CHAPTER ONE: WHAT A DIFFERENCE SIX F***ING INCHES MAKE
“All I got is…ain’t got no time, just burning daylight, still love, and…and it’s still love…”
I parked at the open spot in front of the restaurant, unapologetically blasting SZA and singing off-key at the top of my lungs. Guests waiting for the cars from the valet scoffed, giving me side-eye and all-around don’t-you-have-any-home-training? looks.
“Nope, I sure don’t,” I expressed back to them in a stare, my head tilted and lips pursed.
I spotted James, already parked and waiting for me. Smiling at one another, I walked up to him. “How are you?” he asked.
“I’m well. Let’s do this.”
I leaned into his body, my head inches from his chest. I pulled his jacket tighter so he wouldn’t catch a cold from the brisk October weather. For a brief moment, we locked eyes.
“Your neck is getting a rash. Are you overeating dairy because your eczema is flaring up.” I scolded, “I’ll give you some coconut oil to put on it when we get in the house.”
James stared at me as if I missed a social cue. Then, stepping back, he waved his arm for me to pass into the restaurant.
I opened the door with James behind me, and we went inside to meet our dinner guests. This meal was part pleasure, part business. I’d asked a family friend and older colleague of mine, Shaun, if he and his wife Sheila wouldn’t mind being interviewed for an upcoming article I was writing for Health magazine. The article was becoming data-heavy and needed a personal perspective. It could benefit from marital tips from a couple with children who’d been married for decades.
Usually, I’m skeptical about interviewing older married couples because society suggests (and thus, the older married couples believe) that their age makes them well equipped to provide advice. In my opinion, just because great-aunt-and-uncle-so-and-so were married for 50 years doesn’t mean they are equipped to dish out marital advice. Many of them are secretly living postmodern era marriages: financial and/or familial contracts that have nothing to do with love and personal fulfillment. Older generations can’t always comprehend (much less provide an example of) what it means to be newlyweds in today’s society. That’s like asking someone still using a typewriter how to jailbreak your iPhone.
Finding a couple to interview was also not as easy a feat as one would think. Fifteen percent of new parents are divorced three years after they welcome their first child into the world. And if they manage to stay married and raise children, even more divorce occurs the moment their children graduate high school. Seriously. Everybody thinks older married couples are committed, experienced, and wiser, but “gray divorce”—divorce among U.S. adults ages 50 and older—is on the rise. In 2015, for every 1,000 married persons ages 50 and older, ten divorced—up from five in 1990.
But Shaun and Sheila were different. I loved their relationship story, mainly how Shaun supported Sheila’s decision to become a working mom. When they first got married 30 years ago, Sheila went from waiting tables to managing restaurants to an office job in the financial services industry at Alex Brown. Twenty years later, she is now T. Rowe Price’s top national salesperson. They viewed each chapter of their lives together as just one in a book of many. They never knew what was next around the corner, and for them, that was cool. Their only plan was to continue supporting each other as they made choices along the way.
We spotted Shaun and Sheila at the bar, where they were fully engaged in a conversation with one another, patiently waiting for us to arrive. I noticed how Shaun looked at Sheila as she spoke, turning his entire body on the stool to face her, smiling and nodding as she talked. It was as if he couldn’t wait to hear what this intelligent woman had to say. Sheila’s body was turned as well, and as she spoke, she made gestures and funny faces that that made Shaun laugh. Their glasses of merlot were still full. They were so engulfed in one another that they didn’t even notice the bartender had delivered them.
Meanwhile, I can’t even get a damn door opened for me. I shook my head, forcing an attitude adjustment.
Shaun and Sheila slowly broke their stare at one another and turned. “Heyyyy!!!!!”
We all hugged one another, and as the hostess came over. “Your table is ready.”
Shaun, Sheila, James, and I headed to our table. It didn’t take us long to order drinks, an appetizer for the table, and our dinner. After a bit of small talk and personal conversation, our appetizers arrived—calamari, seared ahi tuna, and mini Maryland crab cakes. I put my iPhone on the table so I could start recording our conversation. Like Tiffany Haddish, #SheReady to work.
