Share housework, childcare and the mental load with your partner!
Me: Visibly surprised to see my son on screen after calling to FaceTime with my husband. “Hi honey. You’re still up? Where’s your sister?”
Son: Moves the camera over an inch. “She’s right here.” My daughter, who doesn’t look up, is eating popcorn while staring intently at her iPad.
Me: “I actually called to talk to Daddy, can you put him on please?”
Me: Hi. “Sooooo…. do you know what time it is?”
Husband: “It’s late, yes, I’m sorry.”
I ended the call frustrated. When traveling for work, I still micromanage from afar. Whether it’s homework, or bedtime, the routines fall apart if I’m away. I fret and we fight. I called earlier and spoke with the kids. This call, the after-bedtime-call, was to catch up with my husband.
My seat neighbor on the train looked at me, before he said, “If it makes you feel any better, we have that exact conversation in my family.” I smiled. Yes I felt better.
We started talking and didn’t stop for over an hour. We asked each other how to navigate sharing housework and childcare. I wanted to understand why, after 14 married-years, collaboration with my husband is hard. My train-neighbor, in a marriage with similar challenges, provided the ‘Dad-lens’ on the emotional landmines. We even talked sex and mental load stress. It was the kind of open conversation about the state of coupled parenting that I could never have had with my own husband.
We pick partners we find attractive. After marriage and kids, we’re not just lovers, we’re Co-CEO’s. In most male/female couples, the mental load, household-and-childcare duties, default to Mom. Navigating how to share responsibilities gets tricky.
It’s Really Family Inc.
We believe romance lasts a lifetime. Yet running a household is a lot like running a business and not so romantic. It’s strategy, operations, purchasing and accounting. Everything at home, from dishes to doorknobs, requires cleaning and maintenance. The logistics of getting to and from work, school and play, requires precision. Buying groceries, clothing and supplies is another part-time job. Doing this work with a partner requires different compatibility. Yes, Moms are multi-tasking-magicians, but if partnered, sharing the workload becomes essential to having any space for self-care and growth.
Gendered Roles Still Rule How Moms & Dads Work Together
Every couple faces unique challenges. However, outdated gender roles persist in most male/female couples even when Mom is the primary breadwinner. Recently, the Washington Post shared an added twist, “…when there’s a man in the house, mothers spend more time cooking, cleaning, shopping and doing laundry than their single-mom counterparts.” Seriously.
Negotiating an equitable split of responsibilities is contentious. However, after talking openly about the worries and misunderstandings, I was enlightened about how my husband may be feeling. To make progress with our partners, towards more peaceful and equitable home-life, we have to break through misconceptions that remain on both sides.
Surprising Misconceptions Dads Have About Moms
They worry we don’t find them interesting anymore
Todd, my train-neighbor said about his wife, “…She used to find me interesting and I’ve lost that.” A weighty statement. I sighed, realizing my husband likely feels the same way. I explained, “It’s not personal. We begin to feel we can’t indulge in any of our interests, passions or even self-care until ‘everything else is done.’ The catch, childcare and housework are never done.” I went on to describe how draining this is for Moms, and how it damages our wellbeing. I said, “…we love time with our kids but being the only one to pull popcorn from between the couch cushions just sucks.” He paused and then nodded with understanding. I told him how pride in being responsible becomes ‘delayed gratification’ as a lifestyle.
They believe they’re alone in missing the sex
Todd said, when advising other Dads about married life, he would be blunt, “…Men need to recognize after kids the sex is much less and that it’s just the reality.” I nodded and told him that’s sad for everybody. The change from partner-as-plaything to the other half of the grownup workforce at home is a harsh and sudden shift. One that many couples don’t recover from.
I’ve also reflected on my own misconceptions. Moms are just as prone to misunderstanding our partner’s emotional needs and can inadvertently dismiss them.
Surprising Misconceptions Moms Have About Dads
Our partners know we appreciate them
Todd said, “Men are simple, we want to be told we’re doing a good job.” He shared that when his wife tells him she appreciates what he’s doing for their family how meaningful it is to him. He suggested a compliment tied to personality, or parenting, not tied to housework, such as, “You’re a great Dad.” Or, “I really appreciate it when you…. (fill in the blank appropriately.)” Over time, I forget to recognize what’s right and focus on what needs to be fixed.
Our partners are oblivious to the chaos when kids are off their schedules
When I discovered my kids were awake, after calling home, I explained to Todd, “My son won’t wake up for school tomorrow! He’ll be cranky and disengaged for most of the morning.” Todd admitted it’s disruptive when his kids don’t go to sleep or eat meals on time. “I also understand that my wife pays the price the next day if I forget to do something.” Okay, we clearly share the same goals and he gets it. Would a simple check list solve the problem? I had to ask.
That checklists are ‘the answer’ to reduce friction
“Can a set of check lists work? What about a written schedule?” I asked hopefully. Todd shook his head and mentioned that his wife also suggested it. He admitted, “I’d ignore it.” They don’t want that. Adults don’t like to be told what to do. However, Todd realizes he can get distracted from the details of household routines. I told him honestly without judgement, “Do you realize that means your wife has to keep all of those details in her head?” I started to explain the constant strain of having to notice, track and plan everything (aka the mental load for Moms.)
We think they understand mental load stress, but they don’t!
As our kids grow we change things. We buy new furniture and remove training wheels, yet we rarely upgrade systems at home. Our partners resist and we resent when the adjustments don’t happen. Todd said, “I heard that husbands who do laundry are sexier.” I nodded, because let’s face it, men doing housework is sexy. He said it hasn’t seemed to make a difference. I asked, “Do you do all of the laundry?” He nodded and said, “I fold.” I smiled and said, “No, I mean, all of it.” He raised an eyebrow. I continued, “Do you put all of the clothes away?” He didn’t put the clothes away. I added, “Do you buy the detergent and notice when it’s low? Do you do laundry without any prompting from your wife?” I explained that ‘partially’ completing the laundry is not as helpful. “If your wife has to keep it on her mental to-do list, she’s holding onto the stress,” I said. His expression changed. I suggested, “Do 100% of the laundry and see what happens.”
Clever Moves to Share the Mental Load
To illustrate mental load stress I asked, “When you take on a project at work, do your colleagues have to remind you to do it? Do they have to check in to explain it further or make sure you’ve completed each step?” He shook his head, no of course not. I smiled, “Exactly.” His eyes lit up as he told me about a friend of his, “He does ‘everything food.’ All of it. He buys the groceries, cooks, does the dishes and cleans up afterwards.” Love it! He added, “His wife really likes him.” YES! I explained why, “It’s because his role is clear and she doesn’t have to get involved in food in any way.” I shared Kendra Ferguson’s brilliant strategy of ‘splitting the days’ with her husband. An early riser, she realized she was exhausted by night time. Her husband, a night owl, now handles all of the evening childcare and household routines while she takes mornings. Todd liked that idea.
The Holy Grail. Mutual Understanding!
I started to view the conversation with my husband, earlier that night, differently. Listening to Todd helped me see the Dad-view. He demonstrated throughout our conversation, how much he cares about being a good husband and father, and how he’s motivated to support his wife in the home.
As Todd got up to leave the train, we introduced ourselves, and he said, “This (conversation) was great! People just don’t talk about this stuff.” Agreed! I left the train feeling lighter, encouraged and excited about applying what I learned to strengthen communication at home.
Thank you Todd for the wonderful conversation!