Over the course of the past year, my spouse has come home on three occasions with a work-related problem so deep and troubling that his physical health was affected. The first two were pretty bad, but manageable–they gave him stomach aches, utterly exhausted him and caused extra restless sleep. The third–which occurred this week–was really bad. I thought he was going to pass out from the stress and the frustration he felt.
We talk about his job and its pressures daily and in great detail. (I find this to be a key requirement in corporate wifery.) I ask questions, I read up on topics utterly foreign to me, I offer feedback on his presentations, his writings, his strategies. I give advice from a different perspective. We complement each other. He’s an introvert. I’m an extrovert. He’s an analyst. I’m a salesman. We click.
This week, I sat ten feet away from him while he was on the phone at 8:45 in the evening with a colleague on the other side of the world. It was a very serious conversation, my husband’s voice sounded far too controlled. I looked over at him and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. He was very still, listening to his colleague, but he was flexing his hand: open fist, closed fist, open fist, closed fist, open fist. They talked for a while. He ended the call. He said he felt dizzy. I got scared.
He told me about the problem, and we talked about it, for far longer than he would have preferred, but I insisted. He needed it out of his head. I played coach, I played cheerleader. I reminded him of positives, minimized negatives. He went to bed. I stayed up late, reading up on the specifics of the problem he faced, which required a cramming of certain aspects GAAP between the hours of 10 and 11pm.
The next morning I said brightly, “This can’t possibly be as bad as you’re feeling it will be. It just can’t. The issue just doesn’t seem that uncommon. It’s just a problem to be solved, nothing more.” (It was my final effort at optimism before he headed to work.)
Well, he emailed me later that day with what he believed to be a solution to the problem. “Think we’re okay,” he wrote. I read his email, and was relieved, and sincerely proud of him.
When he got home, we talked more. I gave him some more advice, that I picked up when I read that profile of President Obama by Michael Lewis. In a nutshell, I offered this.
“You have to adjust your expectations, and assume that things will go wrong. Assume that your job is to clean up messes, not avoid messes entirely. It’s the shock and frustration with a new problem that gives you such stress. You never have difficulty solving the problem. But you have difficulty dealing with that initial disappointment. Change your expectations. Promise me that.”
Now, there is a lot to be said for having a job which you can leave at the office, and for having a marriage in which a couple doesn’t discuss work. All that, however, has to be said by somebody else. My husband, at this point in his life, spends roughly 14 hours a day working or thinking about work, Monday through Friday. On weekends, about two to three hours a day. About an 80-hour week, all told. As I’ve said before, I’m obscenely lucky to be in my position, safe at home. It is the very least I can do to learn about what he does, how he does it, and help him manage the stress.
Now, when I do this, there is a slight risk of falling into a self-pity spiral (fueled heavily by lack of sleep, stress, hormones?). You know the kind–where I wonder if my husband notices what I do every day with the children, the home, our life beyond work (I manage most things in our lives beyond work, except lawn care and invasive wildlife). The kind where, in my darkest moments, I can actually think, “If I were hit by a bus, he’d really only need a babysitter with housekeeping and cooking skills to replace me…”
Yeah, I’ve thought that. It’s shameful. Spirals like that are likely, when you keep things to yourself.
So I started writing this little blog several months ago. People are reading it, people are liking it, and I’m starting to think about next steps, maybe even someday writing a book. I talked about all this with my husband about a month ago. I talked about self-publishing, about talking with people who know people who know other people who could maybe give me advice and help.
My husband was quiet.
“Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe not…” I trailed off.
He looked at me, honestly confused. “Why do you think you need to self-publish? You can get yourself published by any company out there. Why do you have to go through all these middle men to get advice or reviews of your work? Go directly to whomever you want to go to. Don’t sell yourself short.”
My slayer of monsters. My fixer of obscure but dire accounting snafus. My introvert. My analyst. He turned into me.
When you stand by, and up for, him? He faces you. He’s your mirror.
And you both look great.