“So Shaunnnn and Sheilayyy,” I sang their names. “Thanks again for agreeing to be interviewed. You’ve been married 30 years, with children at that! I think it’s important for Health readers to hear the good, bad, and ugly of your story.”
“Of course,” Sheila replied. She had such a warm, bubbly spirit that kept her looking youthful in her fifties. “Hit us with the first question.”
“What was the best marital advice you received before you walked down the aisle?”
Shaun replied with his firm, commanding voice, “It was third party advice. The cantor that married us interviews every couple he marries before the actual ceremony. He told us that one couple wrote their vows to read that they would love each other ‘until death do us part or until our love dies.’ Their thought was that should one of them should stop loving the other for any reason, they loved each other now so much that they wanted to commit to letting that person go.”
I didn’t even need to look at James. His silence told me he was making the same facial expression as me. We’d mastered grinning and nodding when we heard relationship advice from older couples, but on the inside, we mocked, “What a crock of shit.”
“Do your parents or in-laws give you marital advice? What is their role in your marriage?” I asked.
Sheila chose to answer this one: “Shaun and I always roll together when spending time with parents, spending holidays with as many family members as possible. But when our parents are putting pressure on us, Shaun and I are the “family” that matters first. We look at “pressure” as being on us (as a unit), not one partner or the other. We handle our own stuff and don’t talk with parents about the problems of our relationship. That’s part of what being married means.”
Damn, shit must be nice, I responded in my mind. My mind drifted to a conversation my father-in-law once had with James.
“Christine is not a traditional South Carolina housewife,” he remarked to his son in a discouraging tone. He meant that Southern black wives were better at matrimony. I was destined to be a disappointment because I wasn’t traditional. When Handsome McHandsomekins told me this, I laughed. I’m a Maryland—no, excuse me—a Baltimore wife, honey. You are a lucky man! Plus, considering the so-called traditional South Carolina housewife that my monster-in-law is? Well, let’s just say I questioned where any advice from that long, committed marriage came from.
I guess it’s great that in this 21st century of ours, so many young wives made best friends out of their mothers-in-law. But I was the young wife bringing back hating her mother-in-law. Like, really committed Game of Thrones hating. And I was unashamed to say it.
“Sheila,” I interrupted my own train of thought. “As a top sales executive and all-around badass mother, how do you handle the household finances?”
Sheila replied confidently, “We absolutely agree to have full financial disclosure about each of our personal financial situations at all times,” she shrugged. “We don’t make any substantial purchases without consulting each other first. In the early years, things were thinner. Still, our plan was simple: don’t spend more than we have, live within our means, and save as often as we can. We now have a financial planner but have always made it a point to live within our means. Our son Michael is now a sophomore in college and has never once asked us for money.”
“That’s impressive,” I noted with a mouthful of tuna.
“You know Chrissy and I met in college,” James pointed out. “I never once asked my parents for money…but for VERY different reasons!” We both laughed at the shade he brought to the conversation.
Shaun didn’t catch it. “Why?” he asked.
“They didn’t have any!” James joked.
The waiter was clearing our appetizers, as dinner arrived. “Guys, I think I’ve got enough here. Thank you so much! Let’s just eat!”
“Of course!” they responded in unison.
Jesus; this fucking couple. They’re friends, so they’re easy to love. But they’re in love, so they’re easy to hate.
“I think people will honestly appreciate your perspective and…”
James interrupted, “Can I ask a question to both of you? I’m curious if your parents were, or are, still married.”
“Mine aren’t,” Shaun noted. “My mom and dad were divorced when I was seven. I grew up with my mom. She always had my back and was my best friend. She brought no vices to the table, so it was easy to follow her example. She also loved to have fun and still does.”
“I had a very different upbringing,” Sheila admitted while looking at her sea bass. “My parents were married, but my dad died quite suddenly when I was 18. I learned how to be frugal and respect the value of money from my mom, and I have passed that on to Michael.”
Sheila’s voice trailed off. It was the first time I heard her voice in a lower tone. Shaun interjected as though he was protecting her.
“Sheila shows Michael the love and care that she never had growing up.”
