Sitting in a traffic jam on the interstate, I hand-expressed breast milk into a paper towel while the fine motorists of Northern California looked on.
Times like these are a mundane, unwelcome part of everyday life: The car breaks down on the side of the road, the infant’s diaper explodes everywhere… life happens. On this particular day, we’d forgotten the breast pump at home and I wasn’t especially interested in experiencing mastitis, so I scrounged around in the back seat for a wrinkled paper towel, pulled my shirt over my head, and leaned forward to take care of business. The kids whined in the back as the scorchingly hot sun beat through the windows. The person parked in the car next to us glanced over and then quickly looked away. Milk bounced off the sad little paper towel onto the dashboard, and my wife and I just broke down and laughed our butts off.
I know—I totally scored getting an easygoing partner. But during often-literally-crap-filled times, couples have a choice: We can blame the other person for the unpleasant situation in which we find ourselves, or we can solve the problem at hand. When we dwell on mistakes, the stress can linger and set the tone for the rest of the day. So after we’ve figured out a solution, realized that we’re safe, and that like most things, This too shall pass, we’ll announce our favorite phrase: “Making a memory!”
Once, our tent was blown flat onto our faces during a giant windstorm that kicked up in the middle of the night. It had been blustering for three hours on the top of a mountain—in the middle of a cross-country move. At some point, one of us offered up, “Well, we’re making a memory!” and suddenly, everything was just… better.
There was also that time we spent two full hours hanging a postage-stamp-sized TV with missing parts on the wall—a TV which we knowingly purchased at a deep-parts-missing discount because we’re broke; we had to have a TV in order to get our internet installed. In the end, somehow, that tedium was also improved by “making a memory.”
It seems like a simple turn of phrase, a cheesy solution to life’s messes, but I think it works. It makes you and your partner feel that you’re in the thick of it together, that this moment is unpleasant, shared, and will end. “Making a memory!” I say, as I wipe the baby’s poop rolling down my wife’s arm. “Making a memory!” my wife says, as she pulls off her giant sun hat to fan the smoking engine block.
When we dwell on mistakes, the stress can linger and set the tone for the rest of the day.
This is not to say that we are a perfect couple without tensions or problems—making a memory doesn’t solve everything. But it does redirect the frustration from one another onto getting through the unpleasantness at hand. This is true even when someone is “at fault.” Who forgot the diaper bag? One of us. Who thought it was a good idea to camp while pregnant and moving cross-country? OK, that was me. But who put off getting their oil changed too long during a hot summer in the South, thereby destroying a perfectly good engine? OK, yeah, that one’s actually on me too.
And making a memory doesn’t shrug off accountability, either. I’m a grownup; I know I messed up big time by destroying the car. When we realized that something as basic as lack of oil was the source of car-pacolypse and it was all my fault, I said “Oh, wow. I am so sorry. I really f-ed that up.” And my wife said, “Yep.” We’re still paying for that oil-change mistake many years later. Mistakes have consequences, but they shouldn’t tank our joy for each other in the long run.
We recently celebrated our five-year wedding anniversary. I spent last weekend making a new memory by tearing the interior roof off the no-longer-new-to-us car to search for a rotting mouse that died somewhere up there (and didn’t find it, so… that’ll be a treat for another day). In the process, I saw the slight stains of breast milk that still linger on the very back of the dashboard, and I felt nothing so much as sheer joy. Mistakes and awkwardness are part of everyday life—and I’m so glad we’re in it together.
Grover Wehman-Brown is a genderqueer parent, writer, researcher, and social justice organizer living in the hills of Western Massachusetts. She is currently writing a book about ending homelessness in the U.S. You can follow her work at her website and on Twitter @hmsteadscholar.