A pergola – and a little creative scheduling – saved our marriage and led us to a deeply fulfilling future together.
By Jason Heil
We were living the dream. Kim and I had recently celebrated the birth of our second child. We were living in our first house and able to make the mortgage every month. Kim’s job was giving her more and more responsibility. I was a working actor with several gigs lined up in a row. Our kids were healthy, happy and cute! Life was good!
Except for the fact our marriage was running out of gas.
Hang on, let me start at the beginning.
My wife and I were adults when we met in Los Angeles, but one of our shared beliefs is that we grew up together. During our early years, we each were recently each out of school and finding our feet in “the real world.” As with many ’90s twenty-somethings, we were fortunate enough to have prolonged our adolescence into adulthood. We had supportive families who took the hard edges off of financial reality. For a while. Having careers in the arts also added a layer of instability and a plethora of rationalizations for taking our time diving into the world of grownups. Yet somehow, side-by-side, we gradually made the transition to adulthood. As we started truly buckling down in the worlds of budgets and bills, we did it together and learned more and more how to be there for each other. We may have met as adults, but where it counted, we came of age together.
Time went by, like it always does. We were married during our “New York years” while my wife attended grad school and I bopped around the country as a regional theatre actor. We knew we wanted a family, but seeing yet another young mother navigating the subway steps with a stroller confirmed for us that the Big Apple was not where we wanted to have small children. We decided to head back West.
We opted for San Diego, which gave us the Southern California flavor that we loved without the traffic of Los Angeles. Kim had family here, which was a factor, as we knew having help with the kid(s) would be invaluable. Kim found a great job with one of the top regional theaters in the nation and I was thrilled with the local theatre scene.
Child Number One came along as work was thriving. Kim loved her job, and I was finding regular acting work that was steadier than the gaps between. We bought a house. I did a brief out-of-town show, and we decided we were ready for a second addition to the family.
Child Number Two came along as our careers were exploding. Kim was promoted and I was now pretty much employed year-round as an actor, with back-to-back-to-back shows being the norm. Artistically, I was also enjoying one of my favorite stretches of my career, working at some of San Diego’s premiere theaters such as La Jolla Playhouse and The Old Globe. This period included disparate works like the Lucy Simon musical Zhivago, Three Days of Rain, Noises Off, Plaid Tidings, The Glass Menagerie & Angels in America. Kim had moved beyond writing copy for the programs at her theatre and working closely with the Artistic Director(s), and was now working in the Education Department.
Parenting was tiring, but fulfilling. We made a good tag team. We found various solutions to normal hurdles. With me being gone at night, Kim handled bedtime. I would handle mornings, often with “wake-up” stories. The kids received good quality time from each parent, it just wasn’t at the same time, most of the time.
But our marriage was struggling.
There was nothing specifically wrong with the actual interactions in the day-to-day manifestation of it. We still loved being around each other. We still wanted to hear the other person’s thoughts and ups and downs. We were good at co-parenting and felt that we had each other’s backs.
But we were succumbing to many of the challenges of the world. The analogy we found later was that we just weren’t putting gas in the tank. The car was still running, but it was starting to run on fumes. Only in retrospect did we see how close we had come to stalling on the side of the road.
Specifically, we were ships passing in the night. By the time I came home at night, she was often asleep. Mornings were one of the few moments where we might see each other awake, but it was certainly not romantic. Kim would be prepping for work, we would be changing diapers and making breakfasts, and I am not a morning person.
Over time, this cycle just deepened. If Kim wasn’t going to be awake at night, then I might as well go out with the cast after the show, right? Even if I would be up early with the kids in the morning, I knew that I could just nap after getting them off to daycare. Days would go by where we rarely had an interaction that wasn’t a kid hand-off.
One component of our marriage had always been the fun. We had always just liked each other and looked forward to seeing each other. Shared smiles were part of our world. Those were pretty much gone at this point. Most of the joy in our worlds came from the kids and our work, but not each other. Our time together was filled with fatigue.
We each were aware of it and just felt helpless. Our schedule was what it was. Our jobs were our jobs. The kids weren’t going anywhere. There didn’t really seem to be a solution, unless one of us wanted to stop doing jobs that we loved.
Until one day, almost out of nowhere, Kim said the magic words:
“What if I stay up?”
She proposed that she would try to be awake when I got home. We would try to grab some time to connect then.
As simple as this sounded, there were a couple of challenges that were inherent to this.
First of all, she was already tired. Staying up an extra hour (or two or three) wasn’t a small gesture. Secondly, and potentially more treacherous, our house was tiny. We lived in a small Craftsman house. It was pretty hard to be quiet at night, especially with children who slept very lightly. This was not going to be a simple change.
For the former issue, I will just say my wife is a superstar. When she sets a task for herself, she finds a way. She utilized power naps, adjusted her sleeping schedule and just made it work. Super. Star.
For the latter, we took advantage of our Southern California climate. We had a lovely pergola a short distance from the house. It even had a standing chimney, which we could fire up if it was too chilly (some nights can get down in the 50s!!!). Blankets and sweaters could also be employed.
At first, it was awkward. We were out of practice and out of synch. We had some festering resentments that needed to be explored. Mostly, we just needed to find our way back to each other.
Which we did.
Very quickly, we found ourselves yammering away. We shared the ups and downs of our days and funny or aggravating stories about the kids. We started to check in with each other and found new ways that we could support each other. Somewhere in there, we started to laugh again.
Frighteningly, I think we also realized how close we had come to letting our marriage slip away. Either it would have ended or perhaps worse, just coasted into something pretty on the surface, but empty and lifeless in the core. In retrospect, it’s still pretty scary to think about it.
Kim found that while she had to adjust some sleep scheduling around, the invigoration of the talks was worth it. I found that given the choice, I would choose hanging with Kim over going out with the cast pretty much ten out of ten chances. As crazy as it sounds, it felt like a date night. But it was one we got to have every single night. How incredibly awesome is that?
It’s nearly fifteen years later now. We’ve moved to a different house, but we still have our date nights. They have become an inextricable part of our days. They have changed my life. Now, no matter what kind of day I am having, I know it will end with my Kim time. On a good day, that’s just the cherry on the top. On a bad day, it’s the thing that keeps me going.
In a lot of ways, these dates feel like the magic bonding agent that put a seal on our marriage. I mentioned earlier how we had grown up together, but I feel like our late-night dates are a different kind of growth. Somehow, we forged a path where we recognized that our world is most complete, and in many ways, only complete, when we are able to share it with each other. We moved several years back and no longer have the pergola, but now we have a gazebo. And a hot tub. Every night, you will find us hanging out in one of them. Decompressing. Talking. Laughing. Trying to keep the tank full.
Jason Heil is a Professor at California State University San Marcos where he teaches theater, and has worked in the entertainment industry as a director, producer, actor, and writer at some of the most prestigious theaters in the U.S. He received his bachelors and masters degrees from the University of California at Irvine, and lives in San Diego with his wife Kim, their two children, and their dog, Sadie.