I knew where James was headed with his question, and I could see him summarizing their answers in his head. So one momma’s boy and the other raised by both parents, until tragedy struck. James clearly picked up on the romantic cues they’d been giving all night. But, I don’t know if it was my question about in-laws or the one about money that made him ask about their parents’ marriages.
Perhaps he was trying to learn how one’s upbringing affected their marriage and how they parent. Over three decades, his parents had been separated three times. I’m no marriage therapist, but those two people should not be married. When I dated James in college, he’d have to come to my house to study on the weekends. He couldn’t concentrate at home, with the two of them fighting for 48 hours straight.
To this day, he’s awkwardly and inappropriately spoiled by his mother, and it affected our marriage. James’ father worked long, irregular hours, so my monster-in-law replaced him with her son. He’s an only child suffering from black momma syndrome: the act of raising one’s son in the hopes he’ll grow to take on the financial and emotional responsibilities of a spouse. For generations, it’s been a common practice among black women, and to this day, there is no cure.
On the flip side of that, I came from a divorced household; my parents divorced when I was nine months old. I didn’t know what it was like to have my mother and father in the same house, but from their heated joint encounters with me at school events and birthday parties, I knew I didn’t wanna know, either!
A half-hour passed. Shaun and James argued over who would pay for dinner, and I won. I slowly pulled my credit card from my wallet. The waiter nearly snatched it from my cold, frugal hands, and I paid the check. We said our goodbyes, thankful for the opportunity to have learned something new about one another.
James walked me to my car, and once again, we locked eyes as we stood no more than six inches away from each other.
“Alright, I’ll see you back at the house,” he said.
With that, we stepped out of each other’s paths and walked to our respective trucks. I hopped in and immediately checked my phone: six emails and one missed text message. Looking up in exhaustion and through the passenger window, I saw Shaun and Sheila standing next to their car. They stood no more than six inches away from one another. Sheila leaned into Shaun’s body, and the two were locked in a stare. She tilted her head up, and they kissed.
“ARGGGHHHH!!! UGH!” I yelled, looking up at the car ceiling. I exhaled, put the phone back in my purse, and started the engine.
“It’s still love, still love (still lovin’), still love,” I lip-sync, “It’s still love, but it’s still love…”
Over the next four days, I helped Maya recover from an adenotonsillectomy. The shit seems as painful to recover from as it is to say, but basically, it was an operation to remove both her adenoids and tonsils. I worked from home and taped podcast interviews during the evening in an attempt to not miss a beat.
Maya was in so much pain during the day from her sore throat. By day three, I’d decided to stop sleeping through the night in the event she needed me then too. I was used to not getting eight hours of sleep. I tend to train my body to deal without it since on the off occasion I did hit REM, I’d always have to spring up from that slumber anyway. It was not so easy.
It will get better one day. For now, you gotta keep these people safe, I hoped.
This surgery recovery was becoming my own personal war story. By day three, I started journaling. On day four, I wrote:
DAY 4. Coffee is all that keeps me going. I mean, I say this with the utmost respect but stay-at-home moms…how?
Just…how? #SAHM #howdoyoudoit #keepyaheadup #respect
Stay-at-home moms deserve ALL the coins, ALL the glory, and ALL the credit. They are undoubtedly fucking doing God’s work over here.
Let’s see. What was driving me the craziest? Was it Maya’s reliance on her iPad to get through the day? She was watching Charli’s Crafty Kitchen for hours, occasionally pausing the YouTube video to demand Siri tell her how to spell a word. (I can’t lie, though; sometimes I do reap the benefits of her iPad devotion. I’m guilty of sending her pins of cute hairstyles myself.)
Was it all the questions, as if every day is “ask-a-million-questions” day and she needs to celebrate in a big, big way?
Or was it the absence of dialogue between me and another adult?
No. It was none of them. It had to be ignoring me for eight hours.
I peeked my head into the family room and only saw a brown puffball behind a hot pink, shockproof iPad cover.
“If you like what you’ve seen, don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel, or like and comment below.”
