Sheryl and Larry tied the knot five years ago. As educated, career-oriented people, they entered into a modern marriage. “I wouldn’t dream of marrying a man who believed that I should be doing the housework and child care while he put his feet up in front of the TV after work. That kind of thinking repulses me. And Larry’s not that kind of guy; he’s always been supportive of me and my career. That’s why I’m so confused now,” said Sheryl as she tried hard to hold back the tears.
“Since Josh was born 14 months ago, everything’s changed. I still work full-time but somehow, I’ve become the one in charge of all the never-ending tasks. Yes, Larry offers to help, saying, ‘just tell me what you want me to do.’ I could choke him when he says that. He just doesn’t get it.”
“What doesn’t he get?” I asked.
“He doesn’t get all the work that needs to be done with a baby. He acts like he’s a visitor, asking if he could help. Why doesn’t he know what needs to be done? Why doesn’t he know where stuff is kept? He feels like he’s the greatest dad just because he’s changed a diaper and plays with our kid for 10 minutes. That’s not good enough for me. What happened to our 50/50 deal?”
Small changes happen as time marches on. Without much thought, Sheryl found herself in charge of the household from the get-go of her marriage. She liked cooking, decorating and organizing; Larry did not. So she took the primary role in these areas, while Larry became the “helpful husband.” So far, so good — until now.
Babies change everything. When Josh was born, Sheryl took a six-month maternity leave to breastfeed and bond with him. When Josh cried, she was the one to respond. She didn’t have to get up early to go to work, and of course, she was the one feeding him. During the time she was home, she read extensively about baby care, becoming an expert on topics from poop to pediatricians, from nourishment to nannies. Though Larry took pride in playing with Josh and changed his diaper on occasion, it was clearly Sheryl who was the one in charge about what to do and when to do it.
Now, Josh is 14 months old. A nanny has been hired. Sheryl is back at work. So has everything evened out in terms of child care responsibilities? Not at all.
Sheryl was always worrying about the “never-ending” tasks that needed to be done; Larry was just wishing she wouldn’t get so stressed. This pattern was creating major conflict in their relationship. Something had to change. Here’s what I suggested to them:
- Let go of the control. If Larry takes responsibility for a task, let him do it his way. If you think he didn’t dress Josh in the right clothes, bite your tongue. Say nothing. When you know how to do something well, it’s tough not to correct the other person, but that’s what letting go means.
- When you take an afternoon off, leave with the bare minimum of instructions. Sheryl was exhausted before she even left the house. She had left so many instructions with Larry, and was so worried he wouldn’t do them the right way, that she couldn’t relax. Sheryl needed to leave and let Larry enjoy his own day with his son.
- Stop thanking Larry for “helping” you out. If you want him to take responsibility, then think of him as an equal partner, not as helping you out. You certainly can comment, however, on how happy your son looks after a day with his dad.
- Don’t just follow instructions; develop your own expertise. Want to know more about some aspect of child care? Don’t ask your wife. Read a book on the topic or research it on the Internet. Then discuss it, coming from strength.
- Expand your involvement with your child. Make time for more of the mundane tasks of child care as well as some of the unusual ones, such as researching nursery schools.
- Initiate family activity. Don’t wait for Sheryl to initiate activity, then tell you what to do. Initiate a fun activity at home, like a special Sunday morning breakfast in which you cook, serve and clean up. Or, plan a family trip to the zoo.
Though Sheryl and Larry did not find these changes easy to implement, they were sincere in wanting to improve their relationship. So they continued to pay attention to what I suggested. Over time, Sheryl did notice that she was less overwhelmed with what had to be done while Larry felt like a real dad the day his son cried hysterically, only wanting to be comforted by his daddy.
Couple and baby photo available from Shutterstock