The Problem With Happily Ever After

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My almost four-year-old has recently entered a Disney Princess phase. We started with Anna and Elsa, then moved on to Ariel, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. We’ve stocked up on Little Golden Books and spend a good part of each day dressing in mermaid tails, searching for Ursula and declaring excitedly that it’s Coronation Day!

I have no problem with princesses. A lot of people say I should. The media says I should.

“Princess culture will be the end of all little girls!”

“It teaches them to be weak and rely on men above all else!”

“Their waists are smaller than their heads!”

All of these points are true in some way. (And yes, the waist thing is a little freaky), but there are some pretty cool aspects of princesses that I don’t mind if my daughters emulate. Their stubbornness. Their desire for justice. Their love for family and friends.

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(And, yeah, the dresses are pretty gorgeous, too.)

Here’s the thing I worry about, though: it’s that line, the one that comes at the end of every storybook: “And they lived happily every after.” Sometimes, the phrase is even followed by an ellipsis (…), as if words are no longer necessary to describe what comes after marriage.

Because everything’s easy then, right? Once the struggles of courtship and all that evil witch and poisoned apple drama are over, nothing bad will ever happen again. Isn’t that the deal we signed up for?

And if so, is that what our daughters (and sons) will come to expect from relationships?

This scares me. Because I’m not so sure there is a happily ever after.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in a happy marriage. I love my husband. We laugh and share common interests and are best friends. He makes me feel beautiful when I’m wearing a drool and graham cracker-crumb covered sweatshirt and still sends shivers down my spine when he kisses me. He’s logical when I’m emotional. He dealt with years and years of my lingering eating disorder, the last drips and drops in a glass that I was supposed to have emptied before I met him.

We’re perfect for each other.

But we’ve gone through a lot. A lot lot lot. (Believe me, I’m grateful for the many things we haven’t had to endure. *Knock on wood*, we haven’t dealt with death or cancer or infidelity or premature babies or the kinds of awful things that so many others face.) But it isn’t easy to be in a marriage when one person is struggling with a mental illness.

I remember the moment I told my husband I had relapsed. It was less than four months after we had gotten married and less than two month into a new job that I absolutely despised. We had just gotten home from the gym (of course) when I dropped the bomb.

He hadn’t been with me during the brunt of my illness, when I was in and out of the hospital every few months. When my clothes were hanging off me and I cuddled up next to the space heater for warmth. (Hell, who am I kidding? I still do that.) He didn’t know what he was signing on for. But he signed on anyway.

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And god damn was it hard. Years of hard. We yelled, I cried, I backtracked, I made forward progress. We had kids, I lost weight, I got anxious, he got frustrated. I got anxious again and he got flashbacks to when I had lied to him for months straight. The girls shrieked, the girls whined, the girls didn’t sleep, the girls pooped all over the carpet.  He stormed out, he came home an hour later. I got angry that he “just didn’t understand,” we hugged. We talked and talked some more. We had good times and wonderful times and bad times. We laughed and made memories and had fun and had not-so-much-fun.

We made it. Well, we made it to here. We’re better than we’ve ever been. But we’re going to have more issues. There’s no doubt about that.

Because that’s life. That’s marriage. We’re two highly flawed individuals who fell in love. So naturally those flaws are going to flare up time and again.

And again.

Marriages are hard and kids are hard. When you spend most of your time and energy trying to keep another living creature (or two! or three! or four!) alive, fed, clothed, content, and without bodily fluids in their diaper, you don’t have a ton of energy left to devote to a relationship.

Sometimes, for some people, the answer isn’t to devote more energy to a relationship. Sometimes ending a partnership is the answer. And that’s okay. It’s necessary sometimes. You just have to know what you want and what you need in life. You have to know when there’s work to be done and how figure out how to fix what’s broken.

For me, the solution was to work through my eating disorder and my anxiety so I could be present as a wife and a mother. To communicate my fears and desires to my husband so he could understand how I was feeling and react in an appropriate way. For him, the solution was to realize that I had an illness and to not get so angry at the thoughts I continued to have for so long.

