HAS MOTHER­HOOD TURNED YOUR RE­LA­TION­SHIP INTO A CHORE?

How to re­store har­mony when the de­mands of rais­ing a baby put strain on do­mes­tic bliss

Irish Daily Mail - YOU - - CONTENTS - Or­lando Hoet­zel IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS

Soon after our daugh­ter was born, my hus­band and I had our first scream­ing fight as new par­ents. To be more pre­cise, it was me who screamed. What set me off was em­bar­rass­ingly triv­ial, yet the source of a baf­fling amount of con­flict in the first weeks of par­ent­hood: whose turn it was to empty the nappy bin. On that day it was Tom’s. ‘Please empty that thing,’ I called to him as I sat breast­feed­ing the baby. ‘The fumes are mak­ing me dizzy.’

‘In a minute, hon,’ he said from the be­d­room, his ro­botic voice a tip- off that he was play­ing chess on his com­puter. In sec­onds I was flooded with molten rage. I care­fully put the baby down, barged into the be­d­room and seared him with con­temptible, ju­ve­nile in­vec­tive, terms that had not passed my lips since I was a teenager in the 1980s.

The force of my anger sur­prised both of us. I was reel­ing from hor­mones, sleep de­pri­va­tion and a qua­dru­pling of clean­ing and wash­ing. But I love my hus­band – enough to have de­cided to have a baby with him in the first place.

Since Tom and I had al­ready es­tab­lished fairly clear roles at home – our gen­er­a­tion is ar­guably the first to have ex­pec­ta­tions about split­ting up the work – I as­sumed we would sim­ply fash­ion new ones. But after our baby was born we soon slid back­wards into the tra­di­tional roles we’d grown up see­ing. I was mak­ing food for the baby, so I started do­ing all the food shop­ping and cook­ing. I did the baby’s laun­dry, so I be­gan to throw in our clothes, too. When she was small I stayed at home with her dur­ing the day and, out of habit, my care­giv­ing du­ties ex­tended into the evening. When Sylvie started to walk and talk and our fam­ily life grew busier and more com­pli­cated as I strug­gled to keep up my work­ing life as a free­lance jour­nal­ist, I be­gan to no­tice that I was do­ing most of the don­key-work.

Tom was do­ing around ten per cent of our house­hold chores and I wished his ten was enough, but it wasn’t. I felt as if he was a guest in a ho­tel I was run­ning. I would con­stantly take a silent fem­i­nist stand to see if he would step up and lend a hand. The score keep­ing never ended. Adding to my re­sent­ment at week­ends, Tom some­how man­aged to float around in a happy sin­gle-man bub­ble. A typ­i­cal Satur­day started with a game of foot­ball with his friends or a five-hour bike ride (he seemed to take up en­durance sports around the time our baby’s um­bil­i­cal cord was cut, as though the sound of the snip was a starter gun). This was fol­lowed by a leisurely 20-minute shower, break­fast, a long nap and then a me­an­der­ing pe­rusal through the pa­pers.

Mean­while, I was cook­ing and fer­ry­ing our daugh­ter to birth­day par­ties and play dates. On week­end evenings, Tom didn’t check with me be­fore he met friends for drinks; he just breezed out of the door as­sum­ing I would han­dle bath time and bed. Yet whose fault was that? In my de­ranged quest to Do It All, had I al­lowed this pat­tern to un­fold?

And so I fumed. A turn­ing point had ar­rived in our mar­riage. We be­gan to quar­rel, but what made me es­pe­cially sad about our end­less bickering was that it dragged down what was by all ac­counts a pretty won­der­ful life. Tom was un­der­stand­ably re­luc­tant to change his habits. Why al­ter the sta­tus quo when it worked in his favour? I de­cided it was time to set the bar higher – for my­self, our daugh­ter and our mar­riage. So I plunged into all the self-help books and re­search to see if there was a way out of this hole…

******* The first or­der of busi­ness, ad­vises psy­chol­o­gist Joshua Cole­man, au­thor of The Lazy Hus­band: How to Get Men to do More Par­ent­ing and House­work, is to change what I say to Tom. Us­ing moral­is­tic or sham­ing lan­guage will only pro­voke de­fen­sive­ness.