WTF? This child didn’t even have an email address, let alone a YouTube channel. What was Miss Bossy talking about?
“Maya. Maya. Maya. Maya. MAYA!” I screamed.
“YES, Mommy.” she barely groaned, back on the arm of the sectional, legs propped up by a pillow, and covered by a blanket.
I honestly believed she wasn’t that sick. At that point, recovery was near complete, but Maya, the sharp fox, was born an actress. She was born nine weeks early, screaming at the top of her lungs, and her resting heart rate in the NICU was the rate of a full-term baby. She had always commanded attention, and for her, this recovery was her opportunity to earn a Best Actress nod from the Academy.
“Did you ask your father for medicines before he left for work?”
“He said to ask you for it.” She gave me a look to imply she needed privacy and wanted me to leave. Girl ain’t even got a credit score. Looking at me like she’s a woman. Hmph.
Well, what the fuck? I’m the one that took off work all this week to deal with this. The least your ass coulda did was….
Just then, Maya stopped me in my tracks and asked, “When I feel better, can you make me some strawberry pancakes and sausages?”
“We don’t have any,” I grumbled.
“Well, why not?”
How Sway? When was I gonna get that shit? I thought. I’m trapped in this house just like you!
“Mommy, are you happy as a balloon, or are you doomed?”
Maya disarmed me. I honestly didn’t have an answer for it.
I continued collecting the popsicle wrappers from the coffee table and left the room. As I walked into the kitchen, I pulled Maya’s artwork off the fridge—throwing it in the trash can with the popsicle wrappers. Instantly, I felt calm.
Later that evening, I was thrilled when I heard three beeps from our alarm system. It meant her father was home. It was time to change shifts! I didn’t know who was happier to be free from madness, me or the man at the end of Cabin Fever, who realized he was the only one who made it without being infected. I mean, I, too, was raising my arms in victory while shouting YES! as that alarm went off.
“Hi!” I exclaimed, rushing to the back door to greet him. “Did you pick up her prescriptions?” Kissing him at first sight was the last thing I was thinking about doing. I wanted the drugs.
“No, I figured you’d do it. You had the prescription card,” James replied.
“JESUS! MUST I DO EVERYTHING!” I barked. I stared at his face and could see his exhaustion. I didn’t know if it was from working all day or if it was from me.
“Let me help,” he pleaded. “I’ll go back out and pick them up.”
“NO!” I snapped. “At this point, I’ll just go get them myself. I have the prescription card, after all, right?” The bitch in me was loose. Katie had gone kaboom. “I made your dinner and left it on the stove for you. It’s fried catfish and mashed potatoes.”
“I’m not hungry,” he insisted in a whisper under his breath. From the corner of my eye, I saw Maya coming into the kitchen to hug her father. I quickly adjusted my facial expression from pissed to pleasant.
“Hi Daddy,” she whimpered, one hand on her forehead and the other on her stomach. “I’m feeling a bit better today. Were you and Mommy fussing?”
“Noooooo,” we said in unison, fake grins plastered on our faces. “I don’t know what you thought you heard, but we weren’t arguing,” I added. James brushed past me and headed to the basement.
We agreed the kids don’t need to hear us arguing or see us bickering with one another. He’d had enough of that as a child, and he didn’t want it for Maya and West too.
“Why are you guys up at 7am on a Saturday? You kids are driving me CRAZY!” I whispered, looking at the two big-eyed creatures staring at me from my bedside.
“That’s because we want you crazy,” Maya boasted. “And we’re hungry.”
What the fuck? I thought. Can’t make this stuff up if I tried. Raising kids could be an entire Alanis Morissette song.
“It’s like finally washing your bedsheets, and the kids vomit on them instead of their own when they’re sick. It’s like kids waking up at 7 a.m. on Saturday, and 10 a.m. on Tuesday.”
I’d made it to the weekend but made my goal was to finalize where West would start daycare next month. A few hours later, I called my top daycare choice, Mystery Pals, asking the owner follow-up questions.
“Good morning,” I sang. “May I speak with Tonya, please?”
I heard a slight groan. “This is her. Good morning, Mrs. Carter.”
