In a group of moms I admitted ignorance, "Oh, I don't know. My husband's in charge of all kids' emails this year," in reference to a school field trip question.
"WAIT. HOW. DID YOU DO. THAT?"
Four gaping-mouthed women stared back at me in the midst of the Kindergarten Moms' Night Out.
"I just did."
In my practice working with couples I hear all day every day stories that support the recent research findings: the degree to which household tasks are shared is now one of the two most important predictors of a woman's marital satisfaction.
I've realized since standing in that group of women I probably really minimized the monumental task that has been the distributing of labor equally in our family system.
To be completely honest, it took us years after having children to get to a place where division of tasks felt equitable.
For me, it felt like we were on completely even playing field until we were engaged. During wedding planning I was beyond frustrated I was doing the bulk of the work and couldn't seem to get my now husband to see picking out tablecloths and working on seat assignments as a priority.
During that time I attended one of my graduate school classes. The professor handed out decks of note cards with varying roles written on each. In groups, we were instructed to flip a card over, read it, and then say out loud which gender we most associated with that role.
Until this moment I really hadn't considered being too impacted by gender roles. I grew up playing sports, despised Barbie, my Mom and Grandmother worked, and I spent many summer evenings hanging at the softball fields while my mom played on leagues with her friends. I thought it was a pretty "girls can do anything boys can do better" world.
Card 1: Is president
Card 2: Takes out the trash
Card 3: Plans kids' birthday parties
(it went on and on and on like this...)
When that "Plans kids' birthday parties" card flipped over I realized that the wedding planning scenario wouldn't end when the wedding was over...and that I was buying into some "socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women" - i.e., gender roles.
Wedding planning has never been, and will never be, my thing. Same goes for my husband.
But who would be judged more for a crappy wedding? The bride or the groom?
To avoid this perceived future judgment, I really unconsciously made the decision to plan every aspect of our wedding. I designed our invitations, programs, made decisions on no less than 100 details, spent at least 40 hours of my life creating a video montage of pictures of ourselves as kids, and spent the rest of my time wanting to scratch my fiance's eyes out for not saving me from wedding planning hell. I felt all the pressure.
What's that saying? "The shit rolls down hill"?
Yep, I think that's it. I bought into the pressure coming from an entire culture and he got all the overflow. I'm pretty sure this is when the expert-level nagging began.
I felt like I was drowning in school, work, and wedding planning and he was up on the boat watching me sink. His lack of motivation and interest was really hard not to take incredibly personally.
And sometimes I would hear things like "I'm doing the best I CAN!" paired with what seemed like minimal effort. I almost divorced him right before walking down the aisle when I realized the ONE task he was charged with (getting the video montage to the people who'd volunteered to set it up) didn't happen.
I felt like I didn't matter. It made me question everything. Did he even love me?
Some bridesmaids talked me off the ledge of bolting from the ceremony in the bathroom.
Over the years, I've realized he's not on the boat. It's more like I'm drowning off the coast of California and he's a strange breed of person who's never left land-locked Missouri and doesn't believe in oceans and I'm calling him for help on the phone. From his gender-based perspective, and with much of my to-do list being invisible, it looks to him like I'm afflicting much of this suffering on myself or am just making it up.
I've had to become hyper-aware of the 2 totally different set of cultural norms we have internalized. While counseling couples over the years I've convinced many wives that *perhaps* her husband isn't intentionally trying to drown her...and that swimming to shore is absolutely an option.
Fast-forward in our personal story to becoming parents; any semblance of my former life is gone, and I am now a baby feeding, bouncing, and slinging machine. I have body parts that facilitate me taking more of a driver's-seat kind of role in baby care which, by default, sets Dad in the passenger seat in parenting department, but in the driver's seat in the providing department.
Who would you judge more if a couple lost their house?
When my daughter was a year old I was working and earning less, and felt like I had to make up for that with more childcare (a self-imposed belief). I was seeing clients 3 days per week and teaching 2 nights per week (essentially full-time work), but squeezed as much out of my flexible schedule as possible and only used childcare 3 days per week.
I assumed the bulk of the mental load as well: the planning and coordinating of tasks (what the baby eats, research on when the baby eats what, figuring out how often the baby should bathe, creating the bathing schedule, scheduling doctors appointments, etc.): the invisible work.
DO NOT GET ME WRONG, my husband is an amazing and involved dad. He changed LOTS of diapers. At this time in our lives, however, I believe we had both unconsciously slidden into roles we didn't necessarily want. It was so insidious.
Before we had kids we had really clear conversations about how we wanted to be as parents. One of his biggest fears was that I would take over, and he wouldn't have a say in or be able to be as involved as he wanted to be. One of my biggest fears as a Ph.D. student with big aspirations was that the bulk of the child-rearing would fall on me.
Nevertheless, I found myself uttering the same 2 questions I've heard uttered by moms in my practice no less than 784,000 times, "WHY DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU WHAT TO DO?? WHY CAN'T YOU JUST KNOW!!!????"
He was a champ at taking orders, but would often defer to me on what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.
Managing him felt like one more thing I had to frappin' do on my already over-full plate.
The resentment was palpable.