A use­ful mantra is af­fec­tion­ate but un­mov­able. Cole­man says that women who get the most com­pli­ance from men are those who are com­fort­ably as­sertive in their ex­pec­ta­tions of their par­tic­i­pa­tion – as though it’s a done deal; you are merely fig­ur­ing out how to get there.

And so one evening after our daugh­ter has gone to bed I ask Tom if I may have a word. He eyes me like I’m a clip­board-wield­ing Green­peace can­vasser ask­ing for a mo­ment of his time. ‘This can­not be good,’ he says war­ily, ‘it’s like a phone ring­ing in the mid­dle of the night.’ But he sets aside his news­pa­per.

I’ve been told that I need to be­gin with a state­ment of ap­pre­ci­a­tion, so I take a breath. ‘I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate how hard you work and how

The force of my rage sur­prised both of us. I was reel­ing from hor­mones, no sleep and a qua­dru­pling of clean­ing

➤ much time you spend with Sylvie. How­ever, even though we work equal hours, I am the one do­ing al­most all the house­work and child­care.’ State the prob­lem in a neu­tral way. Then ap­peal to his sense of fair play. ‘ This has made me re­sent­ful, ex­hausted and un­happy. Our cur­rent sys­tem is not work­ing.’

Mov­ing on, re­quest don’t de­mand. ‘Most of us re­spond bet­ter to a re­quest,’ says Gary Chap­man, the pas­tor and mar­riage coun­sel­lor whose book The 5 Love Lan­guages has sold ten mil­lion copies. ‘For ex­am­ple, say, “When you vac­u­umed the floor yes­ter­day it was heaven; now, if it’s pos­si­ble, I’d re­ally like you to clear out the hairs from the sink when you’ve fin­ished in the bath­room.”’

My re­quest is also more likely to be ful­filled if I use one word: ‘be­cause’. Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist Ellen Langer found that peo­ple are more will­ing to com­ply if you give them a rea­son – any rea­son – and also present tasks in the spirit of ne­go­ti­a­tion – for ex­am­ple, ‘Here’s a list of five things that need to be done. You can pick three.’

Hav­ing to de­ploy mul­ti­ple strate­gies is, frankly, ir­ri­tat­ing, but the re­al­ity is that even though men are do­ing more house­work than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, ask­ing them to scrub the bath­room is go­ing to be a tough sell. So how do you per­suade them? Cole­man ad­vises: ‘Tell your spouse that chang­ing his be­hav­iour will ben­e­fit him be­cause it will make you hap­pier and more re­laxed. Do deals with him, of­fer­ing things he val­ues but you of­ten find hard to give – time alone, meet­ing friends you aren’t wild about.’

Fired up, I ap­proach Tom with Cole­man and Chap­man’s scripts. ‘What now?’ he sighs.

‘I love that you checked Sylvie’s home­work this morn­ing and went out to get us bagels.’ He re­gards his new wife quizzi­cally. ‘Now I’m won­der­ing, if it’s pos­si­ble, could you take Sylvie to a birth­day party at the bowl­ing al­ley this week­end? Be­cause I don’t feel like it,’ I smile at him. ‘Please,’ I add.

Nor­mally, I hap­pily take her to par­ties. I love the overex­cited kids, the bal­loons, the face-paint­ing, the cake brought out to a cho­rus of ‘Happy Birth­day’.

‘I’m ter­ri­ble at bowl­ing and you’ve never taken her to a party by yours…’ Whoops, too neg­a­tive. ‘And it would be fun for Sylvie for you to take her on your own.’ Yes, bet­ter. He shrugs. ‘OK.’ ‘And if you want to go for a long bike ride on Sun­day I’m will­ing to let you do that if you take us to lunch after­wards. I would look for­ward to that.’