These people better get their life, I thought. They don’t seem to mind taking my money with a hello and a smile.
“Thanks for taking my call on a Saturday. I just wanted to ask a few more questions regarding the Mystery Pals Daycare. What holidays and other days is the facility closed? In the event of a weather emergency, do you follow Baltimore City or Baltimore County school closings? Are you NAEYC accredited? Are background checks conducted on all staff members? Do you feel comfortable administering medi—”
She interjected, and I heard rustling papers on the other end. “Mrs. Carter, give me a moment to write down your questions. I want to make sure to answer them all.”
If you thought Maya needed the utmost medical attention, honey, she ain’t got shit on my little bear cub West. He, too, takes a liquid and nasal allergy medication and vitamins every day, but his meals have to be considered days in advance, as he’s lactose-intolerant and has an egg allergy.
My Oedipus West. I didn’t realize I’d be one of those moms who quacked like a duck to clip a boy’s toenails but, here we are. We both have the same big eyes, animated expressions, and eat healthy foods like teff and dried barberries. I’d slow danced to Sade with him barefoot in the kitchen at least 20 times; with his father: two. West has better rhythm.
Now that we were hitting a milestone together with him starting daycare, I was a bit broken-hearted. I wasn’t prepared for dealing with another child’s social calendar: school birthday parties, sleepovers… uggggghhhh!!! (Let me tell you there are some things God created, and some things that the devil created. Having to attend your child’s schoolmate’s birthday party or talking to people you don’t even want to know for more than one minute during pick up and drop off… that’s something the devil created.)
But West is a different breed, and let’s call a spade a spade. He’s a black boy born in Baltimore. He lives comfortably, but his exterior still presents him as a public enemy. When I lay softly on his chest, I’m unsettlingly aware of his heartbeat; his mortality. I don’t let him run in our backyard or pretend to play with toy guns. I thought of Maya as a preemie when I watched the sleeping babies in the Pampers holiday commercial, but as West sleeps on his back with his hands above his head, all I think is, stop shooting us.
I’ve got a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder from seeing so many black men killed by the police, especially those killings that occur in my city—like Freddie Gray. I internalized every news segment, thinking that was someone’s West. Someone’s son. What makes my son any safer?
I’m responsible for multiple lives. I take that fact very seriously. Perhaps too seriously.
My persistent worry caused me to lose focus on the conversation with Tonya. James walked into the kitchen, listening to the end of my phone call. He’d just woken up because he’s entitled to enjoy his weekend slumber. #puresarcasm
“You know, your son is gonna have his little thotties. He’s gonna leave the nest and find someone. All we’re doing today is finding him a daycare. You don’t have to be so hard on the woman.” West wandered into the kitchen, brushing past his father to hand me a juice box to open.
“Thank you, James,” I proclaimed, hitting defense mode. “I’m aware of that fact.” West rubbed my thigh. I moved his hand. “West, please don’t rub Mommy that way.” I picked up West, plopping him on the counter while I opened the juice box.
James scoffed, “So why do you have to be so uptight about it? Why does everything have to go your way?”
“I know I put a lot of love into the kids,” I responded in a serious tone. “But they haven’t hurt me like some others have, so why should I hurt them?”
I kissed Oedipus West on the forehead and stood him on the floor. He flashed those big eyes at me as he drank his apple juice.
Featured in The New York Times, Christine Michel Carter is the #1 global voice for working moms. Called “the mom of mom influencers,” “the exec inspiring millennial moms”, a “mom on the move” and “the voice of millennial moms”, Christine clarifies misconceptions about these consumers for brands and serves as an amplifier of their personal truths. This includes everything from delivering consumer insights and brand marketing content to helping HR and diversity teams attract and retain these hardworking professionals. She is the best-selling author of “Can Mommy Go To Work” and contributor to several global digital publications, including Forbes, TIME, Harper’s BAZAAR and Parents. She has supported the awareness of government initiatives such as Senator Kamala Harris’ Maternal Care Access and Reducing Emergencies (CARE) Act and Black Maternal Health Week and created Mompreneur and Me, the first national mommy and me professional development networking event.