Nine years into my marriage, it’s taken a global crisis to make me a nicer person.
By Priyanka Mattoo
The New York Times
I have filled a spray bottle with vinegar, like the instructions said, and coated the shower with it, but nothing is happening.
My toddler daughter bangs on the glass door with a box of Band-Aids, grumpy that I’ve stopped drawing shapes in the steam. “Heart!” she yells. “Girl! Duckie!” But I’m tormented by the hard water stains. I hop out of the shower, naked, past the protesting baby, to grab my phone and re-read the directions.
Ah. Leave vinegar for 15 minutes before wiping down. Fifteen minutes I don’t have, because my son needs breakfast before home school starts. Today, I am foiled. But, thanks to the pandemic lockdown, I’ll have another chance tomorrow, and the day after that, and probably for another month beyond. Just kidding. We have two kids under 6, I’m lucky if I shower twice a week.
Like many families, we have found comfort in the structure of our pandemic routine: some school, baking, a board game, a walk. Snatched work calls during naps or TV time. Writing badly, late at night. Every day is … exactly the same. As the world beyond our doorstep careens out of control, our lives recede indoors, and my shortcomings on the domestic front are magnified. All I can see is everything I’m doing wrong. For years I’ve been able to delegate or avoid duties I’m not very good at, but now, in our house-shaped bubble, I have nowhere to hide, and neither do my flaws.
Shortcoming No. 1: I hate cleaning. Growing up, I cleaned our house for my allowance, and that’s the last time I did it semi-willingly. My husband and I, in our normal lives, both work full-time, and have, fortunately, been able to outsource this task for years. But now we’re home, and I’m having to face that I’m a half-hearted housekeeper at best. I’ve tie-dyed the sheets by mistake, I can only get the kitchen to about 70 percent clean before my brain and body short-circuit, and those hard water stains in the shower won’t budge.
Thankfully, my husband is a tidying savant. After he’s done with the dishes or floors, I ooh and ahh, my mood lifts, my heart sings. It’s a pleasure to behold. He accuses me of Tom Sawyering him as I go on and on about how beautiful the house looks, but it’s true. And I’m trying to be nice. Because, shortcoming No. 2, the Big One: I’m not nice enough to my husband.
When Rodney and I got married, nosy parkers had a lot of questions about how we were going to raise our children across cultures. (He is a Jewish New Yorker; I am a Kashmiri Hindu.) Just a day at a time, like everyone else, we said. And we haven’t had a single cultural issue, except one: My people are Olympic-level bickerers, and his are not. To the untrained eye, a Kashmiri couple figuring out where to go for dinner looks like the tense setup for a movie about imminent divorce. But to us, competitive sparring is what makes life interesting.
There’s no higher compliment given a Kashmiri than “sharp” or “clever,” traits displayed in our conversational style — teasing, skeptical, lively, but overall, yes, argumentative. Bickering, the long back-and-forth volley of conversational points, is our signature pastime. The writer Scaachi Koul once shared a video of her Kashmiri parents deciding where in the car to place a take-out samosa, and watching them pick each other apart, and then eat it together, made my eyes well with homesick tears. Our parents don’t talk about how much and why they love each other, they’ve mostly just stayed together. And argued. And made up over food. For thousands of years.
Now, I’m nice enough. Even if it is my cultural inclination to point out what everyone could be doing better, I’ve learned with my son that the more I tell him he’s having a super day, the more super he behaves. The baby’s a baby, so expectations are low, for now. But like any human, I have endless opinions on everything my partner does. Normally this trait is softened by our limited hours together, as busy working parents. But now, with a surfeit of quality time, I have to watch that I don’t drive him away. (He is now my only friend, after all.)
Without loving words to balance out my critiques, my husband points out, not for the first time, that all he hears is a long list of flaws. This is not a feeling I want anyone trapped in a home with me to feel! So now, in our 9th year of marriage, I’m shaking off my native tongue to learn a new language: When I feel something nice about him, I’m supposed to share that feeling with him, out loud.
This should be easy, and it is, for so many. But in traveling from my heart to my tongue, my feelings drift, mutating into grotesque, prickly shapes. I walk into the kitchen, where my husband has sauteed shrimp and greens for dinner. It looks delicious! What I mean to say is “Thanks for making dinner, it smells wonderful!” What I actually say, watching him season the chard, is “Ugh, you and the fish sauce!”
Then there was the time I made some generic couscous, ignoring the special kind he bought on his last grocery run. What I meant to say was “Oh, yes, thanks for going to the store, we’ll try it next time!” But instead, I said, “I don’t like that one, so why would I ever use it?”
I know even as the words come out of my mouth that there’s something wrong with them, and he sighs patiently, waiting for me to catch up. And some days, I do. Over the weekend, I was hitting an energy wall, and he took the kids for a walk. Later in the day, like a freshman stuttering through my first conjugations, I said, “When you … noticed I was having a hard time and took the kids out so that I could have a couple of hours to myself … it meant a lot to me, and I feel so much better now. Thank you.”
It’s the kind of thing he says all the time, and the kind of thing I want to say more often. But practice makes perfect, and right now I have a seemingly endless number of days to keep trying.
As for the shower door? Still cloudy. But I hear a baking soda paste can do wonders, and I intend to forge ahead, on both fronts. Clearly, putting all of my warm feelings for my husband into the words he deserves won’t make the virus evaporate. But on some days, attempts at self-improvement feel like a way out of this Kafkaesque time loop. And I hope my efforts mean that our family unit can come out of this stronger, better, kinder — and maybe even cleaner.