Love in the Time of COVID-19: Quarantine Made Me Resent My Husband—and Myself

Natasha Huang Smith
Photo credit: Design by Ingrid Frahm, - HBO
Photo credit: Design by Ingrid Frahm, - HBO

From Harper's BAZAAR

Photo credit: Design by Ingrid Frahm, - HBO
Photo credit: Design by Ingrid Frahm, - HBO

If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be spending the spring of 2020 quarantined in an 850-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment with my husband and our one-year-old son while a deadly virus taunted the world, I’d have thought you were out of your mind.

And yet, much to my continued surprise, here I am.

When I married my husband almost five years ago, I wasn’t signing up to spend every waking minute in his world. Our first year of marriage was ridden with communication misfires and unmet expectations; we lived in a hot spot of emotional labor disputes that led to us separating within our first year of being husband and wife. Thanks to marriage counseling, we were able to work through a tremendous amount; it set our marriage on a positive trajectory, ultimately strengthening us as a couple.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Natasha Huang Smith - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Courtesy of Natasha Huang Smith - Hearst Owned

Part of that work was not only understanding, but accepting each other for our differences. Within the context of Sex and the City, my husband, JP, is Aidan Shaw, happy to sit at home and watch TV with a bucket of chicken, whereas I am more of a Carrie Bradshaw, always headed to meet the girls at Bungalow 8, for a walk to window-shop, or for lunch at a restaurant we've all been dying to try. I thrive on being out, while JP loves tinkering at home. We’re as different as different can be, which we’ve come to learn only makes the time we do make for one another that much more special.

To tell you the truth, we actually didn’t spend that much time together pre-pandemic—and it worked for us. We loved it that way.

This past year we had a son, which added an (unexpected, yet) exciting new dimension to our family life. Jackson has taught me more about love in his one year than I ever imagined I’d know in my life, but he didn’t come with a manual. JP and I leaned on each other as new parents, and we made up for each other’s weaknesses as we brought a newborn back to our New York City apartment, with our families living in California and Florida. We felt like new parents in an old world, skipping the live-in baby nurse—not that we’d have had room for one—and opting to learn the lessons of parenthood as they came.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Natasha Huang Smith - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Courtesy of Natasha Huang Smith - Hearst Owned

But now, as the world remains on pause indefinitely, all notions of normalcy in my life have vanished: The three of us are confined to an itty-bitty space (calling all fellow Manhattanites) with little to no reprieve—and the toll it’s taking on our relationship is undeniable. Gone are the days of leaving home for work and having the ability to balance family duties and personal needs. Now, our days are riddled with in-your-face conflicts, emboldened bad habits, the challenge of dividing new responsibilities, and a lack of personal space. With no ability to escape home life and daily evolving baby issues, we’ve both had less time to mentally decompress. It’s become ever more apparent that escapism was the vital lifeline of our marriage.

When shelter-in-place orders were initially announced, JP and I were incredibly grateful to be able to work from home. I’m self-employed and usually work from our apartment and take care of Jackson, while JP typically works from a corporate office with a fairly flexible schedule. As a result of that flexibility, we’ve never hired outside help. Instead, we worked out a good system to manage our conflicting workflows and baby scheduling, using the communication tools we acquired through marriage counseling. It hasn’t been easy by any means, but JP and I were proud of the place we were in.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Natasha Huang Smith - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Courtesy of Natasha Huang Smith - Hearst Owned

At first, I thought quarantine would give JP a chance to witness how I manage to get the house cleaned, the laundry done, work projects completed, and dinner ready (or, let’s be honest, at least ordered via Seamless), all while managing to keep our one-year-old from ripping down every light fixture in the apartment. Instead, he seems oblivious, focusing his attention on playing Call of Duty, making frequent trips to the kitchen for coffee and snacks, listening to Joe Rogan’s latest podcast, and taking the occasional work call.

It appears that even with us both at home 24/7, I am still expected to handle all the same domestic tasks I took care of before, despite JP being home to help. Before quarantine, I’d have headed out for a cup of coffee or a massage to decompress; now, all the things that served as my outlets before are no longer accessible. JP plays video games to relieve his stress, but it seems I have no time to even think about managing mine. All of a sudden, I’ve been forced to adapt to a completely new version of family life, and it’s brought out old frustrations, anxieties, and anger that I wasn’t initially prepared to handle. I’m faced with the notion that we’ve set ourselves back in time, or that perhaps the work that we’ve done was more of a Band-Aid, and less of a cure.

