Sharing the Load

It's all right for you to take the lead. Unless you and your husband truly share all aspects of parenting - an unusual yet potentially wonderful arrangement described by Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D., in her book Parenting Together: Men and Women Sharing the Care of Their Children - it is natural for you to have a leadership role sometimes when it comes to the kids. He is probably entering a flow of activities that you've been managing, and he is just being a good team player when he asks you, the quarterback, what the play is. We suggest that you tell him at the time how he can help. Later on, if you like, you can talk about similar situations in the future and figure out what he could do in them without you having to say anything.

Look for ways to involve him with the children. If he is hanging back, invite him to share in the fun moments, not just the chores. He could think about the interests he'd like to share with his kids, like a love of the outdoors, or the values he wants to help them develop. For instance, perhaps reading certain stories to them would be a way to talk about similar experiences he has had or what he thinks is really important in life.

He might say that he'll get more involved when the kids are older and it feels more "natural." This may well be true, and meanwhile he could do more housework while you do more tending to the baby. On the other hand, your child's life is still going on, and your husband may need to get comfortable with settling a baby to sleep ahead of schedule. There is no good reason why a guy who can do what he does at work all day can't manage a young child.

You may also have to deal with him pulling back from the kids because he's upset with you. Men are more likely than women to let their relationship with their children be affected by their feelings about their spouse. Doing the right thing by his kids is ultimately up to him, but you can help in several ways. Tell him how much the kids need him, no matter what he thinks right now about you. And if you need to, you could play hardball, asking questions like Do you think a man should walk away from a responsibility just because he feels ticked off at a coworker? or When your kids are older, what will they wish you had done?

Work out housework issues. One mother said, He comes home from work and expects the house to look immaculate. I just don't care as much as he does, and even if I did, I would have to follow behind the kids every minute. On the other hand, a father commented. She thinks it's her house, that she has some kind of God-given wisdom about housekeeping because she's a woman. She freaks out if the dishes are not immediately done after dinner. She literally cannot sit still at the table and relax and talk if there's a dirty glass in the sink. A few suggestions: Agree to lower your standards while the kids are little. Keep one room as an orderly sanctuary. In age-appropriate ways, relentlessly prod kids to pick up after themselves.

Tackle high-stress situations together. For instance, analyze the morning madness. It all starts the night before, so perhaps he could promise to quit extending your daughter's bedtime with extra stories even though she loves them. Later that night, you could lay out her clothes while he sets up for breakfast. Maybe wake up fifteen minutes earlier to have a moment for yourself and a chance to get ready for the day. He could get your child into the car while you put on your makeup. And off you go.

In particular, pay special attention to working well together on any issues with your child, such as a challenging temperament. Try to talk about the different meanings that the situation may have for each of you; for instance, a mother often feels that a child's difficulty must somehow be her fault. He could read books on child development or on the particular issue. Make a clear plan together that will effectively address your child's needs; if you can't on your own, get a consultant or tiebreaker.

Balance the total stress load more or less evenly. Take into account the nature of each parent's job, the age and temperament of the children, and any other circumstances that pile on stress. Notice if one parent lets the other one handle the stressful jobs, or if one parent automatically jumps in first. Usually it's the mom who walks through the door and immediately dives in to settling a squabble or doing a load of laundry, while Dad goes off to change his clothes or sort through the mail. Maybe she should take a page out of his book and relax a bit first. And maybe he could agree to take more initiative with the kids and the household.

If he slides into fun jobs with the kids, like reading stories while you fold laundry or figure out the checkbook, that could be a break for you from mommy mode, but it could also mean that you're getting stuck with more than your share of the housework, which is often boring, unpleasant, and even depressing. To deal with this, try divvying up strictly household tasks, including paperwork, coordinating with others (like planning a birthday party), maintenance (who stays home to wait for the plumber?), and yard work. You could make a list of the major tasks in one column: scary! Then add two other columns, one for each of you, and mark who gets which job. Factor in that some jobs take longer or are worse than others (toilets . . .), consider alternating jobs (if it's an odd day, he does the dishes), and create something that's reasonably fair. If there's an impasse, you can flip a coin.

Perhaps you could afford an occasional housekeeper; it's cheaper than a couples counselor - or divorce lawyer. Worst case, you could go on strike and not do a particular job until there's some resolution; this would mean letting go of any compulsion you feel about it, but remember that he doesn't feel compelled, and that household tasks are not life-and-death matters.


From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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