This Christmas I was struck by the leagues of distance between all the holidays that came before being married with kids and those after. Instead of tearing open my presents, I managed the equitable distribution of presents. Instead of studying my gifts, I cleaned up wrapping paper and broke down boxes. Instead of cuddling up with a book on the couch and a mug of hot chocolate, I cooked and cleaned up and directed my kids towards constructive activities. Although there may have been moments in which I was fun to my kids, I was no fun to me. And probably not to my husband, either.
This partly explains why the movie This is 40 resonated with me. Although the main characters Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) have been accused of frivolity by countless reviewers (they’re rich and beautiful and display what one reviewer calls “a flurry of first-world problems so trivial as to be an insult to the planet’s struggling masses”), there’s something fundamental they’re struggling with that the film’s hyperbolic depiction of marriage doesn’t diminish.
They’re not sure how to be authentic, how to really display their true selves, when their circumstances don’t facilitate it. It was easy, in our twenties, for those of us who were fun and free and idealistically romantic to appear that way to our partners. We could go dancing and out for dinner and drinks, our finances were independent, our apartments were probably small enough to clean without much effort. We had a chance to put ourselves in the kind of situations that displayed how fun or witty or pretty or smart we were. But in these new life constellations, in which our self-expression is subordinated to our children’s and in which many of our daily tasks are somewhat unpleasant, it can be unclear how to access that “true” self, or other self, or better self.
The transition to married life with kids seems to throw the shape of our core, authentic self into question. If we’re lucky, dating breeds mystery, romance, and an almost-electric connection. Meanwhile, even the best marriages seem to breed a kind of intimacy that runs deeper but often doesn’t feel as good.
Debbie still feels like the more carefree self is her. She doesn’t want her true self to be the person who stops her husband from eating cupcakes, and nags him to improve his financial situation and exercise more.
“I am not a ball buster,” she rages. “You make me one! I am a fun girl! I am fun-loving! I am a good time Sally! I dance hip-hop.”
She feels what a lot of us sometimes feel, like the person we most want to see what’s great about us only sees the worst. And it feels structural, like the things that make us great are incongruous with the tasks of daily life as a parent.
When we strive to be true to ourselves and authentic in our marriages, we often have to do it in direct opposition to what our circumstances seem to require. And the worst part, for me at least, is that we sometimes have to force it. It can suck, at the end of a long week when we’re tired and want to withdraw, to go on our scheduled date and try to be witty and romantic with the very person for whom we’ve harbored various resentments throughout the week. It can feel contrived to have to talk and listen the way we did when we were dating. But for most of us, the goal isn’t to just feed people all day, get our work done, and go to sleep. The goal, more likely, is to be good, maybe even great, and to be seen. But to do that, we need to find ways to appear.
Carl Rogers, A Way of Being, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980).
Natalie Rogers, A Decade of Mid-Life Transitions, (Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books, 1997).
A. O. Scott, “Happy Birthday, You Miserable Achievers,” New York Times, December 20, 2012.