During the fourth semester of my husband’s new teaching career, our marriage was a stress whirlpool. It looked exactly as it sounds.
He left dutifully every morning at 7:45am for his job as I stayed home under stressful conditions.
We live and work in China, where the air can be heavily polluted on cold days. I needed forty minutes to get my children ready for cold weather since I had to pull and push on every piece of winter gear for them, but they always refused to wear pollution-filtering facemasks. Polluted days always meant staying inside, but without the soothing sound of rain and the depressing feeling you live in an apocalyptic-sci-fi kind of world.
Our apartment was tiny, so exercise inside was hard to accomplish, and my daughter was an intensely hyper child at that age. I also didn’t speak the same language as my neighbors, so I couldn’t call nearby parents of small children to come play together.
When the day was really tough, I expected him to be home at the time he said he would. If he was late by five minutes, I would desperately call him until he picked up. If he didn’t answer at all, I would be fuming by the time he arrived.
I needed him to be there.
How dare he not understand how hard it was!
What on earth would ever make work, or anything else, more important than how I was suffocating in my own home?
Though any mother can easily relate to the crazy amount of stress I had, he had his own share of ridiculous stress at that time. After a series of unfortunate events that semester, he was pegged with the extra work that couldn’t be completed by another teacher.
Part of his personality is that he actually underperforms under high stress, so he was “forgetting” to call me to let me know when he would be late and unable to help relieve me from my stress.
That would create more stress for me, and I would blow up. My blow up and immaturity would create more stress for him. He would take that baggage to work, underperform because he was thinking about our marital problems, and the cycle would repeat.
What was to be done here?
He couldn’t quit his job. He couldn’t ask for more help because his department was already taxed. I couldn’t learn the language in a matter of days, and my children weren’t going to get any more mature in minutes.
In a situation where circumstances can’t be easily changed, as believers we’re faced with the real issue instead.
If we look beneath the surface of our anger, our frustrations, our circumstances, we will see the reason for our sinful reactions is not because someone failed us, but because we weren’t getting what we wanted. I was not getting what I wanted out of my life and out of my family.
- My heart placed happiness on being appreciated for the sacrifice I felt I was making.
This was at the core of my struggle. I was having a hard time with motherhood, and I felt a bit of bitterness that my husband was able to escape every day. I stand by the belief that motherhood is incredibly hard when handled alone, and women in China only vindicated that feeling when they said, “I have one child, and I’m exhausted! How can you handle two?!” If my husband wasn’t praising me and appreciating me, it would make me angry. That anger intensified when he talked about how hard it was for him to work.
- My heart placed happiness on my husband’s presence.
Because I felt like he was getting to escape, even though his workday was hard, I expected him to come home to help relieve my stress. He has always been wonderful with children, and so coming home was relaxing to him. When he wasn’t there “when I needed him,” I would sink into despair.
- My heart placed happiness on a good day with my children.
If the day with my children went smoothly, I wouldn’t have cared what time he came home. On very rare occasions, I didn’t realize what time it was when he showed up at the door. Because my joy was founded in the easiness of the day, I often lacked joy and looked for my husband as my escape.
- My heart placed happiness on succeeding in my ideals of motherhood.
Proverbs 31 is the perfection of Christ in womanhood, and the way American culture has interpreted this text has created a yoke for many women. For many years, my ideals of motherhood were based on these principles, so if I didn’t have a clean home, well-behaved children, and piping hot dinner when my husband came home, I felt like a failure.
The problem with placing my source of joy and happiness in these desires is that they’re not based in Christ. It’s not bad to want these things, but it is sinful to desire them so much that I lash out at my husband when he prevented me from achieving two of the four desires.
In response to these four misplaced desires, I can turn to the word of God:
- Christ placed me in the circumstance with two children. I cannot suddenly stop being a mom. I will have to give an account to him for how I have served as a mother. I should therefore work to glorify him and seek his praise rather than praise from any man, including my husband (Colossians 2:23-24).
- My husband was never meant to fulfill each and every one of my desires. If I expect that from my husband, he will only disappoint and fail me. Christ is my all in all, and in him I can be refreshed and satisfied (Psalm 118:8).
- For the Christian, trials come to strengthen faith rather than to tear us down. James 1:2-4 calls believers to consider all trials pure joy so that our faith would be made mature.
- Jesus says that his burden is easy and his yoke is light (Matthew 11:29-30). Cultural expectations are not biblical. Sometimes they are useful in reaching out to people, but they are not what guarantee my salvation. I was still trying to satisfy these man-made ideals rather than living to please Christ. My time trying to live up to lofty ideals was better spent digging into the word for refuge.
Though this was the reason for my stress in reaction to his stress at this moment, at other times the reasons are different. Sometimes the stress is just simply because I want to please him.
In each situation of stress where I respond sinfully, it’s important to look at my heart to determine the reason I’m reacting in a sinful way. Then I can him or others to help me battle that sin by pointing me to the word of God and Christ as my hope. When we both do this, we’re able to have grace for one another rather than demanding we fulfill each other’s needs.
Though stress won’t be eradicated totally from our lives, the devastating whirlpool that swirls and swirls can be stopped before it becomes a hurricane, wreaking havoc on our marriage and family.