I wouldn’t wish labor pains on my worst enemy. But I would wish them on my husband.
To be fair, I don’t have that many personal enemies. The mean girl in high school? Ex-boyfriend? They don’t deserve 12 hours of back labor that leaves them feeling like their hips are stuck in a vice. That jerk who cut me off in traffic? I hope she never knows what it’s like to vomit between blood-curdling screams. The blinding pain, the all-encompassing agony – I don’t think anyone should have to go through that.
Except my husband. What I wouldn’t give for him to experience labor just as I did. Here’s the thing. He’s a good husband. The best, really. This isn’t some personal vendetta against him. It’s not like he was off romancing a mistress while I sweated through contraction after contraction. He held my hand, told me how well I was doing, and texted family with updates for hours. And I hated him for it.
It was the same throughout each of my pregnancies. I was grateful when he gave me a foot rub, but what I really wanted was for him to know what it felt like to have swollen, throbbing feet. Sure, he was sympathetic as he hoisted me out of bed each morning. But I would have preferred that he fully understand the humiliation I felt at not being able to accomplish such a simple task myself. When my breasts ballooned to triple their normal size, I was grateful for the cooling cabbage leaves he ran out to get (even if they were purple and stained my chest).
What I truly needed, though, was for him to know what it was like to have a tiny life solely dependent on something you still weren’t quite sure how to give them. My husband doled out sympathy for every pregnancy, birth, and postpartum ailment that came my way. But what I really needed was empathy. Everyone knows that empathy is the trendy version of sympathy. It’s the one you are supposed to offer. But without the benefit of actual experience, it’s impossible to develop the true understanding that empathy requires. My husband could believe me when I told him my pregnancy and breast-feeding struggles, but he had no idea what they actually felt like.
Unfortunately, even talking to other moms doesn’t often provide us with the deep understanding we so desire. Conversations tend to head in one of two directions. The “I had it way worse – why would you even complain?” exchange: You: “I was in labor for 16 hours and pushed for another three.” Playground mom: “Oh I wish I was in labor for only 16 hours! I was in active labor for six days, had back labor the entire time, and one contraction that lasted a solid 24 hours. I pushed for five hours while on a conference call for work. You don’t know how lucky you are!” Or the “I can totally relate! Except I can’t.” exchange: You: “Bed rest is really mentally and physically difficult for me.” Other playground mom: “Oh, I know how you feel! My husband would cook me breakfast in bed on Saturday mornings and, honestly, sometimes I just kinda got bored laying there waiting for him. So hard, but such a blessing!” You: No comment.
We crave someone who can fully share our experiences, and in turn, validate what we have been through. At the same time, we want recognition of the pain and difficulties that are uniquely ours, without having them watered down by comparisons. More than wanting to be understood, even, we want to be appreciated. And on some level, we know that even the most sincere “thank you for all that you do” feels a bit inadequate when we think of all the aches and pains we didn’t even bother to clue our partners in on.
My husband will never fully understand what I went through with each of my pregnancies and births. But he knows the rest of the story: the sleepless nights with a child who wants to be walked up and down the halls, the panic the first time you rush your child to the E.R. with an undiagnosed allergic reaction, the pride and nerves you feel when they first hoist a backpack onto their shoulders and wave good-bye.
Occasionally my blood boils when I think of how he technically didn’t have any parenting responsibilities between the moment of conception and the moment of birth (and enjoyed a significantly lighter workload than me for the first few months thereafter). But the more years that come between the birth of my first son and the present day, I realize what a small percentage of parenting that truly was. My husband might not ever be able to grant me true empathy. But I’ll be okay as long as he believes me when I tell him how difficult it all is. And, yes, I plan on telling him about it for many years to come.
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