I feel like I’m doing more work than ever before. Dishes are piled higher, there is more mess, and the laundry feels insurmountable. In an attempt to get some mental clarity, I challenge myself to quick virtual Physique 57 workouts. Almost immediately, I feel the tug of a baby hand on my toes, only to get increasingly irritated when I glare over at my oblivious husband and see him happily piecing together a Game of Thrones 4D puzzle, AirPods in his ears. I expect him to sense my irritated wife cue, come to my rescue, and sweep the baby away—no such luck.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Natasha Huang Smith - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Courtesy of Natasha Huang Smith - Hearst Owned

It’s even more challenging because the baby always wants Mom and only Mom, even when Dad is clearly unoccupied. In the vein of my inner Carrie Bradshaw, I can’t help but wonder: Does he want Mom and only Mom because Dad is never first to the task? Or because I consistently rise to the task, rarely voicing expectations, discontent, or a need for help?

I don’t want JP to do the dishes; I want JP to want to do the dishes. I don’t want him to occupy Jackson so I can finish working on this article, I want him to intuitively know it’s part of our partnership to work that into his schedule. Let’s call it like it is: I want my husband to read my mind.

And I don’t understand why he doesn’t read the signals: that perhaps a messy kitchen means it’s time to clean up or that a cranky baby might need a little more than to be put down for nap time. Apparently, he’s not really a “take initiative” kind of guy, and I am really not a “tell you exactly what to do” kind of gal. If there’s one thing I’ve realized in quarantine, it’s the roles, work, and responsibilities I pile upon myself by never asking for help.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Natasha Huang Smith - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Courtesy of Natasha Huang Smith - Hearst Owned

In not voicing my wants and needs, I’ve participated in a pattern in which my invisible expectations are never met. It works well for the moments when I feel completely spread thin, since it allows me to resentfully snap, demanding an apology for not providing the help I never asked for. This is my #CovidConfession: I have taken on the roles of superwife and supermom, and I unfairly resent my husband for it.

Prior to the pandemic, while I was handling those roles, I didn’t seem to mind at all—because they made me feel like the heroic supermom I expected myself to be. As a result, nagging felt like my armor; I wasn’t fed up, I was just superhuman, contributing to the family in the way friends, family, Instagram, and my ego expected me to.

And yet, here I am again, with my first year as a parent close to capping off as my first year of marriage did. Old habits die hard, and as the days went on and the pressure and stress of quarantine mounted, all of our prior marriage work evaporated from my mind and our household.

Instead of clearly telling him what I really need, I became increasingly passive aggressive. Finally, when I angrily dictated household tasks I expect him to take on, I secretly took comfort in watching him struggle to balance work calls while burning the baby’s milk, while the dog pees on the carpet. The icing on the cake? Watching him curse, because he tripped on the baby’s blocks for the fifth time trying to wipe up after the dog. Call it sadistic, but I wanted him to feel the struggles that I felt forced to overcome—but as it turns out, it was me forcing myself to suffer silently. After weeks of quietly cursing, I eventually broke down into a mess of emotions and tears. At that moment, I reconciled the type of wife and mother I thought I needed to be with the wife and mother I actually am.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Natasha Huang Smith - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Courtesy of Natasha Huang Smith - Hearst Owned

This quarantine has become one of my life’s greatest challenges, and one of my strongest turning points as a person, wife, and mother. Prior to the pandemic, I wasn’t unhappy—I was just happy enough. Moving forward, I will be honest with myself and voice my needs. I will no longer follow impossibly perfect-looking families on Instagram with mothers and wives who seem to be doing it all, because those standards feel impossible, and the pressure to do the same is a form of mental torture for me. I will stop blaming JP for not knowing my needs and wants when I don’t know to voice them for myself. Instead, we now honor certain invisible boundaries every day, like giving me 15 minutes in the morning to have my cup of coffee without the baby tugging at me or giving him a quiet moment to take a call with a colleague or friend.

Trying to carry the entire domestic burden without asking for help like the superwife I thought I needed to be did nothing but make me feel inadequate and alienate my husband. But I have realized my superpower in social distancing: I hold the key to our marriage surviving the rest of COVID-19 and beyond. The best part is that just like most superheroes, I, too, have a partner in crime—even if I do want to kill him just as often as I do all the villains we take on together.

As for aiming to be superhuman for myself, I think it’s time I dumped my invisible superwoman cape—after all, I’m spending all my time in athleisure anyway. I also won’t feel guilty about it; instead, I’m proud to be the happy wife and mother who cried for help and got it.

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