New Zealand’s political parties aren’t the only ones. I am competing in a long running, intense and hard fought contest too. My foe is my partner and co-parent, and we compete over which of us has the hardest, most exhausting, and least fun life, now that we are parents. I’m pretty confident that most couples with young children are engaged in this same battle over whose life is the crappiest, day after day, year after year.
Our child is a typical toddler. A sunny, joyful, charming wee dot, she delights us every day with the new and wonderful things she says and does. She has brought so much pure love into our lives and is truly the best thing that has happened to either of us. She can also be an emotionally volatile, demanding, nonsensical, never-shuts-up, tiny tyrant. We are typical parents of a toddler: we both adore our child and crave occasional time away from family life. So, in the evenings, each of us presents our case for why our day has been the most terrible. The winner of this debate receives the most child-free time, a break from the every day grind.
A typical conversation might go like this:
Partner: “How was your day darling?” [as I pass flailing toddler to him]
Me: “Oh, suuuuperb. Would you like to hear the stats? It involved 1 ripped library book, 1 lost set of keys followed by 1 refusal to get in the car seat and consequently 1 missed coffee date, 1 refused nap (including independent removal of a poo-ey nappy), 1 dinner thrown on the floor in disgust, 2 full on tantrums (including 1 at the supermarket with 10 spectators), and 5 million deep breaths inhaled by me in order to not lose my shite entirely.”
Partner: “Oh, I’m sorry about that. I had demanding colleagues, unreasonable clients and a bus that was 20 minutes late. I have a call at 8pm tonight and another at 6am tomorrow and I haven’t prepped for either”.
[Each stares down the other thinking, your day was soooo not as hard as mine, you wimp].
I remember an actual conversation we had recently. I had been cleaning mould out of our basement for approximately 6000 hours, removing and washing mdf shelving (never, I repeat NEVER, use mdf in a room prone to dampness). My partner had been occupying our toddler while I undertook this task. When our gorgeous darling woke from her nap, my partner asked me if I was going to get her up, since I’d had the morning “off”.
I replied (using my best downtrodden housewife voice/ face):
“Ummmmm, I’ve been de-moulding our basement. It hasn’t exactly been a party fun time for me. Can I please just finish the job? Then I’ll come up.”
He agreed (with only a barely detectable huff) and left. Normally, evicting fungal creatures from a cave-like room is not my activity of choice on a sunny Sunday. However, in this case, I gave myself an inward fist pump, popped my ear buds in and relaxed back into the delicious combination of brainless chore and fascinating podcast, with only a smidgen of guilt.
The problem with the Crappy Life contest is the absence of an independent arbiter. It is impossible for either party to believe that the other has it worse. As the stay at home parent, I am wholly unsympathetic to some of my partner’s complaints. “I can’t believe I have to go out for work drinks again this week” (yes, I would much rather be negotiating the witching hour than downing French champagne and having adult conversation). Or, even less convincing: “I am really not looking forward to that work trip” (of course! I too would dread 14 hours of uninterrupted media consumption on an international flight, followed by 7 night’s of 8 hours sleep, alone, in a king size hotel bed). Pull the other one buddy. Likewise, on the days when he finds out that I spent naptime re-watching Jon Snow’s sex scene for the 10th time, my partner probably questions whether I’m really as exhausted as a purport to be.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I love spending time with my daughter. However, sometimes when I think about my life now, I don’t recognize myself in it. The person I am today is so entirely different from the person I was pre-child. Of course, I miss nice things like sleep-ins, having docile brunches at peaceful cafes whilst browsing the Saturday paper, and being able to take a shower without someone pointing at my crotch and laughing. What I really miss though, is the feeling of having no real responsibilities. The freedom to leave my job and go travelling for a year on a whim (which I never did, but hey), to move countries or just do anything outside of my house during the hours of 1-2:30pm. All major life changes hurt, but this transition, from the relative freedom of early adulthood to the back-breaking obligation of parenthood, is the most painful change I’ve experienced. And it’s on-going. I anticipate that it will take years to accept that my life has transformed irreversibly and that I will never be the same person again.
Having time away helps. If I can put aside my responsibilities for 30 minutes while I have a (hot) coffee, for a morning while I go for a bush walk, or for a weekend while I get off-my-tits drunk with my girlfriends, I can return to “real life” feeling refreshed and ready to take on the challenges that caring for my beautiful little monster presents.
Even more desired is having my partner acknowledge, or at least just stare blankly at me while I explain, that my life is unfathomably harder than his. That I have given up more freedom, more fun, more sanity than he has, in pursuit of our joint dream to have a family. When I whinge about my day, I definitely hope for some free time, but what I really seek to win is the (questionable) glory of being the owner of the suckiest life, the legitimate claim to the iron throne of self-pity, the dubious joy of having a metaphorical neon sign pointing to me that says: “of the two of us, her life is the most crap and it’s all my fault”. Above all else, I want him to hear and understand that I am in mourning for the freedom of my former life, even though I wouldn’t give up my current one for anything in the world.
He does hear and understand me. He sympathises whole-heartedly, because he is going through exactly the same grieving process. We are both slowly recognizing that we have entered a new season in our lives, as all people who are lucky enough to live full lives do, many times over. Knowing that this transition is acknowledged and shared by my partner makes it easier to accept, easier to move on from each crappy incident, so that I can appreciate the beautiful, wonderful and precious parenting moments that go hand in hand with the tough ones.
So, I will happily retain my seat as the Queen of Crap Land, grateful to have a King of Crap Land sitting by my side, sharing the trials, tribulations and unprecedented joys of parenthood with me.
Make that the Duke of Crap Land.