I brace my­self for a re­ac­tion but he just nods. ‘All right.’

It is as sim­ple as that. If you don’t ask, you prob­a­bly don’t get.

Once you have a child every­thing has to be up for ne­go­ti­a­tion, says psy­chol­o­gist Guy Winch, ‘and that re­quires com­mu­ni­ca­tion and co­or­di­na­tion’.

We take his ad­vice. Ev­ery Satur­day morn­ing when we are feel­ing re­laxed we have a 15-minute man­age­rial meet­ing. They aren’t ex­actly sexy or fun. Some­times they feel col­lab­o­ra­tive. Other times they feel dis­tanc­ing and lawyerly as we run through what needs to be done. But I see now that our hec­tic life was never go­ing to sort it­self out or­gan­i­cally and within a few weeks our meet­ings be­come a ne­ces­sity.

One Satur­day we trade a three-hour chunk of time – a bike ride for him and a stint at the gym plus cof­fee with a friend for me. After­wards I still have half an hour of free time left. I fight the urge to buy some gro­ceries, mind­ful that a woman’s free time is likely to be ‘con­tam­i­nated’, as one study put it, by other things such as tak­ing care of the kids or house­work.

In­stead I force my­self to sit in the park. Had I con­tam­i­nated my time with food shop­ping, I would have missed the sight of a squir­rel perched on a fence jaun­tily eat­ing an en­tire ice cream cone. I sit dream­ily mus­ing: is that choco­late- chip ice cream?

Next, we take a tip from re­search on same-sex cou­ples and as­sign jobs ac­cord­ing to pref­er­ence rather than gen­der. With that in mind Tom and I sit down at the kitchen ta­ble and make a list of the chores we ac­tu­ally like and the ones we can’t stand. I like food shop­ping. Tom, with his aver­sion to crowds and flu­o­res­cent light­ing, dreads it. So I take on that duty along with get­ting our daugh­ter ready for school, or­gan­is­ing play dates and doc­tor’s ap­point­ments, and cook­ing, pro­vided I get one day off from kitchen duty a week. Tom en­joys su­per­vis­ing home­work, all things car and com­puter re­lated, pay­ing bills, tak­ing our daugh­ter swim­ming and vol­un­teers to do the dishes and the laun­dry, a chore I loathe.

Ev­ery one of the jobs that needs to be done is al­lo­cated, which elim­i­nates our usual de­bate as to

who is work­ing more hours per week and thus de­serves fewer chores. As for cer­tain per­ni­cious chores I must ex­pect that my spouse is not go­ing to be good at some things. There­fore I should stop bang­ing my head against a brick wall.

The ex­perts said I should con­sider loos­en­ing my stan­dards. Maybe our less fraz­zled hus­bands are on to some­thing here. Why, for in­stance, did I need to put pres­sure on my­self stay­ing up un­til mid­night mak­ing Pin­ter­est-wor­thy ladybird cup­cakes for my child’s fifth birth­day? Why for that mat­ter did I bother mak­ing home­made cup­cakes when most kids just lick off the ic­ing?

Be­cause mak­ing those cup­cakes was about my ego. I was ea­ger to daz­zle the kids, the teacher and the other moth­ers. Nor do I need to make ev­ery mo­ment of my child’s life a de­vel­op­men­tally sig­nif­i­cant en­rich­ment ac­tiv­ity.

I re­alise I some­times con­demn Tom as be­ing an un­in­volved par­ent, when he is en­gaged in a dif­fer­ent way. My idea of in­volve­ment is to plan an elab­o­rate art project. Tom’s is to take Sylvie along with him when he buys bike tyres. (‘She knows the dif­fer­ent valves and air pres­sures,’ he says proudly.) I used to get an­noyed when he started pulling our daugh­ter into his world of com­puter chess, protest­ing that we had agreed to limit her screen time. But then he taught her to play and now she reg­u­larly beats him.

