Communication Is More Than Maintenance Talk


Communication (Photo credit: P Shanks)

Talking to my husband has always been easy. As his side of the story goes, he “fell” for me on a high school chorus trip to New York City. On the bus ride home to Florida, we sat together and talked almost all night. It had never been so natural for him to talk to a girl before. I certainly didn’t think at the time that I was making waves, but I guess my conversational charms won him over. I have my parents to thank, who work together and communicate very well, and who also have always treated me like I deserve respect for what I say. Even when I was a child, they conversed with me like I was a human being, not a sweet little darling who says cute stuff. That means that they’ve listened to a lot of dreams and ideas that they knew were naive or unrealistic. It also means they’ve had to set me straight a time or two. Although I didn’t particularly appreciate my dad telling me, when I was an adolescent, that pursuing a career in acting was not the way to go, I’m glad for the candor and that we shared the kind of trust that allowed me to lay out my dreams.

I look at my own kids and hope that the lines will be open for us as well. Communication truly starts in the womb, which is why I listened to music that I wanted my babies to hear and talked to my pregnant belly. When I was expecting baby number two, I encouraged Peter to talk to him. He would put his mouth up to my belly and say, “I love you, Baby Ian. I can’t wait to see you. I’m your big brother.” I think that has a lot to do with why Peter is Ian’s absolute favorite person in the world. It’s also sweet to me that Peter often says he can’t wait until Ian can talk (more than the baby talk he is capable of now).

Some people’s idea of “quality time” with their kids is to hover and be overprotective. Others feel guilty for not being able to spend as much time as they would like and create events that are supposed to equal that imagined quality. But do whirlwind trips to amusement parks, occasional weeknight baseball games, or other activities that wear us out and wear us thin make up for the everyday interactions that should be natural and lead to life-long trust and closeness? I’m not saying that doing those things is bad, but they don’t make up for lack of communication. A good friend once observed that every time she saw a marriage deteriorate to the point that maintenance talk was the only communication between husband and wife, divorce was usually around the corner. It happens to parents and children, too, who find they have no reason to talk after the nest is empty.

But maintenance talk is necessary, isn’t it? Thomas and I keep very busy schedules and are often like ships passing in the night. “What time is your meeting?” “Will you be able to watch the kids?” “I need more creamer when you go to the store.” “We need to run by Target to pick up school supplies.” When the necessary becomes the only conversation in a household, however, relationships become fragmented. My favorite parenting book, On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the GIFT of Nighttime Sleep, recommends that parents have “couch time.” (Read more about my Babywise experience here.) If there is no other time in their busy day when parents can talk, at least they’ll have fifteen precious minutes to catch upon more than the grocery list. And the key is to have couch time around the kids, so they can see that their parents are important to each other.

I remember my college days, when I thought my life couldn’t get any busier (ha). I always took five courses at a time, and I attended summer semesters, too. I worked twenty to thirty hours a week, sang in the church choir, sang with a community chorus, helped found and edited the journal Fiction Fix, attended numerous workshops and events for that same journal, and drove almost thirty minutes one-way to Thomas’s house four or five times a week. It was all a part of my plan to get my degree as quickly as possible while continuing to stay active in all the activities that were important in my life. I could have made things much easier on myself if I hadn’t gone to school over the summer, if I’d taken four classes instead of five. What was the big hurry to graduate, anyway? Well, Thomas and I were getting married, and we knew that one of us had to be out of college and working to support the other. Since I started a year before him, the pressure was on me: the sooner I finished, the sooner we could move on to the next stage of our life together. We planned a summer wedding, so he could continue to go to school without interrupting his spring or fall semesters.

Except that things didn’t turn out that way. Although I adored a few professors and enjoy some of my classes, I had no great love of college; it was an obstacle, something I had to conquer. But Thomas absolutely loathed it. College was something he could barely stomach, especially when a professor showed up and told his class to dress professionally – all while she was wearing sweats. I don’t know if that was the last straw, but it was certainly bad timing on that professor’s part. It was during that first week in the fall of 2003 that he met me after an evening class, and he just had that look. I took a deep breath, knowing what was coming. He had spent all evening thinking about what he was going to do and how in the world he was going to break it to me and his parents. I knew he was miserable in his classes, and I also knew that it in no way helped that it was my last semester, and he still had two years to go. I listened and tried to be sympathetic, encouraging. And then we moved on because talking through problems is what we do. And although we were creating a future together, he had to be at peace with his half of the deal. Fortunately, his chosen career wasn’t dependent on a four-year degree, and he did eventually (very eventually) graduate.

But there are couples out there who are sorely disappointed – even surprised – when they find out their relationships can’t survive on date nights and diamond rings alone. There are parents who think they can keep their kids busy with sports and camps and buy them cars, and those same kids will, in return, go to the colleges and pick the careers their parents prefer. And it’s not just parents and children. Everywhere you find relationships, you find people who expect things from others that are unrealistic, unfair even; you’ll find little respect for each other’s time and thoughts; you’ll find misunderstandings that could have been easily fixed. You’ll find broken communication. But when you see people really talking to each other – and listening – you witness a truly beautiful thing.

Sometimes our family has to drive somewhere in separate vehicles, and on those occasions, when Thomas can drive home and have Peter with him, I know he cherishes those rides. With the radio off and phones put away, they just talk. Peter asks questions, and Thomas answers. And Peter tells what he thinks about the world, and those are priceless (and often hilarious) moments. Thomas always seems to glow afterward, as if our five-year-old has just recharged him.

I watch parents who seem to care more about their phones or cars or any number of other distractions than their kids. Perhaps a big reason that young people have an increasing disrespect for their elders has a lot to do with the way we treat them, and often, I am convicted. I have to remember that I was once their age, too, yearning for answers, for information, for attention. And when I spend the time with my kids that they desire and deserve, I not only have hope for surviving the distant teenage years, but turning two men out into the world who will make it a better place.

I hope, if I have the chance to look back over my parenting experience some day in the distant future, I will see much improvement on my part and be proud of myself for hanging in there. And I hope that my kids will still want to talk to me then, to ask questions, to share their joys and concerns. But it won’t happen on its own; I have to work on it today – and always – to create that kind of a future.

2 thoughts on “Communication Is More Than Maintenance Talk

  1. Anne Miller says:

    I totally agree! Conversation is a lost art!

  2. […] blogged last week about communication and when it breaks down between people (read it here). The same can happen between writers and their stories. It’s really obvious sometimes when a […]

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