HAS MOTHERHOOD TURNED YOUR RELATIONSHIP INTO A CHORE?
How to restore harmony when the demands of raising a baby put strain on domestic bliss
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