Un­like me. Tom has al­ways tried to in­clude her in his pur­suits, some­thing I want to start do­ing, too. He says this isn’t some care­fully thought- out par­ent­ing strat­egy, just self-in­ter­est. ‘I am, at heart, try­ing to win her over and prove to her that her fa­ther is an end­less source of fun ac­tiv­i­ties,’ he says, ‘and there’s an added won­der in see­ing those things that you have al­ways loved through the eyes of a child.’

And must we be com­pul­sively busy ev­ery sec­ond of the day do­ing some­thing ‘use­ful’? I eye my sched­ule, thin­ning out my daugh­ter’s after-school ac­tiv­i­ties. Do I need to vol­un­teer for ev­ery field trip? Are we re­quired to at­tend birth­day par­ties of class­mates my daugh­ter hardly knows? We are not.

My next ef­fort is to lay off score­keep­ing. One Satur­day dur­ing our ne­go­ti­at­ing meet­ing, Tom asks if he can play foot­ball for a few hours with friends. I say that’s fine. After the game he show­ers, makes him­self a sand­wich and then slinks off to the be­d­room. I fol­low him.

Me (with hands on hips): ‘Don’t tell me you’re about to take a nap?’ Tom: ‘Just for half an hour, I’m worn out.’ Me: ‘You said you would help Sylvie with her home­work.’ Tom: ‘It can wait.’ Me: ‘No, it can’t.’ After he hauls him­self out of bed to help Sylvie I feel ashamed. Of course the home­work could have waited. I gen­er­ated a false dead­line be­cause I was so an­noyed by his sin­gle-guy bub­ble. I had al­ready al­lot­ted three hours for him and a nap would have pushed it to four. But that was petty, why couldn’t he have had a nap? It was also point­less. Sylvie was read­ing qui­etly. I was mak­ing bis­cuits. Keep­ing score just to prove a point is silly. I apol­o­gised, en­joy­ing the new sen­sa­tion of be­ing calm and rea­son­able.

Many ex­perts say that the only way to get your spouse to ap­pre­ci­ate the value of all the work that you do is to leave the house. Many fa­thers, in­clud­ing Tom, have never spent more than a day alone with their off­spring. This is my fault as well as his. I have never spent a Jancee with her hus­band Tom night alone away from home since Sylvie was born.

So I ar­range an overnight stay with a friend who lives a short train ride away. When the day comes, leav­ing the house is un­nerv­ing. My daugh­ter cries oceans of tears. Be­cause I can usu­ally be found three feet away from her, I have un­wit­tingly en­gi­neered my de­par­ture as a cat­a­strophic event. ‘Please don’t go,’ she weeps, cling­ing to me.

By the time I am on the train I get a text from Tom with a photo of them both glee­fully drink­ing milk­shakes.

Fi­nally, if com­pli­ments, cour­tesy and lists do not work, it’s time to play hard­ball. Tell him that if he doesn’t pitch in and help you’ll stop cook­ing din­ner or do­ing the wash­ing. I mon­i­tor Tom to see if there’s a threat that would re­ally hurt. I ob­serve him for a week be­fore it hits me – if Sylvie is ca­per­ing around past her bed­time he gets twitchy, keen to play com­puter chess or read. So I an­nounce, firmly but po­litely, that I am tak­ing bed­time duty off my list.

‘But she wants you to tell her a bed­time story,’ he protests.

I re­ply that if he gets her ready for bed, I’ll fin­ish with the bed­time story. And so Tom takes over bed­time duty. He is not the pushover I am, end­lessly fetch­ing wa­ter and stuffed an­i­mals; he puts her to bed with prison dis­ci­pline. Some nights he even gets her to bed early, a valu­able skill we would never have dis­cov­ered oth­er­wise. ■ This is an edited ex­tract from How Not to Hate Your Hus­band After Kids by Jancee Dunn, to be pub­lished by Hutchin­son on Thurs­day.

If com­pli­ments, cour­tesy and lists do not work, it’s time to play hard­ball

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