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Coupling

The Warp Speed Marriage

With a baby arriving soon after we got hitched, we missed the newlywed phase

By Steve Almond
January 30, 2011

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Back in college, I aimed to be married by 30. That struck me as the proper age – old enough to have established my career, young enough to still have all my hair for the wedding photos. I envisioned the standard marital fantasia to follow: sun-dappled honeymoon, lazy Sunday mornings in bed, the (eventual) pitter-patter of little feet.

As it happened, I was 39 before I mustered enough courage to ask my girlfriend to marry me. Four days later, she announced she was pregnant.

Surprise!

Erin was in California at this point, finishing her master’s. I was holed up in Somerville. Over the next nine months we: eloped, bought a home, moved her across the country, and welcomed our daughter. I was ecstatic about all this. I loved my wife and daughter and our little house. But something seemed to be missing from married life. Specifically, the lazy-Sunday-mornings-in-bed part. Married life, in fact, never really existed for us. It was subsumed into the larger tableau of family life, which involved, in addition to the pitter-patter of those little feet and later another set, newfound financial strains, sleep deprivation, and poop. Lots of poop.

Erin and I represent an extreme case of what I call the Warp Speed Marriage (WSM). But I know we’re not alone. Our birthing class was full of couples in their late 30s and early 40s who had spent years pursuing their own ambitions, then rushed headlong into the family thing. The WSM offers certain advantages. Both parties are older and more mature. We’ve generally figured out what we want to do with our lives. And we have a keener sense of the tolls of loneliness. But we also miss out on the basic orientation period, during which most couples slowly acclimate to the realities of wedded bliss.

The central reality, of course, is that you’re not the only person on earth. This was especially tough for me and Erin to grasp. We’d spent a summer living together, but aside from this, we’d been what psychologists might term “highly self-oriented.” Mostly, I think, we were protecting ourselves. Like a lot of folks who wind up in WSMs, we came from troubled families. We were wary of creating another one.

The problem was this: Suddenly our lives required us not only to live with someone else, but also to figure out how to parent with that someone else, ideally in a manner that would not allow our children to perish. And because Erin and I were the sort of parents who’d waited a long time to breed – who feared, frankly, that we’d never be able to – we tended to focus our energies on our two little ones, rather than on each other. It’s worth noting that in the four years we’ve been parents, we’ve had exactly two overnights alone as a couple.

Back in my single days, I used to listen to married friends talk about “date nights.” What suckers, I thought. Why would a guy need to make a date with his own wife? Yes, well, all you married folks can quit laughing. I’m now a card-carrying member of the Date Night Club. (Official motto: Scheduled intimacy is better than no intimacy at all.) But the psychic adjustments extend to every aspect of our relationship. Our very manner of expressing affection has changed. It’s no longer the big gestures that fueled our courtship. It’s the little gestures that keep us connected. Doing the dishes. Letting the other person sleep in. Changing an especially heinous diaper.

This isn’t the married life I dreamed of during all those years on my own. In that life, Erin and I would have had the chance to slowly perfect each other. The WSM is much more about the sudden revelation of your fears and weaknesses. This is true of any committed relationship, of course. But the WSM accelerates the process. There’s no place to hide your worst side when your 4-year-old just broke another lamp and your 2-year-old is throwing a nutter.

What you realize, in a hurry, is that tolerance goes a lot further, in the end, than passion. It turns out your soul mate is that one person willing to put up with you.

Steve Almond’s latest book is Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. He lives in Arlington. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.

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