trendy in their city frocks and sandals, jigging babies on their knees.

I unpack our supplies on the inch of spare space beside us: pink sippy cup (clean, thanks to me), box of sultanas and my daughter’s Peppa Pig doll that she’d insisted on bringing. The mom on our right gives me a quick polite smile, but before I can compliment her on the cuteness of her baby, she’s turned her face away.

Just before the program starts, my daughter begins to cry. She’s spotted the climbing blocks up the front and she wants to have a play. For the sake of peace I take her to the blocks. She climbs and crawls over the solid squares of foam, legs pumping furiously, and when the presenters take their seats, she’s finally sated and happy to go back to ours.

But when I pick her up, I can see that a woman has taken our spot. She is pretty and petite with straight black hair and a son, about 2, who is running to the front, where a large group of toddlers have gathered.

I approach—planning just to collect my daughter’s things—but when the woman sees me, she gestures at the bench and asks, “Was this your seat?”

The old me would have let her have our spot and gone and stood at the back. But the changed me is tired. The changed me didn’t sleep last night after fighting with her husband. The changed me has a toddler in her arms and a weeping blister on her foot. The changed me is clumsy and awkward and simply ends up saying, “Yes.”

The woman blinks and then smiles before getting to her feet. “I’m sorry,” she says as she brushes past me and moves down the aisle.

I settle back down on the bench. My daughter wants her sultanas so I open the box and watch her tiny pink dimpled fingers fumbling to pick them out. The program is underway now and the presenters are holding up a song lyrics poster for Welcome today little Starshine, the first rhyme we’re going to sing.

I see the woman who had taken our seat. She’s sitting cross-legged on the floor at the edge of the group of toddlers, holding her little boy’s hand. As I watch, she shifts, and I see her full side profile, and I do a double-take.

How could I have not noticed?

Beneath her V-neck tunic, pushing up to her ribs, is the perfect basketball shape of what must be at least a seven-month pregnant belly.

Shame, so deep it feels like a wound, sears through me and my face burns a bright red. I try to catch her attention. We’ll be on the floor, and you can have our seat. But she doesn’t look my way. I know I should get up and go to her, but I’m too embarrassed. Instead I sit, mortified over the way I made a pregnant woman move. You’re not you any more. I look away, stare blankly at the aisles of books.

Up close the woman’s cheeks are bright like polished plums as she smiles at my daughter and her toddler-absorbed delight. “I’m so terribly sorry,” I say, stepping aside to let the other moms past now that Rhyme Time is over. “I didn’t see that you were pregnant.” My apology sounds so lame, but when I look in her eyes I can see that they are shining.

“Do you want to get a coffee?” she says.

We sit at a table at the library café. We’re kept busy rescuing crayons from the floor, wiping sticky little faces and mopping up spilt water. But somehow around this we still manage to talk. She says she has days with her toddler when it all feels too hard and I know exactly what she means. But at this moment it seems like the easiest thing—when I can share the day with a friend.

Back on the tram and on our way home, my daughter falls asleep on my knee. I look through the window at a multi-level car park and the massive shopping center. There’s a sign for the cinemas and I remember how my husband and I used to go to Gold Class on Friday nights, then sleep in on Saturdays before having a long lazy brunch. And I realize there’s no going back to that now. Those days are gone forever.

My husband is home late, and by the time he steps through the door, our baby is asleep in her cot. He finds me out on the deck, gazing at the night view: tall apartment buildings thronged by the river, their reflections shimmering on the black water’s tide. A steady stream of traffic flows over the bridge and the lights from houses spread across Chevron Island are like the embers of a fire. He comes and stands beside me.

“I’m sorry about last night,” he says.

“No, I’m sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”

He puts his arm around my shoulder and we stand here silently, watching a boat chugging down the river.

“I miss us,” I say.

He pulls me closer. “We’re still us,” he says.

At the base of the bridge, down on the sheltered beach, a couple of locals have set up for night fishing. Lanterns shine on the rocks, buckets in the sand. We see them cast a line, and it occurs to me that my husband is right. We are still us. Being a couple is important, but so is being parents. And the two are not mutually exclusive. Sure, we used to go to the movies a lot and sleep in on the weekends. But we have something now that is much more powerful than leisure: the desire to work together to raise our precious child.

Down the river, the boat is coming in to berth. Just beyond the jetty, two cranes flank the sky, their turrets glowing with lights, and as I watch them I realize that the city is just a city.

I give his fingers a squeeze.

We’re our new beginning.

Suvi Mahonen is a freelance writer based in Surfers Paradise on Australia’s Gold Coast. Her non-fiction has appeared in various newspapers and magazines in both Australia and Canada including The Weekend Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald andPractical Parenting. Her fiction has been widely published in literary journals and anthologies including in The Best Australian Stories 2010 and Griffith Review. A portion of a longer work-in-progress was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. For more from Suvi visit her page here.

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