I felt like calling it quits on my marriage today. Don’t worry about us (we’re sitting here cozied up on the couch currently) but the rage inside me was definitely a white hot fire at about 8:34 a.m. this morning. My husband offered to drive our kids to school last night and, while I appreciate the gesture, I would have appreciated it even more if he hadn’t stood at the doorway huffing, puffing, and rolling his eyes as they dawdled through eating breakfast, pulling on their shoes, and getting out to the car when the moment came this morning for him to start his chauffeur duties. “Your help just hurts,” I found myself singing under my breath as he sped away. A heated text chain between us ensued once he dropped them off, a conciliatory phone call, and then, a common pact to keep giving ourselves and each other grace in light of the stress and strain our entire family has weathered over the past year. The pandemic has been hard on us individually and as we’ve managed our kids’ needs, but it has also taken its toll on our relationship.
My husband and I have been through a lot together – 16 years of marriage, two doctorate degrees, tackling six-figure graduate school debt, a high-needs child – yep, we thought we were tough pre-COVID. But now, as we look back on the year, we realize we underestimated just how difficult it would be to 1) be around each other constantly, 2) keep our romantic spark alive, and 3) not let the stress and chaos of a completely unpredictable and uncontrollable world crisis get our goats.
The number of moms harboring that same fiery sentiment toward their partners has been off the charts in my pediatrics practice lately. We’re all ready for this pandemic to be over (and the associated extra-intense partner quarrels that have often come along with it). I know, like you do and they do, that when all of this gets better, so should our relationships with our significant others. Even so, I don’t want to wait that long (however long that is anyway). The good news is, you and I don’t have to.
I’ve learned from other successful moms – moms who have weathered thick and thin, good and bad, bright sunny days and global upheavals – a few key principles to parenting in partnership so events like today’s aren’t so frequent for any of us.
1. Don’t Aim for an Even Fifty-Fifty Split
Parenting partnership responsibilities are hardly ever evenly divided. Laundry may be 90% in your bucket, but cooking may only be 10%. You may do 30% of the accounting and bill paying, but your partner does 70% of the school pickups and drop-offs. It matters most that you’re not taking on 70% of everything, tipping the scales toward yourself for every to-do that keeps your lives running.
2. Make Your Partner Aware of the Tasks You’re Carrying and of When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed: Share Their Mental Load
Your partner is not a mind reader. Make it a habit to sit down with your spouse listing off what you need to get done to make the household run (or make decisions about) and then ask your partner to do the same. How to get the conversation started? Plan family business meetings; put them on the calendar monthly; and, just like you might map out your financial budget, talk through your responsibilities.
3. Divide Based on Strengths and Weaknesses — or Based on Practical Time or Financial Considerations
Although the world may still expect moms to drop everything to pick up our children at child care for an illness (or to be the COVID-19 family grocery shopper, for that matter), it just doesn’t make sense for many couples where mom is the breadwinner or has a more demanding schedule.
If you’re a new mom and you’re breastfeeding, this is an even simpler delineation point. For the duration of your breastfeeding experience, you are the “feeder in chief.” Your partner should be the “soother in chief.” Let your partner have the responsibility of getting educated on the best soothing techniques out there and make him the go-to person when the baby is cranky. If you are not a new parent, figure out some other “in chief” responsibilities you can divide. My husband is also the “nail cutter in chief” and the “get the kids ready for bed in chief.”
4. Use a Common Language When Talking About What Needs to Get Done
If you’re both in business, your conversation might look like this:
“So, I’m trying to strategize about how we’ll get everything accomplished for Leah’s start to the school year. Let’s talk through the components we need to make this successful.”
If you and your partner share a mutual love of sports, try this:
“Listen, what part of the team can you head up the next few weeks? If we’re going to win with everything going on this month, we’re really going to have to work hard.”
5. Use Technology to Your Advantage, Including Shared Calendars, Communication Apps, and Online Shareable Corkboards, Trip Planners, and Lists
A shared calendar means shared knowledge and shared accountability. If you both know what’s happening in your household, you can both be responsible for it, especially when it comes to appointments or events you both need to attend.
6. Choose to Ignore When Necessary
Sometimes (I wish it was not this way, but it just is), you have to just totally ignore eye rolls, small huffs, and pained expressions when it comes to handing off a little more of their mental loads to your partner. I could have done a better job of that during my little spat this morning, I realized about 20 minutes too late.
“I feel like I just have to get over it when I perceive that my husband is annoyed when I let him know what he needs to do so we can keep our house and our home running,” said one modern mom.. “I get it. No one wants to be told what to do, but, in the process of off-loading some of my mental load, sometimes that’s just how it has to happen.”
7. Extend Grace to Yourself and to Your Partner
We all carry the stress of our days and lives into our partner relationships. Approaching our partners with a sense of compassion, and using language that conveys our recognition of their humanity, goes a long way (and leads to a lot fewer fights).
8. Take a Giant Step Back
It’s annoying to have someone looking over your shoulder, micromanaging your every move. If you’ve ever had a super-controlling boss or even a nitpicky parent, you know the feeling. When someone doesn’t trust us or tries to manage us, it makes us feel resentful and irritated. We sometimes even lose our organic interest in the topic and stop putting our best effort into it.
That’s just what happens when we don’t allow our partners to play an equal role in taking care of our children. We kind of sabotage our hope of true co-parenting. Instead, be conscious about how to empower your other half to be the parenting boss more often. That might mean actually leaving the house so he or she has the space to parent without your eagle eyes. It definitely will mean holding your tongue (or your own sighs or eye rolls or judgment) if he or she is not doing things exactly how you would do it.
Clearly, I don’t do this perfectly in my own home all the time (case in-point this morning). Sometimes I feel like my husband thinks he’s “babysitting” or “helping me out” instead of co-parenting. Sometimes he says he feels like I can’t let go of being the family boss. If he had more freedom and less criticism when it came to his parenting decisions, he would feel more ownership and would be more motivated to step up in his co-team leader role. Even so, despite centuries — no, millennia — of societal norms, we continue to strive toward the idea that gender should make no difference when it comes to caring for our kids and that equitable, satisfying parent partnerships are still possible (pandemic or no pandemic).