After having my second child, Elizabeth, I found myself needing to re-evaluate the roles my husband and I play in our household. I recognize that, in an attempt to keep the peace around me, I tend to do too much; so before I had baby Elizabeth, I reminded myself of this glitch in an effort to avoid going back into old patterns when things got stressful. When our first baby came on the scene, the once equal-looking partnership between my husband and me started to look like a 1950s television show. It was remarkable how quickly we slipped into traditional gender roles. After some hard work and bickering, things started to look a little more equitable in our household. It wasn’t quite 50/50, but my husband started picking up the slack and understanding that he, too, could do things around the house and with our daughter, even though he belonged to the male race. This was something that probably should have been non-negotiable from the beginning.
On the second go-around, I had 4 months of maternity leave and was breastfeeding, so I naturally took on most of the responsibility with the baby and around the house. It was an unavoidable aspect of our situation. However, once I starting working again, I realized I would once again need to re-negotiate who does what around the house and with the kids—because let’s get serious, he wasn’t going to bring it up if I wasn’t going to. We’d all love for our partners to ask, “How can I help?” “What can I do when I get home?” “What can I contribute around the house?” But the reality is, flying unicorns are more likely to land on your doorstep with a million-dollar check than your husband is to offer to do more.
When I raised this topic with my husband, in the most gentle and therapeutic way possible, I wasn’t met with a very receptive response. As moms and wives, most of us have to bring up the conversation of having our partners become, well, actual partners. However, when we do bring it up, the responses we get aren’t too warm or fuzzy.
While struggling to get my husband to do more after a long day of work, I also encountered an influx of clients who were struggling with the very same issue. I wasn’t alone. Then I came across a book titled How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids by journalist Jancee Dunn, and I knew I had to read it right away. As it turns out, most women struggle with this very same issue. In the book, the author reports that she enjoys a happy home life with her husband and daughter. When I read this, I was eager to find out how she did it! What I learned is that it wasn’t always so peaceful or easy. Dunn shared that her relationship became strained right after the birth of her child. Resentment grew over whose turn it was to empty the diaper pail, who was supposed to make dinner, and who got time to themselves.
The pressures of raising a child escalated the stress in Dunn’s marriage to such an extent that she decided to do something before she ended up in a divorce. To improve her marriage, she went to several therapists and relationship experts and dove into the research. Her book combines social science research about domestic labor and gender roles with interviews and her own experiment in couples counseling. She even sought help from an FBI crisis negotiator. Here are her top five tips for not hating your partner after kids.
1. Let him screw up.
He has to bond with his kids too, and you have to let him make mistakes. That means not hovering and not signaling, overtly or subtly, that you know better. Total immersion is the only way, says Dunn. “Leave the house. Get a coffee, or go away for the weekend. His way is not the wrong way.” (I have recently learned that it doesn’t actually help my sweating husband, when he’s struggling to get the kids out the door, to raise my eyebrows and say “classic mistake—always put your own coat on last.”) If you don’t have both partners fully taking ownership, then you’ll stay stuck in the employer/sullen teenage employee dynamic.
But what, you ask, if your husband doesn’t want to do any domestic labor? What if he’s content to let you be the maker of the grocery lists and the keeper of the pediatrician appointments, summer camps, play dates and special laundry instructions? Then, Dunn, says, you are going to have to learn to …
2. Stay on your own side.
You need to advocate for what you need, or stay on your own side. Now, this advocating can mean losing your temper and screaming that he needs to get off his butt and fold a load of laundry, or no it’s not okay to take a long nap after a long hot shower after taking a long solo run all morning, or you can have a civil conversation and divide up the chores. And keep having that civil conversation, weekly or monthly, as new responsibilities crop up and others fade away.
Dunn suggests dividing housework based on who likes or loathes what chores—her own husband hates the grocery store (“the crowds, the florescent lighting, whereas I like seeing the new products and thinking about what I’m going to cook”) so food shopping has become her responsibility. He’s compulsively punctual, so he’s in charge of all things time-sensitive, like bill-paying and taking his daughter to her classes.
Not staying on your own side means stewing in silent fury as you do the dishes, bathe the kids, pack lunches and fold laundry—while your spouse reads a magazine in bed. It means presenting things as a choice: “Do you want to do baths or dishes?” and then, after that, “Do you want to fold laundry or pack lunches?”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you get to dictate exactly how the chores get done—my husband prefers to pack lunches and do dishes in the morning, so unless I want to do these things myself…they’re waiting until tomorrow.
