Anatomy of a Marriage, Part 2

{Continued from yesterday’s post.}

Of course I hoped my husband and I would have children and be happy together, but he couldn’t promise that he’d ever want to have kids, let alone commit to having them in the near future. At this point, I was 29, but he was 28 (which is VERY young to be building a family in San Francisco), but my clock was ticking. I wasn’t even sure I’d cycle once I was off birth control. There was no time to fuck around.

Finally, after a year of counseling my husband decided he’d rather have a family with me than leave me to live kid-free.

For us (for me) there was no casual period of just giving it the good, old-fashioned go. When I went on BCP at 24, I hadn’t cycled in almost a decade. I wasn’t about to stop taking them to just wait and see what might happen. I immediately went to acupuncture, boiling sticks and leaves into horrific potions that I’d gulp down between gags, and chasing a Traditional Chinese Medicine diet with a million supplements. Even before we knew we had any reason to worry, trying to get pregnant was stressful.

Then we had an ectopic pregnancy. I was crushed. We grieved. I was sure our tale of suffering and loss had only just begun. Again, not a fabulous time in our marriage.

Then, miraculously, we got pregnant again. And after an anxiety-riddled pregnancy, we had our daughter. I was elated. The first year was pretty great.

Then she became a toddler and the realities of parenting set in. My type A personality took over as I tried to do all the things. This was fortuitous because, for the most part, my husband was totally and completely overwhelmed. When I thought maybe my husband should help with something I generally didn’t say much because, after all, I had wanted the kids. In my mind I had pressured him into parenthood; if it weren’t for me, we wouldn’t be here.

That mindset only enabled my husband’s non-confrontational, Type B personality. If he can get out of something he doesn’t want to do, you better bet he won’t do it. His parents did A LOT for him (and continue to enable him, even now). The transition to parenthood was truly challenging for him. It didn’t help that our daughter was a spirited child from the start, who thoroughly exhausted us. She rarely napped, had massive, prolonged tantrums that required us to keep her from harming herself for extended periods of time, and generally wore us out.

My daughter’s disposition was truly challenging. Even I, a teacher who had done a ton of childcare in her teens and twenties and had a lot of experience with kids of different ages, felt totally ineffectual most of the time. I read all the books, but the strategies rarely worked with her. Two- and three-years-old were HARD years for us. It didn’t get much better at four, or even five. Of course, by then, we had another child to parent.

The arrival of our second child definitely rocked the boat for us. It threw the delicate balance (or lack thereof) into turmoil. My husband had to step up in ways that weren’t required before. Yes he was doing more than he had with our first kid, but there was exponentially more work (or seemed to be). While my husband was exhausted from doing more than he ever had before, I became more and more resentful as the work load quickly overwhelmed me.

Eventually, after much exasperation and resentment, a ton of arguments and plenty of all out fights, we’ve finally settled into a rhythm that works well enough for both of us. Neither of us is super happy with it–both of us feel overwhelmed much of the time–but we’re trying to make it work.

The thing is, we’re both unique people with different strengths and weaknesses. What is relatively easy for me, is incredibly difficult for him, and vice versa. Our kids also complicated things.

Take “night parenting:” I basically do all the night parenting. We’ve tried to institute more equitable arrangements, but they never last. There are many reasons why I always end up getting up with the kids every night, and being with them most weekend mornings. First of all, the kids want me in the night. They make this known loudly–I could never sleep through their screaming for me, no matter how hard I tried. If my husband gets up with them, I end up awake in bed and neither of us is getting any sleep.

I can get up, get my kids what they want, snuggle with them pretty quickly, and then fall back asleep pretty easily and consistently. I almost always fall back to sleep within minutes of returning to bed. My husband, on the other hand, takes forever dealing with them, and then can’t fall back asleep for 45 or more minutes. He also needs more sleep; he generally gets over an hour more sleep than me a night but is always more tired than I am.

