HEAR ME WHINE

Why a mom needs to gripe--as long as someone listens
Parenting magazine
By Jennifer Bingham Hull

It's 9:30 P.M. and after two time-outs, five tuck-ins, and a lengthy search for my youngest's blankie, I need to vent. With Isabelle, 5, and Jessica, 2, finally asleep, I present a laundry list of complaints to my husband.

The battle over toothbrushing, I tell him, is getting old. The book thrown at my head started storytime on a sour note. Plus, having our daughters share a bedroom is starting to look like one of our stupider ideas.

"Well, I guess we could send them back," Bill says, and turns to his work.

What is it with men? All I'm really looking for is a simple comment from him like, "Yes! bedtime's a drag!" and he ignores everything I've just said with a joke that makes it sound like I want to change my whole life. That's not what I meant, as any mom would certainly know. It's the old Mars-Venus problem, made worse by the demands of parenting. Because although my complaining seems useless to Bill, it's a crucial survival technique to me.

I first realized the value of venting when I joined a playgroup soon after Isabelle was born. Kvetching, in fact, was the unstated purpose of our get-togethers. Little Kieran wouldn't sleep? How horrible! Zoe was sick? Not again! Playgroup provided helpful advice--but it was commiserating with other moms that really got me through that difficult first year.

My friends in that first playgroup instinctively understood that the only answer to some problems is to gripe about them. The hard truth is that many parenting challenges don't have solutions. Babies wake through the night, kids get sick a lot, and toddler diarrhea can last for weeks.

But sharing the pain with someone who gets it makes it all easier. Listening to Sara, Jen, and Barbara groan, I thought: Maybe it isn't just me! Though I left playgroup as sleep-deprived as when I arrived, I always felt better.

Bill understands the immutable nature of many parenting challenges. But once a situation proves unfixable, he prefers to move on. It's a rational approach, of course. He's heard it all before, so why dwell on it? To him, persistent complaining just leaves a person stuck.

I feel my complaints wouldn't persist, though, if he'd just acknowledge them the first time around. Marriage is supposed to be for better or worse, and I figure that includes talking about the better and the worse. Especially the worse.

Not long after the night of the five tuck-ins, I'm complaining about another bedtime when Bill says, "Is this making you feel better?"

I simmer through the rest of the week, my little gripes now dwarfed by a big one: My husband doesn't listen to me. To be fair, Bill is not a Neanderthal; he'd probably have been a therapist if he hadn't become a law professor. He's usually an excellent listener, but he seems deaf to my complaining.

Having decided that my husband doesn't care what I'm really thinking. I limit our evening conversations to mortgage refinancing and choosing the best preschool. What else can I say? That precious moment one morning when our daughters belted out "Big Spender" in the kitchen is buried beneath a mountain of complaints as thick as the dust balls under our couch. We spend most of the week like business partners.

Then Saturday night arrives: date night, with the allen. Out at the restaurant, the music is too loud, the fish kind of fishy, and a week's worth of unaired vents is making me feel like Mount Vesuvius before eruption. Bill chats about a work project, then asks: "How are you?"

"Fine," I bristle.

The conversation doesn't improve through the rest of dinner or on our walk afterward, despite a magnificent sunset. But in the car on the way to a bookstore, I let him have it.

It comes out in a torrent. He doesn't listen to me, and I'm sick of the bedtime routine and, for that matter, picking peas off the floor and the whole preschool conversation and, come to think of it, all those legal papers sitting on the dining room table. (Okay, they hadn't actually been a problem before, but hey, I'm on a roll now.) Preferring some communication to the cold war we had at dinner. Bill braces himself and says, "Tell me more."

I rant for a good 15 minutes. Then, as we pull into the bookstore parking lot, I start crying.

Women's tears throw a lot of men. But Bill is used to it. He knows very well, even if he doesn't do it himself, that crying is a great cleanser. It's part of the solution, not the problem. Having heard my litany, he also knows that nothing is seriously wrong; I'm a sink that's overflowed from being plugged up, not one that needs plumbing.

Every marriage has its patterns, and this, I realize, is one of ours. We have a misunderstanding. I cry. And we realize that none of it is as bad as it seems. We always get through it. He may never really get why I need to gripe, but eventually he does hear me. And having seen the benefits of my crying before, he's patient--and, amazingly, interested in what I'm saying as I let it all out.

When I've wiped the drippy mascara off my eyelids, we go to the bookstore for the rest of our night out. I look at self-help books but don't buy one, confident that none prescribe throwing a tantrum on a date. Later, I sleep like a rock.

Sunday morning arrives. I awake, far too early, to the pitter-patter of little feet. It takes five tries to get Jessica dressed. Isabelle's "cookie" creation leaves a trail of oatmeal across the kitchen floor. Looking for the place mat. I spill maple syrup on Bill's legal papers.

But the girl with her hands in the oatmeal smiles brightly at me, the one struggling with her big-girl panties has such a cute behind, and the lawyer in the kitchen with us is tall and handsome.

Oatmeal sticks to my shoes as I walk across the room and plant a kiss on Bill's cheek.

Kvetching. It's a whole lot cheaper than therapy.


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