3. Insist on your half-day.
Dunn says that “weekends should not be a forced march” of childcare and chores. “You need to negotiate weekend time, and ask each other ‘what are we doing this weekend that meets everyone’s needs?’” She calls it the “everyone sort of wins” strategy.
My husband and I long ago agreed that we would each get a half-day off, every weekend, in which we could sleep in and had no childcare or housekeeping responsibilities. Even if we’re all home, one parent is off duty. When my kids inevitably ask me if they can have a snack/watch TV/set fire to something, I say “Daddy’s in charge till lunchtime,” and they take their requests to him. (Answers: yes, yes, and depends on what it is.) I read in bed or go for a run or meet a friend for coffee, with no comment from him. He watches the Braves lose five games in a row, with only a few comments from me (“This is how you relax?”). It’s blissful.
4. Have sex during Tae Kwon Do.
Who has energy for sex when you’re caught in a mudslide? Many new mothers feel like sex is just another demand on their time and bodies, and it’s often easier to say “not tonight, dear, I have a long Netflix queue.” Dunn cites research that claims the marital “sweet spot” for sex frequency is once a week, and that the ideal length of time for intercourse is seven-13 minutes. That’s really not a lot of time—and if you, as Dunn did, ask your husband to take some of the evening routine off your plate by putting the kids to bed a tad early, it won’t cut into your precious, precious, sleep time.
For others, scheduling sex is the only way to make sure it actually happens. Dunn tells me about a friend who has a standing sex date with her husband while their twins are at Saturday morning Tae Kwon Do (a drop-off class, I presume). My own husband, at one point defeated by the relentless demands of a baby and a preschooler, said desperately, “We’re going to have to start paying for sex.” When I asked him to, uh, clarify, he said, “We need to hire a sitter to take them out of the house for a few hours or we’ll never have sex again.” Nothing like paying for a babysitter to make you use your time productively!
And having good sex means you’ll want to have more sex, so getting over that first hurdle, so to speak, will make you more eager to do it again. (Disclaimer that no one should be having sex unwillingly—these are just tips for finding time and getting in the mood.)
5. Learn to fight fair.
“Know that your baby is affected [by your fighting],” Dunn says. “If you’re fighting over her head, making a few choice gestures, she’s getting those stress responses. We were in a pattern called ‘Demand-Withdrawal,’” in which one partner tries to get the other to do something, or to engage and communicate, and the other one just shuts down. The relationship gurus John and Julie Gottman call this stonewalling, and it’s one of the big predictors of divorce. (Um, maybe because it’s enraging.)
Dunn and her husband went to couples therapy—and even consulted with an FBI crisis negotiator—to learn to fight fair, and to fight away from their daughter. They learned techniques such as “mirroring,” when the person echoes what the other person just said, and paraphrasing the gist of their complaint. She said, “And sometimes you have to laugh because the paraphrasing is wildly off—‘You’re angry because I stepped around you while you were emptying the dishwasher’—‘No, I’m angry because you stood there jingling your keys and saying let’s go instead of offering to help.’”
For her part, Dunn had to learn to control her temper, which a therapist told her was verbally abusive, and to ask directly for help, rather than spiraling into a rage cycle when her husband couldn’t read her mind.
How To Not Hate Your Husband After Kids is extremely helpful, and even comforting, if for no other reason than you realize that many couples are confronting the same programming and conflicts you are—and have managed to fight their way clear. “We’re only a generation or two away from the homemaker/breadwinner model,” she says. Every couple has to reinvent what’s right for them—a strict feminist model calls for a precise 50-50 split, but Dunn argues for what “feels equitable” to each couple.
And Dunn notes that her book isn’t necessarily going to help a marriage that’s really far gone. All of her research-backed advice is predicated on the belief that both parties are good people who want everyone to be happy—it’s not, obviously, for people in abusive relationships or even for women married to partners who are just fine with watching football all weekend while their wives clean, cook, and chauffeur.
We can’t necessarily do anything about the mudslide. We can’t necessarily do anything about the gender-role programming we received in childhood (and continue to receive). But we can stop and have a conversation about who takes the kids to hockey and who goes through the bills. We can have sex during Tae Kwon Do. We can make sure that everyone sort of wins. And that’s how not to hate your husband after kids.
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