When our first child became an official toddler, it was impossible to have a decent conversation with my husband at dinner. Our daughter loved to sit at the table and sing at the top of her lungs. How could we discipline her for being happy to eat? Our friends' son throws his food every night. How can they talk about their day while they're catching spaghetti in midair?
Here was our typical evening.
Brian would arrive home from work around six o'clock. He'd play with Pascaline, our 20-month-old daughter, while I finished making supper. We'd chat a few moments, and at some point he'd ask about my day. While I loved that question, instead of being able to answer honestly—because of attending to Pascaline and supper—I'd look at him with a tired smile and say, "It was okay." Inside, I wanted him to ask me again when I wasn't in the middle of something, but Brian would take my answer at face value and assume I didn't have more to add.
We'd buckle Pascaline into her high chair and say a blessing over dinner. Over the course of our meal, I'd ask Brian how his day went. Instead of getting a short answer, he'd launch into a 30-minute explanation of everything that went on at work. While I'd try my best to listen and show him I cared, Pascaline needed our attention too. She wanted us to listen to her sing. She didn't want to sit in her high chair for 30 minutes while Daddy rattled on about all the computer problems he was trying to solve.
In a desperate plea to get out of her high chair, she'd go from singing to shouting all her new words. Ball! Book! Thank You! Meow! Brian would sit a little straighter and continue talking—a lot louder. My head felt as if it was swimming. I'd look at Brian and see his mouth moving, but the only words I could hear were ball, book, thank you, and meow.
At this point, Brian would usually volunteer to clean up Pascaline. He'd put her under his arm and carry her to the kitchen sink, not taking a break from talking. Pascaline hates getting her face and hands washed, and the louder she cried in protest, the louder Brian talked. A couple times he'd ask me if I was listening. "Of course I'm listening," I'd reply. But I'd think, How well can one person listen with all this chaos?
After washing Pascaline, we'd both play with her for an hour and then put her to bed. By now it was after 8:00 and bills needed to be paid, the dishes needed to be washed, the in-laws needed to be called back …
Brian and I would set off to do all the things on our checklists and meet back when we were ready for bed. On good nights that would be after 11.
This next part was the clincher. We'd get into bed, and I'd turn off the lamp. At that same moment, my mouth turned on. I'd rattle on and on about my day—things I'd thought about, things I'd hoped to cross off my to-do list, things I felt good about crossing off. Sometimes I'd even start talking about theological issues that the setting of a dark room seems to invite: "Brian, do you really think there were only two of each animal on Noah's ark?"
With all the patience he could muster, Brian would look at the clock and say, "Me Ra, I thought you didn't have much to say about your day. Where's all this coming from? I've got to go to sleep if I'm going to get up in five hours." Even though that was all true, it still made me angry.
Wasn't I the one who'd listened my best all through dinner and often an hour afterward? Why was it that whenever I was ready to talk about my day, he was too tired to listen? It didn't seem fair. And yet, no matter how unfair it was, this was the pattern we lived in—until one night I couldn't take it anymore.
I blurted out, "I'm sick of listening to you talk!" That was probably not the best way to start a problem-solving discussion.
Brian didn't know what to say; he simply looked at the floor. I knew he had a decision: he could say something hurtful or he could look beyond my statement to the deeper issues.
I was relieved when he chose the second option.
A needed change
"What's really going on with you?" Brian asked. That's when it finally came out. We needed to change the way we were communicating. Life had been changing; long gone were the days when Pascaline would sit in her bouncer and coo at anything that moved. Moving from her bouncer to a high chair had been exciting—for about a month. Then it was boring for her. Playing with her food was exciting, until she was finished eating. No matter how much we wanted her to be patient and sit quietly while Daddy and Mommy talked about their day, it just wasn't happening. I knew I could either berate myself for mistakes we must be making in our parenting, or I could remind myself that these were the toddler years. These are the years of intense struggle for independence, while at the same time she still needs her diapers changed, face washed, and clothes put on.
Brian and I could see how Pascaline wanted to be part of our dinnertime conversations, even if she could contribute only four words. But we fought it. While we felt our freedom to talk threatened when Pascaline moved from the bouncer to her high chair, we still managed to hold somewhat decent conversations. Now we were facing another crossroads; she was growing and changing and needed us to do the same.
The next night we asked my parents to babysit. Over a quiet, restaurant meal, Brian expressed his insecurities over whether I even cared about what he had to share. Then I realized I wasn't the only one who felt as if we were drifting apart. I shared my desire for him to ask me about my day a second time—when I had a chance to sit and relax. The words second time gave us an idea.
Asking a second time
We decided to ask each other, "How was your day?" twice. The first time is when Brian arrives home from work. We give each other a short answer, which serves as a clue to what we need to discuss after Pascaline is in bed. If I say my day was long and tiring, Brian knows to ask why later. And I listen for the same clues from him.
At 9:30, we stop working on our checklists and meet on the couch for an hour-long date. Over coffee or tea, we ask each other a second time, "How was your day?" This time we give the full, unedited answer. We each get 30 minutes to talk, and the other person listens without interrupting.
That was more than three years ago, and while we don't get this connection every night, when we do connect it's been working well. I know if I'm not able to connect with Brian when he first gets home, I can wait until our 9:30 date on the couch. It gives us more freedom to be present with Pascaline before her bedtime. It also gives us each time to do our own thing before we meet on the couch. While I love my 30 minutes of uninterrupted talking the most, I think the best part for Brian is that when we get in bed and turn off the light, my mouth doesn't turn on.
Me Ra Koh, award-winning photographer and author of Beauty Restored: Finding Life and Hope After Date Rape
(Regal), lives in Washington. Visit her at www.merakoh.com.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.