Many — perhaps even most — adult relationships manage the change from two to three adequately, but none do so without scars.
For everything gained, there is at least one loss, and often more. The success of the transition relies on the new parents’ health and maturity: the primitive foundation each laid in infancy. The emotional thermostat’s ability to manage extreme stress. The boundaries defining identity. The perceptions and expectations built into personality. The number and nature of secondary emotional supports. But for all of these vague and complex considerations, Baby Bobby’s arrival really is just another instance of letting go.
Once upon a time, a hundred years before and a dozen chapters ago, Billy had been the baby. He sat on his mother’s lap in the middle of an unfamiliar room, holding her tight. Refueled, calmed by her steady heartbeat and respirations, confident in her casual grasp, he could feel his anxiety settle. He scanned and then fussed and then was let go. Off he toddled, discovering self, confident that Mom would airlift him to safety at the first sign of distress.
Now adult Billy’s been let go again. The physical distance between him and his anchor—his wife—may be tiny, but the emotional distance seems huge. Honey’s there, just on the other side of the bed, but there’s a chasm between them, and its name is Bobby. He turns to make eye contact, to hold her hand, to be reassured and to reassure her, but she’s not there. She’s absorbed in their beautiful little boy, as she must be.
Honey’s experience is different. She, too, has been let go. Her emotional anchor is grouchy and tired and drinking too much. He’s always at one job or another, and she’s grateful but lonely too. She’s had her own mom and her girlfriends around to refuel her, but she’s also had the bizarre and wonderful and totally incomparable experience of growing a new human being inside of her.
Over the months that her shadow became wider than it was high, she had a growing sense of synchrony or symmetry or synergy. Two-ness. She’d tried and failed to share it with Billy. His hand on the spot where the baby kicked and his ear to her distended tummy didn’t even come close. It was inevitably outside of him. Foreign. An idea rather than an emotion. More than the medical facts of what was happening inside of her, her selfness was somehow shifting. Slipping. There was an echo of her, inside of her.
She’d feared Alien ripping its way out of her chest. She’d gotten Mini-Me. Her love for Billy was no less, but her love for Baby Bobby was profound. His happiness was her happiness. His cries were hers. Nursing him was the utter bliss of coming home. Reconnecting. Floating. The feeling was… oceanic. The act refulled her far more than it drained her.
Here the story diverges like the fate of Schrödinger’s cat. In one reality, the family of three finds balance. A triangle of complementary if unequal roles, needs, and resources. Billy and Honey discover new ways to be refueled by one another and, in the process, become better able to manage their stress. Their intimate adult relationship takes on the additional dimension of coParenting. They become an efficient tag team, refueling one another even as each refuels their baby. They discover how to communicate and cooperate, and gradually they refine the consistency of their parenting practices.
In this reality, mother and father together weave a safety net that catches and holds their son. They establish limits and follow through with consequences, finding ways to reward Bobby’s successes rather than wait to oil the wheel when it squeaks. They establish both boundaries that define space and routines that define time. During the years ahead, these are the structures that Bobby—no longer a bouncing baby—will internalize and fall back on as he defines his own identity and personality; as he ventures off clutching a transitional object; as he establishes transitional affiliations; and as he finds new anchors in his adult world.
But you know that story. Billy lived it. Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to have lived it, too. It’s the other story that demands our attention:
Sex can make one out of two, and then three out of one. But not always. Sometimes the triangle breaks, creating unbalanced and un- healthy alliances. In this all-too-common reality, Honey’s pregnancy and Bobby’s birth have pushed Billy away. He’s not only physically separated by working two jobs; he’s emotionally left out. Like the skinny kid with acne who is never picked for the team, Billy sees his wife and his son laughing and playing and sleeping together. He sees the baby clinging to what he once thought of as his, and he gets it, but he resents it.
It might take days or months or years, but Billy and Honey eventually stop turning to each other for emotional fuel. They find new anchors. Honey has her mom and her friends. Billy has the guys at work and his friends at the bar. There’s no room for Billy in the big bed anymore, so he sleeps on the couch. Honey’s too tired to go out at night, so Billy calls a friend.
Meals at home are mushy green, orange, or yellow and come in four-ounce jars, so he eats out. Emotion and misunderstanding accumulate like debris washed up on the shore between Honey and Billy, becoming a speed bump and then a hill and then a mountain that cannot be climbed, even with the help of the professionals they hire to show them the way.
Sometimes there’s a last straw: an argument, a secret, a lover, a suspicion, a shove. Sometimes not. But there always is letting go: a divestment, a withdrawal of dependence and trust. The anchor line, frayed and unraveled, breaks. The end of an intimate relationship can feel like being cast adrift. It’s the intellectualized, lawyer-laden, public and profound panic that Bouncing Baby Billy felt when he looked back to discover that Mom was gone.
It’s a grieving process like any other, complete with its own stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and—hopefully, eventually—acceptance. It’s a test of emotional resilience and resourcefulness.