The Truth about Marriage, Family and Work/Life Balance

by Ron Vitale

I remember my future father-in-law looking at us and saying, "You two are getting married? You have no idea what you are getting into." Considering he did not talk to us for several months after my (now) wife and I moved in together before we were married, I figured that at least he was talking to us. Those words were spoken to us more than 14 years ago. A lot has changed since then--some good, some sad.

I now have two children, I've more white/gray hair than I'd like to admit and I can never tell my father-in-law that he was right since he unexpectedly passed away a decade ago. I look around me and hear millennials talk about their QLC and feel old. I am now at the age that I can look back and remember how I was at 25 and realize that I had no clue. But the truth of the matter is, though I'm over 40, I still do not have a clue. Life is hard. A lot harder than I had expected it would ever be.

There is No Happy Ever After

I have been married for almost 14 years and with my wife for 19. As with any relationship, our being together has had its ups and downs. The courtship part was fantastic. We lived in separate locations, saw each other once or twice a week and had a blast. But what happens when you live together? What really happens when two different people come together to build a life, start a family and juggle work, marriage, and kids? Let me tell you: Sometimes it's not pretty.

When my wife and I decided to get married, we made some odd choices: We paid for the wedding, kept it to only 40 people with no wedding party and had the ceremony outside and the reception at a bed & breakfast. We caught a lot of flack from my in-laws. We weren't getting married in the Catholic church and also weren't inviting the people others thought we should. At the end of the day, we enjoyed our wedding and had a blast.

But an interesting thing happened the day after our wedding. My wife and I got into a huge argument. One of the biggest that we had ever gotten in during our entire relationship. We were newlyweds and had a full on meltdown. Without getting into specifics, I wanted one thing and my wife wanted another. Neither of us were wrong in what we wanted. However, we both couldn't have what we wanted. One of us had to give in and to compromise. I have learned that marriage is a complicated balancing act in which the power struggle (and trust me, there is one) needs to be balanced between the two people. My wife and I sum this up nicely on our wedding rings: "I am me, you are you, we are one."

I think about that every day. I have my own needs and dreams, my wife has hers, and we have ours. I think of our relationship as a fluid three dimensional venn diagram. Not very romantic but go with me on this. Our personal needs and hopes ebb and flow over time. Keeping my own individuality and voice can be hard in a long term relationship. At times, I have forgotten my own voice in favor of my wife's and she has done the same. Yet we are two different people. Some of our goals are shared and we work together, others are personal and have not much to do with the other.

The Wild Ride of Parenting

I'm going to say something and I want you to trust me that it'll be okay. Everything that I ever thought I knew about marriage, a career and having a child was wrong. The good news is that I had low expectations as I grew up in a dysfunctional family. No one had ever come to me and shared with me what being married was truly like. And parenting? What we see on TV and in the movies is pure fantasy land. Down to how babies are born

When my wife told me that she wanted to have a natural birth for our children, I thought her crazy. Seriously. I told her that she didn't have to show off and take all that pain (heck, I'm a guy and every birth I saw on TV had the woman scream as though the doctor was pulling her intestines out). Yet there is another way. We talked to a friend of ours who was a doula and learned about the Bradley method of birthing. Our son was born naturally in a hospital in which the doctor called the pre-med students in to watch the birth since they see so few natural births these days. A few years later our daughter was born in a birthing center. I took my wife into the center to give birth at 8 am and we were home in our own bed by 5:30 p.m. that same day. I tell people this and they think my wife and I crazy.

Am I crunchy? Am I fanatic and eschew medical attention? No and no. But I listened to my wife and learned that there are other ways of giving birth. I just didn't know of them. I look back and I'm impressed with my wife for her courage. She wanted to have natural births for our children and she did. I worked with her and became an active partner in the process, working with my wife on relaxation techniques during her contractions. I bring this story up because I believe it's important to question and to think about what we've been told. Life is not a fairy tale (well, for most of us). It is hard. In having children, it's messy, but an amazing experience.

We had prepared the best we could for being parents, but I'll tell you a secret: When we were home that first night with our son, he kept waking up every 45 minutes wanting to eat. My wife breastfed him, I tried burping him, walking him around to get him to calm down, but nothing worked. Over the years I've cleaned up poop, blood from cuts, vomit, and mucus. Parenting is hard, messy and brings out, at times, the worst in me. But I love being a father. Does that make me crazy? No, it makes me human.

