Mawage. I’ve been thinking a lot about mawage lately.
My husband and I just had our 10 year anniversary, and by God we made it there by the skin of our teeth. Lately it’s been pretty darn good, but it’s hard work every single day. I have to consciously work on being a good partner, on being a good friend to my husband, on being nice.
A few years ago my husband was ready to call it quits. We split up for exactly twenty-four hours, and it was the worst twenty-four hours of my life. He walked out because I was acting like a little asshole.
I had been acting like a little asshole for about five years.
It is true.
It always takes two to tango, of course, but I was really on my worst behavior for years, and it just wore my husband down. It was wearing me down, too, and in a way I think I needed him to walk out. It was like an anvil to the head: (Clank!) “Hey you, Little Asshole. Yes, you. You are married. You are married to that guy over there, the one who is packing his bags. Being in a marriage actually means you are a partner. It is not the Little Asshole Show. You have to participate. You have to be nice.”
“Just be nice.”
My husband would say that to me a lot when I was snarling at him after a long day with our kids, who are fourteen months apart. My version of being nice was gritting my teeth, trying to smile, but usually barking orders at him when he got home from work. There were diapers to be changed, baths to be given, mouths to feed, floors to be swept, puke to be wiped up, toys that were littering the living room like small pieces of shrapnel. (Have you ever stepped on a Lego piece in the middle of the night? Oh, sweet Jesus…) Why didn’t he just automatically know how to jump in and help me? My tone of voice had the sound of a hundred eyes rolling back in their respective heads. There was no “nice” in me. I wanted my husband to fix everything. And quickly.
Our relationship didn’t start out snarly. Or, rather, I did not start out the relationship as a little asshole.
Paul and I met on-line, we wrote to each other for a couple of weeks before going out for the first time. He was a great writer, sweet, funny, I couldn’t wait to meet him. Our first date was amazing. We had so much to talk about, we thumb-wrestled at dinner, held hands in the movies, kissed at the door of the taxi. (He tried to slip me the tongue but totally denies it.)
I loved him right away. He was a grown-up. He had a career, ambition, sexy eyes, a great smile. I was smitten. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, explored new restaurants, traveled to Turkey, hung out with friends, saw concerts. He proposed to me in the rain in front of the laundromat in Manhattan where we had our first real kiss. It was all very fairy tale. I was nice. He was nice. We were even nicer together.
The first snag happened a month before our wedding. I had been watching a small lump under my arm get bigger and bigger over the course of a year. After many visits to my doctor (it’s just a cyst, leave it alone, not to worry…) he finally sent me to a dermatologist to have it removed. Thank God I was vain. I didn’t want the lump to show in wedding pictures. Long story short, it was cancer, Ewings Sarcoma. One month before our wedding we were discussing chemotherapy, surgery, in-vitro fertilization, the possibility of infertility after treatment, and treatment that, as my oncologist described it, would leave me bald and feeling like I’d been hit by a truck.
So, before our wedding ceremony, Paul and I were parents to seven frozen embryos. I was a bald bride. It was a beautiful wedding at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. The day after the wedding we were back in the hospital for a three-day infusion of high dose chemotherapy. And so it rolled on for the next seven months. Chemo in the hospital for several days, back to our apartment for several days (hit by a truck), back to the hospital with zero white blood cell count and high fever, back to our apartment for several days (hit by a truck), back to the hospital for several days of chemo. It’s all an unpleasant blur. We postponed our honeymoon, we tried to laugh about what we were going through, Paul shaved his hair in solidarity. We got through it, but it sucked.
Fast forward several years, add two toddlers, a cross-country move, a new job for Paul, a new paradigm for me, and I found myself perpetually cranky. Disoriented.
How did I get here? Married? With children? I had cancer? What the hell? I wanted none of it. (Well, I did love the kids.) I didn’t know how to process what had happened to me. I didn’t know how to be a partner in a marriage. I barely knew how to be a mother. All of this led to the frequent: “Just be nice.” Just be nice. Just be nice? It sounded like this to me: Takið þið við krítarkortum.
So, eventually, after trying many different ways to get through to me, Paul left. And during those twenty-four hours everything crystallized in my mind. I was ruining something that had the potential to be really good. I did want to be married. I wanted a mawage.
I wanted to be better. I was tired of being a little asshole. It takes a lot of energy to be that pissed off all the time. Paul and I talked. A lot. We worked on things. There was counseling. He had a better understanding of what was going on with me internally. I finally understood that I did, indeed, need to be nice. So I practiced being nice. It was hard. Snarly had become my default. But with practice it felt better to be pleasant. Niceness begets niceness, so I’ve learned. Mawage began to become fun. I was no longer fighting it. I did want to be with this guy. I did want to build a life with him.
So, ten years on, and I think I am nice again. And when I’m not, it’s okay. Paul knows I’ll turn it around pretty quickly. And now he gets to be cranky when he needs to be cranky. It’s still work. Every day. But it’s good work. I’m down for another ten more years, at least.