I realized recently that it doesn’t make sense to make him share the night parenting with me. The burden on him to get up with them in the night is much higher than it is for me. He is miserable the next day when he has to be up with one of the kids. When he’s miserable, I’m miserable. The reality is I’d be fine doing the night parenting if that time, and the interruption to my sleep, were recognized and valued. Honestly, having my contributions be recognized and valued would go such a long, long way.

I wonder though, if my contributions can ever be accurately valued when my husband has never done so much of what I do (and no, I’m not exaggerating, he has literally NEVER many things that have fallen to me in these last six years of parenting).

There are other complications. We only have one car and I use it to commute. My husband drops our son off a little later than he could because he doesn’t want him to have such a long day at school. This means he gets into work later and then needs to leave later. I, on the other hand, am technically done by 3pm most days. I feel a lot of pressure to pick up the kids sooner rather than later. So I take care of pick-ups. It’s almost impossible for my husband to get to even one kid before 6pm on public transportation without taking an hour off of work. Usually, if I can’t pick up the kids, I have to ask his parents to get them for us.

Our kids compound issues as well. They are both horrible at falling asleep. Neither one of them is asleep before 9:30 or 10pm, and they need a lot of attention until they finally conk out. Our son is usually up (after at least one night wake-up) by 6am. It makes for really long days and precious few moments to ourselves.

We do have a couple things going for us. We both have high thresh holds for clutter. I usually start getting stressed out first (probably because I know I’m going to be the one who eventually has to clean it up), but I rarely feel pressure from my husband to make the house look nice. I appreciate that. We’re both okay eating less than stellar meals most nights, though my husband is trying to cook more, which is nice.

So I guess in the end, the reasons why we can’t seem to manage an equitable arrangement are complicated. I had to reach deep into my past to explain why I married a man who didn’t even want kids when we met, even though that was my top priority in life. That explains my initial guilt at asking him to step up, which allowed us to become deeply entrenched in unproductive cycles of avoidance and resentment. Of course, so many other dynamics are also at play. Who knows what intricate combination of forces molded my husband into the person he is. Sure one could call him lazy (I have on occasion), but he is a thoughtful man who I believe respects me; the internal mechanisms that keep him from stepping up to assume responsibility are surely as convoluted as the ones that compel me to perpetuate our unsatisfying dynamic. Perhaps he lacks a certain resiliency that his childhood, and inherent nature, couldn’t provide. I definitely take on more than I can manage, until I lose it and melt down (I grew up watching my mother manage everything without ever breaking down, so my default response to generally that I can do it, even though that isn’t always the case). I’m sure I do as much to maintain our dysfunction as he does. We’re both working on it.

I feel like I could write 1000 more words on why we fail to achieve an arrangement that feels equitable, but I think I’ll stop just shy of 2500 and say this instead. Early parenting has been a challenging time for us, for a lot of reasons, but I have hope that the next stage will be better. I think both of us will find parenting elementary school-aged kids easier and more satisfying; the requirements at that age play to our strengths. We both struggled greatly in the toddler phase (in fact we still are; our three-year-old son is driving us batty), but we are seeing the light as our daughter matures. In two or three more years, we may just have an marriage that feels equitable. I’ll let you know if we ever get there.

36 Comments

  1. This has been fascinating, and I loved the post you linked to. I read a lot of the comments there. One thing I have been working on lately (I’ve actually been wanting to blog a lot, but haven’t found time) is this: if it really does make sense for me to do a task more than my husband, or I’m doing it because I’m the one it matters to more, I need to stop looking for recognition from him. I need to take ownership of the task and the fact that I’m choosing to be the one doing it. It’s hard to remind myself of this, but it really does help.

    My kids go to bed at 9:30 or 10, too, but at least they sleep until 7:30. I couldn’t survive without this early morning time to myself (here I am commenting on your blog at 6 am).