You Can’t Have It All

From my perspective as a male, the war of words over whether women should lean in to the work place or hold back and raise children is a hotly contest mess. I can’t speak for those who have enough money to hire a full-time nanny. I can only speak of my own family. Raising children, having a career and trying to make time to stay sane is damn near impossible. There I said it. The truth (that no one wants to hear) is that it is not possible to be a good parent, chase after a high paid career and balance everything. Something has to give. My wife and I both work and have little time to balance everything else in our lives. Email is always on as is social media. In our jobs, there is no clear “quitting” time like Fred Flintstone. He’d hear the whistle at the end of the day, punch out and was on his way home. Most of my friends are in similar type roles in that there isn’t a clear end of the work day. The work day ends when you check your email before you go to bed at night.

And with children, there is checking homework, bathing, clothes to wash, activities to go to, play dates and hangouts (for an older child as “play date” is no longer cool) and an endless stream of responsibilities. I often tell my female friends who are unmarried: If you would like kids in the future, make sure that your partner really wants them too. Make sure that person will pitch in with taking care of the kids, cooking, and everything in between. If not, run. Run far and fast.

Even with two parents, the stress of juggling children and work can be a huge undertaking. But here’s the rub: Not many people really tell the truth about this. I guess we’re all just supposed to believe that everyone is happy all the time and life is grand. But that’s not often the case in my life. Life has been hard. There are times that I have failed miserably as both a husband and father. But then I have to get up, work on fixing the problem and try again.

When I jump on my soapbox, I look around me and lose hope. There are not many people to talk to honestly. Instead I turn on the TV and see reality TV. Let’s all forget our problems and watch the Bachelorette or The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Let’s point a finger at them to see how crazy they are because it’ll make us feel better. Or, how about we go to the store and while buying groceries we see all the magazines with photoshopped celebrities on the cover. We are trained at a young age to try to always look amazing, never admit we’re depressed and go to work and like it. And if we don’t, then there’s a pill for that.

I wonder what future historians will think of our 21st century lives. They’ll look back and find millions of selfies and everyone talking about YOLO or FOMO. Maybe we should leave future historians an urban dictionary to help them.

What Do You See?

So what does this all mean? I’ve made a choice and it’s not been an easy one. I opted to work hard in both my career(s) and being a parent. It’s not been easy and I often fail pretty much every other day. I fail not because I lack the belief that I’m capable, but raising children is complex. Extremely complex. But how do I see life? I'll tell you in a minute. How do you see the glass below?

  • Half full
  • Half empty

Do you have your answer? Good. For the longest time, I would say that the glass is half full. But an extremely bright kid of one of my friends came up to me once when I was wearing my "Half Full" Life Is Good t-shirt and said, "It's a full glass. It's half filled with water and half with air." For more than 25 years, I had prided myself that I saw life as half full and how I was an optimist but with those two short sentences my world opened up in different ways. The glass is full and if I used my imagination I could think of other options as well. There are more choices than two. Two is what I was raised with but I learned I was wrong.

Now when I look at my life, I realize that there are shades of gray in almost everything that I do. I am a novelist, worker, son, brother, father, husband, friend, lover, runner and many more roles rolled into one. There are more options open to me than just how I was raised and what my expectations are of a happy marriage/family and job. When I stop and think about who I am and what I want in life, it's okay for me to stop and admit that it's hard. But here is what I have decided. I am not going to compare myself to what I see on TV. Nor am I going to scroll Facebook and be bummed out about the great lives everyone else is having but me. (Come on, admit it, we all share the best pics of how great our lives are. I don't remember the last time I saw a picture of a couple arguing or a parent yelling at their kid. Instead we see beautiful vacation pictures of how everyone is smiling and having a great time.)

I have chosen to embrace life and focus on the journey. I have a lot to learn, have made many mistakes, but I've also done some amazing things. It's all a balance. And that's the beauty of it all, there are more choices than what we first see around us or on TV. We only need to be open and honest with ourselves. And that, can be the hardest part.

Ron Vitale is the author of the dark fantasy series Cinderella's Secret Diaries who hopes that his children will grow up to find their own voices and not allow others to dictate who and what they can be. Follow him on Twitter @ronvitale.