The first time he prepared my coffee was on the morning of our five year wedding anniversary. Our daughter was two, our son had just been born a few weeks earlier, it was nearing the end of the fall semester - one of the more overwhelming times on the academic calendar to which our family is beholden. We had no plans to celebrate until later that month, no gifts for each other, but his simple act of kindness was gift enough that morning for this sleep-deprived mother: a hot, steaming cup of creamy coffee perfection, waiting for me right at the table.
The best mornings now start when he gets my coffee ready. It's "my" coffee for several reasons, the most obvious being that he doesn't drink coffee - abhors the taste, hesitates to kiss me after I've had my cup. But he knows how much it's like a warm hug to me in the morning, to hold that cup in my hands as the day begins.
It was purely an act of love for him to learn the process: boil the water, grind the beans, measure it out, let it steep for no more than 5 minutes, pour, add cream. And it's an act of love each time he prepares it for me and there's a hot cup ready and waiting like a love note in the morning. It doesn't happen every morning, and I'm glad for that - I have a habit of taking things for granted. This isn’t one.
We struggle to give gifts like this in other ways. When we were still engaged, an older couple that we both admired had us over for dinner one night. They had two children who were right in the sweet spot years - not yet teenagers, but well beyond the preschool years, able to self-entertain. We loved watching the way this couple worked together, how they seemed energized by each other and so grateful for one another and their life. They were complete opposites in so many ways, much like us: he, a fun and funny but straightforward thinker: systematic, organized. She, a total flower child: loud with laughter, bright with personality, easygoing with love and by all appearances not tied down with a schedule.
We asked about what it was like to be married, specifically how they divided household tasks between them. I hadn't even quite thought about how we would do this, but since my husband and I both seemed like energetic people at the time, I assumed we would see what chores needed to be done and just complete them on an as-needed basis. Chore charts, assigned tasks, all of that - it seemed rather silly and a little too OCD for me, a Type B woman.
But our friends surprised me when they suggested a predetermined division of household chores.
"It should be clear whose responsibility it is to empty the trash, do the laundry, do dishes," they said.
Their reasoning then still sticks with me to this day:
"When it's not clear where the division of responsibility is, you can end up getting in more arguments. And," they added, "clear division of household chores allows you to choose to serve one another."
It’s serving each other with gifts in the form of noticing when the laundry needs to be done, and doing it on behalf of the person to whom it has been assigned instead of complaining that it hasn’t been done. Gifts in the form of not complaining when the trash hasn't been taken out (again), but choosing instead to lay down ourselves and sometimes even our justified grievances and take it out. Gifts in the form of laying aside one's own preferences for alone time to pitch in with yard work. Aim to outdo each other with service.
It all sounds lovely and beautiful, as it did that evening, but we are not exactly the poster couple for the "serve each other" movement. Not even close. We get in arguments sometimes, and I expect to some degree we always will. They’ve grown fewer and farther between over the years. We still try to stake our claim on our rights instead of choosing to think of one another first. The hope is that we'll grow in that, too. Honest conversations are healthy, good, and productive - we need to express feelings before they boil over, but we also have to assume each other’s best intentions.
But each step, each small thing done with great love, as Mother Teresa would call them, counts. One time, I mowed the yard with a baby on my back. Several times he starts the laundry and finishes it all the way through to being put away, enlisting our daughter to help him. He starts the dishwasher; I empty it. We alternate which child we put to bed each night, but occasionally we each step in and take on the challenge of both so that one of us has an evening to breathe or recover. (Ok - not all of the tasks feel like small things all the time. Putting two children to bed can feel pretty monumental, actually. Solidarity, mamas and daddies.)
I tape white index cards near the laundry hamper and near the sink. On them, in black Sharpie, is written the word “grace”. Grace: favor or goodwill toward one another. It can go both ways. It can look like making a conscious effort to get your dishes into the dishwasher (hey there, honey!). It can also look like choosing to turn a blind eye when someone has forgotten to put them in the dishwasher, and filling in the gap for them. It can be getting the clothes into the clothes hamper and it can be choosing to pick up the handful of socks that almost made it in...without complaining. It often involves reminding each other that we are on the same team. Always.
We are in the middle of the trench years, the ones that pull and tug at our every last thread of physical, mental, spiritual and emotional energy. There will be a lot of expectations to which we won’t measure up. What I hope my children see the most, however, is how we choose to love each other in this space, how we choose to share the load. I want them to see that love is not about taking, but giving. That it’s not about complaining, but appreciating. That it’s not necessarily about being nice, but being gently truthful with your partner when things are hard and you just haven’t had time to keep up with the piles and piles of laundry, or mow the yard, or get the oil changed in the car or sweep up the Cheerios that have been under the high chair for the past week. That love is not about demanding, but serving. It will always look like putting a bit of yourself down to lift the other up. Love may even look like serving hot cups of a beverage that makes your loved one’s mouth less than kissable, just because seeing the smile on their face makes it totally, totally worth it.
Journalist: Catherine Gordon