    1. ” I need to take ownership of the task and the fact that I’m choosing to be the one doing it.” <-- I totally see the value (and frankly, the necessity) of this. I think for me it's more, when I'm asking for the time to work out, or have brunch with a friend, I need that time to be taken into consideration, because I know my husband does start to feel put upon, like I am asking for too much or, at the very least, he is getting what he needs. So that is where I want my contributions validated and valued, when I'm asking for the time I need to recharge so I can keep doing those things. We actually talked about this recently and he admitted that I was a lot better about asking for what I need. This has taken me a long time to become good at. I am also much better at just giving him time when I think he needs it (I'll take the kids to the zoo so he has some kid-free hours at the house on a Saturday morning), but he NEVER offers me that kind of time (he doesn't like to go anywhere, so he's never going to offer to take the kids out). Since he never offers I had to learn to ask, but since I do offer, he hasn't learned to ask. I told him that if he doesn't ask, I can't know what he needs. Hopefully he'll start asking more, because I'm less inclined to offer these days.

  2. Wow. Really makes sense now. It seems to me as an outside observer that the key contributing factor is your not expecting much when your daughter was born bc you felt you had trapped him into having a child, and his being “ok” with that.

    1. Yeah. I definitely initiated our dynamic with the guilt-induced taking on of everything. But he also was not at ALL inclined to step up. I see a lot of fathers who are interested in undertaking different aspects of childcare. My husband has always left everything up to me. It was like he just couldn’t handle it. I don’t know. I think he just needs A LOT of time alone to recharge and with kids he wasn’t getting much and he just kind of imploded.

      Then again, I think the fact that I’m an assertive “doer” and he is a passive “bystander” in a lot of ways is one of the things that brought us together. I love to make plans and execute them and he is always okay with what I want to do. If he were a doer too we’d probably have more friction in that area of ours lives. So in some ways that dynamic is a positive, but it also exacerbates the parenting/domestic chores situation considerably.

      1. I don’t think you initiated it–seems more like a perfect storm combo of your guilt and his inclination

  3. fascinating post – thank you so much for sharing.

    for me, it has helped to accept that maybe equitable isn’t ideal. I really try to avoid tallying who is doing what, even though it’s TOTALLY my nature to keep track.

    when you mention feeling pressure to pick them up early – how come? could you use more of that time for yourself between 3pm and pickup? is it your husband suggesting they are spending too long aftercare? Is it that they need your help w/ homework?

    1. I am also trying not to pine after “equal,” though I think equitable is something that we might strive for. In my mind, equitable means we are both contributing in the ways, and in the amounts, that work for each of us. Like, my husband is WAY more interested in cooking and more propelled by the desire to eat different things during the week. I have no interest in either. So he does the cooking (after a many-year hiatus, this is happening again. Yay!) And the dishes are a very concrete, visible task that he can easily take on. So I let him do the cooking. I care more about our clothes and their care so I do the laundry. It goes like that, and for a lot of things, it works. But for some stuff, it doesn’t. The invisible work is what really gets to me, because I don’t think he even knows what most of it is, so how could he even acknowledge it? He has almost no idea what goes on at school, which day the library book needs to be in our daughter’s backpack, which day her roller skates need to be dropped off at after care, when food needs to be brought in for a special event. He never hears about any of that, so how can he appreciate that I do it all? That is what bothers me.

      As for the pressure to pick them up early, it comes from a lot of places. I feel it less when it’s not raining and our son can be out on the playground from 4-5pm. After the biting situation, when we were worried he was going to get kicked out of day care, we really started trying to pick him up early, because we figured the less time he was there, the fewer opportunities for him to hurt another kid. It’s also obvious that the long days get to him. I’m not nearly as concerned about picking up my daughter early, as she clearly loves aftercare. I do think if I could pick them up later one or two times a week that would help. I should revisit this for sure.

      1. I don’t think you initiated it–seems more like a perfect storm combo of your guilt and his inclination

        1. Oops. Didn’t mean to post that twice. I meant to comment on the pining for equal–hard to avoid this in practice. I know for me if I’m doing chores/stuff to benefit the family after the kids go to bed, and DH is watching TV, for example, I will resent it.