He felt like he couldn't win: like he couldn't do it right, and he couldn't do enough.
I didn't want to feel like the only driver of this ship, and had no idea how we'd gotten here or how to get somewhere else. I didn't know how to be any more clear about what I needed from him.
While in session with a client dealing with an alcoholic relative, I had an epiphany about my own relationship. I think a lot of people are clear about the role of enabling when it comes to being in relationship with someone struggling with addiction. The psychological Family Systems Theory term associated with this is underfunctioning/overfunctioning reciprocity.
In systems where overfunctioning and underfunctioning exist, the power to create change lies with the overfunctioner. Overfunctioners inadvertently play a part in the problem by enabling or allowing the other person to underfunction.
Shit. I had been overfunctioning. And I know that an overfunctioner nagging, yelling, stewing, and blowing at an underfunctioner in a system rarely, if ever, creates change.
The communication didn't need to be clearer, the paradigm had to shift.
As women we’re taught we shouldn’t take up too much space, that we shouldn’t be a burden, that we shouldn’t speak up for ourselves, that motherhood should come with far more expectations (many unrealistic) than fatherhood, and that we should be doing it all...and liking it.
We should feel guilt for staying at home, for working, for not working enough, for working too much, for helicopter parenting, for giving the kids too much freedom, for raising entitled brats, for giving them too much responsibility, for feeding them gluten, for not serving up enough whole grains, for not giving them enough dairy, for letting them consume cow's milk at all, and for never measuring up to the mom with 2 more kids than you who always seems to have her shit together despite her husband traveling for work 2 weeks per month...and she rarely utters a complaint.
The degree to which we buy into and internalize these shoulds is the degree to which we are part of the problem.
In order to have happier and healthier relationships I had to start giving everything I wanted from others to myself first. I want him to honor and respect me? Then I have to honor and respect me first. What does that even look like?
I had to stop putting other’s needs before my own, I had to stop kicking my own ass, I had to get clear about my enoughness, I had to stop being afraid of conflict, I had to quit being so goddamn accommodating, and I had to learn to draw firm boundaries and to say “NO” more.
According to Brené Brown the most boundaried people are the most compassionate. We cannot give to others, what we don’t first give to ourselves.
Deep down, under my anger and resentment were a lot of hurt feelings. I thought his underfunctioning meant I wasn't important, that he didn't care, and...maybe...he didn't love me. How else could you sit on a boat and watch your wife drown?
I had to stop taking personally these roles that we had unconsciously slidden into, get really conscious about where they came from so that I could emotionally detach, and start focusing on solutions and MY PART in the problem.
Neither of us had great examples of how to create an equal partnership, but we both knew we wanted one.
And it turns out my husband isn’t an emotionally unintelligent nincompoop who's incompetent and incapable ONLY in terms of household and family-related tasks. The problem was that I consistently got in the way of letting him rise to the occasion.
This realization came when I was pregnant with our second child. Perfect timing. Instead of compiling evidence for my case of "I DO MORE AND THEREFORE YOU SUCK" I got really clear about a task that could be all his. I looked at him one day and said, "You are now in charge of all nails."
He said, "What?"
I clarified, "All kids' finger and toenails. I need them to be all yours."
He said, "I...I...I can't. I'll cut the baby."
"Yes, I had that fear too. And I even cut her...maybe more than once. But you'll figure it out."
Did he slide into nail cutting duty doing things all my way and operating within the timelines I would have operated in? NO.
When he dropped the ball did I pick it up so that he didn't have to feel the natural consequence? Nope.
Did this mean that the baby scratched his own face off? Yes.
I might say something like, "Ooooohhhh. 😬 It looks like the baby has a scratch. Huh." But I refused to take the task over. I refused to remain in the monitoring role that played a part in him not feeling ownership.
I know this seems so small and ridiculous...nail clipping. But my husband is now the nail nazi in our house. In charge of 30 nails (40 if you include his own)! I don't even SEE the nails anymore. They aren't MINE.
It turns out the research shows that couples who share a clear understanding of which duties are whose are less likely to participate in monitoring and criticizing the other's behavior. These couples were also more likely to spontaneously help with the other's responsibilities when the partner was away, sick, or otherwise unable to carry out a task.
This sets up the system for the ABSENCE of communication (negative especially) regarding duties and is correlated with a healthy and efficient partnership that's high in mutual respect.
There are so many tips and tricks I have to doing this well, I could probably write an entire book on the subject - instead I'm creating an online course (deets below). Here are 3 great ones:
1. Say what you want/need instead of what you don't want/need. Resist criticism, it pinches you off from the resources you're trying to tap into.
2. Assume competence. When dealing with your partner assume competence. If you treat someone like a nincompoop, they'll act like one.
3. KNOW that negotiating equitable roles is an ongoing process and not a one time talk. Choose discomfort over resentment over and over again. Don't give up.
And I'm THIIIIISSSS close to launching the online, yet-to-be-named course on this VERY subject so you can feel more like partners and less like frenemies! If you want to be first in line to receive all the details and early bird pricing just be sure you've signed up for my FREE Training for Busy Couples and you'll receive an email notification as soon as the yet-to-be-named course is available.
You deserve happy relationships,