For others, the solutions could be therapy or date nights or playing a video game together or tickle fights or sex or time apart or mini-golf or getting ice cream or learning how to cook together or staying up until four in the morning talking.

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Marriages need solutions all the time. Especially when you have kids. And too often we pretend that’s not the truth.

My aunt is a psychiatric nurse. She deals with people with anxiety every day. About a year ago, she remarked that my husband and I seemed like we had it all together. That we were the kind of couple that seamlessly transitioned to having kids without a care in the world.

I burst out laughing. (I used to be very good at fooling therapists. Apparently I can still pretend with the best of them.)

But I wasn’t pretending to be deceitful. I was just doing what we all do. We put up pictures of our smiling kids on Facebook, then never ever tell anyone about the fifteen-minute long tantrum before dinner. Or the day that makes you want to pull every last hair out, then lock the bathroom door behind you, turn the shower on, and scream. We talk about our “awesome date nights”, then conveniently forget about that stretch of months where we were getting four hours a sleep a night and snapping at each other every two seconds.

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We share the good and hide the bad.

We need to start sharing the good and the bad, so that this vision of “happily ever after” doesn’t make people quit before they start fighting.

Sometimes it’s not possible to have a date night because you can’t get a babysitter.

Sometimes you don’t want to have sex because your breasts are just too damn engorged. Or you’re so on edge from trying to potty train a stubborn three-and-a-half year old that dealing with another human being’s issues and problems is way too damn much. (Ahem.)

Some nights we both need our space after the girls go to bed. I retreat to the bedroom with my book and he fires up a video game.

Sometimes we want to be together. The other night we watched Inside Out, after which we sobbed together about how much we loved our girls and how we never want them to grow up.

It’s a balance. It’s communication. It’s hard work. It’s good and bad.

It’s not happily ever after, but I like it that way. Our issues forced us to work hard. We didn’t fall apart when I was sick and we didn’t fall apart when we had kids. We did crack, though, on multiple occasions. That crack will always be there.

But I don’t want a marriage that’s a perfect porcelain vase, one I put in the back of a cabinet so it will never break. I want to live our life out on a shelf, or on a table, so people can marvel over our colors, run their fingers over the bumps, and see how we glued the pieces back together.

I want to know that if we fall again, we’ll survive. That if we break, we’ll pick up the pieces and fit them together again. We may not fit together now exactly the same way as we did in our wedding pictures, but we fit together in a new way, a way that that holds us together even more strongly.

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I want my brokenness on display. I want to see yours, too.

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5 Responses to The Problem With Happily Ever After

  1. Amy says:

    Love, love, love this.

    Like

  2. Shari says:

    I was nodding along with you the whole time I read this. Thank you for sharing your story!

    Like

  3. Karen says:

    Beautiful!!

    Like

  4. Sarah says:

    First, I love this; you are honest and real and open and direct. Second, remember that Disney is only a ever going to be a “best supporting actress” in your children’s lives. Disney doesn’t raise our children without us. We read about and watch Disney Princesses being fierce and strong and loyal, but as children grow up they learn that those are characters in a story, not real people. I think it’s ok to wish for happily ever after when you are little because it helps give you hope for the future and something to strive toward. It’s ok to say “Take that stubbornness little girl, and use it to fight for the love in your life.” Our sweet children are watching Dinsey princesses and comparing them to mom, they are seeing mom emulate the same character traits and watching her and dad fight to make their marriage better. They are learning from how you handle your disagreements and learning that happily ever after doesn’t mean happily every moment. Just because you have moments of hurt and sadness and anger and fear doesn’t mean that your life together isn’t happy. I believe that children recognize this fact from a very young age.

    Like

  5. bocgirl7 says:

    Make sure they watch Mulan. And Lilo and Stitch (if they haven’t already). Those are about having flaws, facing issues about yourself, and learning to solve problems. Also, they are my favorites about family. I know they don’t qualify as princesses, but those are probably my favorite female characters that Disney has ever created.

    Like

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