          1. I totally know what you mean. I generally put our son to bed because my husband has to get him to school and he is the harder kid right now. I also don’t have much one-on-one time with him and I know it’s important for my son to have that. So I do that bedtime while my husband “does” my daughter’s bedtime, which most of the time involved him sitting on the couch reading a comic book on his iPad and reminding my daughter to get her pajamas on and brush her teeth. Then they read something and snuggle, just in time for me to snuggle with her after my son’s bedtime. I sometimes feel resentful of that, but I try to remember that he has had almost no time to do that all day, where I can make a little time to read blog posts when the kids are watching tv before dinner. So yeah, it is hard in practice, but we’re trying.

  4. My take away from both posts is this: your main problem is your kids need to sleep more! I’m sure you know that (and have likely read *all* the books on how to “fix” it) but, seriously, a few extra kid-free hours every night would give you both so much more free/me/couple time and make life so much more manageable… Have you tried Benadryl? 😉 (Kidding, kidding…)

    1. Actually, I do use Melatonin once a week (on Sunday nights, because they take FOREVER to fall asleep and then are in horrible moods come Monday morning), but don’t want to use it more than that. I would do anything to get my kids to fall asleep faster, but they just don’t seem able to do it. It drives us both nuts.

      1. I’m curious why you would hesitate to use the melatonin more than once a week? I used it for a week and a half straight and it sorted my spirited 4 year olds sleep schedule and now when she starts to get off I just bring it back. It was recommended to me by her pediatrician after all the other things had failed. I swear I’m not judging you, just sincerely curious.

          1. You know, I honestly don’t know why I shouldn’t use it daily. I guess I just assumed it would make them dependent, even though I know melatonin is not supposed to create dependence. I guess it’s because I know if I asked my pediatrician he would say he prefers kids to fall asleep on their own. He is kind of anti- supplements of any kind. Which I understand… I think it’s easy to have that as the ideal scenario. Some kids just don’t come with ideal central nervous systems! Maybe I’ll ask him about it the next time I have an appointment.

            1. Do you find that it helps? I’ve taken it a few times and I find that I’m shaky the next day, which apparently can happen. Do your kids have any side effects?

              1. It seems to help my daughter without obvious side effects, but she can fall asleep without too much help these days. Sometimes my son falls asleep with it and falls asleep and is fine. Some times he wakes up after a few hours and says he doesn’t feel good. So I’m not sure exactly how it affects him.

  5. Great post. Interesting how different parenting stages are harder or easier for some people. I felt that our division of labor became more equitable after we left the baby stage. I became less controlling about naps and wasn’t constantly thinking about having breast milk in the fridge. And when he stopped nursing at night it was easier to send my husband in. I also liked early toddler (1-2) more than 0-1, although 3 is very challenging.

    1. I really enjoyed 0-1. I was in a state of euphoria actually. Part of me couldn’t believe I actually had a baby and got to be a mom. And my daughter was so cute and amazing. Sure she didn’t nap (and that drove my bonkers) but she slept decently at night so I did okay. I think it was good until about 1.5, when she started becoming a true toddler. By 2.5 I was losing my ever loving mind.

      I’m loving six so far. It’s finally starting to get easier.

  6. I think you are asking for so little—that your doing the bulk of the work uncomplainingly, be acknowledged, and rewarded with some minimal amount of time for your own self-care. I really really hope he can come around to see that. Maybe you need to keep a list of every thing you do, remember, plan. And every hour you give him to himself. I know keeping score isn’t the point, but how else to make him see?

  7. I feel like what you have written makes a lot of sense – the mix of your guilt about ‘forcing’ him into parenthood and his lack of desire to step up created a perfect storm of bad habits when it comes to division of labor (parenting). My marriage isn’t quite a lop sided as yours, but it definitely has similar issues. For example, this weekend I’m going skiing with some girlfriends for my birthday. We will be gone Thursday noon – Sunday noon, and I’m scrambling to arrange childcare / school dropoffs / etc. so that every minute is taken care of and won’t affect his work schedule… but there is NO WAY IN HELL he would do the same for me. He’d just assume I’d get it all figured out, and he would leave. It’s definitely creating some resentment in me, but I’m trying to just be grateful that I get this weekend away at all.

