When Stephane Wahl and her husband, Mike’s, daughter was born with a heart defect, it added a new level of complexity to their marriage.
When my husband and I were first married, people would ask me what it was like to be a newlywed. My only response was “I have no idea.” You see, by the time we got married, we had already been together for seven and a half years. We had already broken the “gas barrier”, seen each other’s bad habits, and would ask questions like “does this spot on my skin look normal to you?” We knew each other inside and out – mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It was because we had already had so many opportunities to truly get to know one another that we decided we could have a baby right after we got married.
The plan was temporarily derailed when I got sick. At first, doctors thought it might be endometriosis. I panicked. I’ve always wanted kids more than just about anything, and so has Mike. I was finally diagnosed with Celiac, which still carries with it a risk of infertility and miscarriage. Imagine, then, my surprise, when I got pregnant without even trying just a few months later. We were over the moon, and Mike was so wonderful and supportive. I’m not going to say we were never stressed with it all – we even moved into our house when I was 9 months pregnant. But things were pretty smooth.
Here’s where the story gets a little less common. Our daughter, Meredith Grace, was born with Tetralogy of Fallot – a congenital heart defect. We found out when she was just 4 days old that she would need open heart surgery before she was 6 months old. Now, anyone with kids knows that being a new parent is difficult, and can certainly put a strain on your relationship while you both adjust to having a new number 1 priority (and a lot less sleep). Add on top of that the stress of knowing your baby could turn cyanotic at any time, that you have to keep her isolated because something as simple as the common cold would almost certainly kill her, and that before she’s even big enough to crawl she’ll be cut open and have a patch sewn onto her heart; and you have a recipe for two overwhelmed people.
Mike and I deal with stress, conflict, and difficulties in very different ways. And these counter-balancing coping mechanisms, combined with an alternating sleep schedule before Meredith slept through the night, led to us existing in a very “ships in the night” state. It wasn’t that we were fighting. It was just that between work, Meredith, medical issues, etc, we didn’t make each other a priority. We didn’t feel like we could.
That being said, while we may not have been each other’s priority, we did try to connect as much as we could. We would text each other throughout the day, and he would call me on his way home. That way, even if things got crazy right after he walked in the door, we were still in tune with one another. We gave Meredith baths together, cleaned together (doesn’t sound romantic, but you’d be surprised how close you get sharing the hardship of trying to scrub dried formula off of every surface of your home), and would try to take a few minutes to curl up together and talk before I went to sleep to prep for the 2am, 4am and 6am feedings. Sometimes those talks consisted solely of me crying for my poor broken hearted baby and him giving comfort. But that was still a connection, still a bonding moment.
Meredith ended up having her surgery when she was just 11 weeks old, and she did beautifully. The doctors and nurses all took amazing care of her, and we brought her home ten days later. A huge weight was lifted – she was ok. Two weeks later, she started sleeping through the night. Two weeks after that, she started going to bed at a reasonable hour. Now that our baby girl is ok, and we can actually go to bed at the same time, and even – gasp – stay up for a while after she goes to bed, we’re able to focus more on each other. We both work, we’re both busy, but we make time. That might be watching a show after she goes to sleep, eating dinner together, or even something as simple as lying in bed and talking for 15 minutes before we get ready to work.
The biggest impact of having a baby on my marriage has been a surprising one – I am so much more in love with my husband than I ever was before. I didn’t think that was possible. But I see him hold her and dance her around the room, sing to her, and want to be with her whenever he can, and I am head over heels all over again. When he gets home, the first thing he does is come over to hold her and kiss her. She looks up at him with adoring eyes, and that adoration is reflected right back at her from his. When he changes her diaper, it’s a whole production – he sings, talks to her, and makes her laugh. And when he takes over bedtime, as she gradually falls asleep in his arms, I see how safe she feels with him, and how much he wants to protect her. He is showing her that she deserves nothing less than unconditional love, and a man who wants to give her the world. And he treats me in a way that will let her know as she gets older that men who will treat her that way do exist – her father is one of them. He is the dad who, as she grows, will play tea party and Barbies for hours if that’s what she wants, or teach her to throw a football if she wants to be involved in sports. The dad who will gross her out by still kissing me in public when she’s an easily embarrassed teenager. The dad who can be confident when he gives her away at her wedding that she’s marrying the right man because he showed her what a marriage should look like.
And all of this reminds me that I married the right man, too.