    1. This is EXACTLY what happens when I am gone, versus when my husband is gone. When he is gone he doesn’t have to do anything. We have to figure out our son’s drop off, but I’m the one who calls his parents and sets it all up. And when he comes home I’ve obviously been doing the dishes and feeding the cat/cleaning her box and anything else he does. But when I’m gone I ALSO have to have everything covered and when I come home no one has swept, or done the laundry, or any of the other stuff I do. Earlier this school year my daughter stayed at a “play zone” which is like extended care at her after school program for couples who want to go on a quick date nearby. I asked my husband to get her at the end of the play zone and quickly realized he had NEVER BEEN TO HER AFTERCARE BEFORE. She’d been going for over a year and he’d never even been there! He has never taken our kids to the doctor. He hasn’t even washed either of them in a bath! It’s nuts the things he has literally NEVER done. And that is the stuff that drives me a little nuts. He’s always bitching about how tiring the mornings are with our son and when I try to relate how exhausting pick up is (how does it take 1.5 hours! When the two places are less than a mile from each other?!) he just nods and mumbles, yeah. But he has no idea because he has never picked up both kids before. So yeah. It’s hard and frustrating.

      Having said that I’d much rather be the parent who feels capable and knows she can manage without the other person. It must be kind of terrifying to feel like you’d be totally screwed without your partner…

      1. That he hasn’t given them a bath is just crazy. That’s one thing that I feel my husband has done more than I have actually. It’s like never changing a diaper or feeding a kid dinner. Its pretty basic! Does his mom bathe them when you are away?

        1. On the rare occasions when I’m gone for 4-5 days (this has happened three times since our daughter was born), they stay during the work week with my parents (I am only ever gone during the summer, when my mom is also off because she is a teacher) so my husband doesn’t have to take days/time off work, and then during the weekend they are with my husband. So yes, my mom would bathe them during this time.

          I’m not really sure why my husband never bathed our daughter in the first two years of her life. I guess I always just did it? By two years old she was making bath time REALLY DIFFICULT. She screamed and cried and splashed and it was a nightmare. My husband is totally ineffectual when our kids are exhibiting challenging behavior. So I did bath time. I was also doing bath time because my husband did mornings solo at that time–I left before my daughter was even awake. So it seemed more equitable for him to deal with the challenges of the morning (which were not easy) and for me to deal with the challenges of the evening. That was the case for the next three years.

          I don’t know why he still hasn’t bathed either of them. At this point they prefer me (shocking, right?). My daughter is SO CLOSE to being able to shower alone. At this point she just needs help rinsing her hair. And now my son is causing a ruckus when I wash his hair (which I keep super short and is super easy to clean–why does he have to make it a big thing?!). I don’t know. I guess I should make him do it one day… it just hasn’t happened yet.

  8. Hi I just found your blog through Sarah at scrambled eggs 🙂

    I had twins first and twin dads need to step up because it’s really crazy in the house. But then I had my singleton and NOW I see how easy it is to fall into the “don’t worry I’ll do it” trap. I do everything with my singleton. I can probably count on my hands how many times my husband has changed her diaper and she is 17 months old (probably one hand for how many poops). Because it’s really easy for a mom to “just take care of it” with one baby in the beginning, especially if you’re nursing. If you’re nursing, you’re up at night, you’re around all day, etc etc, dad doesn’t have much role in the beginning and then it is hard to dig out of that hole and get equal partnership in the parenting and stuff-doing.

    It’s really noticeable to me because with the twins, who were 100% bottle fed after 4mo, I really felt we were equal, I felt like I could leave him with the kids and feel like he knew their routines and ins and outs as much as I did. But with our singleton, I have to tell him our routines, he hasn’t put her to bed in over a year and has only put her down for a nap a handful of times.

    So you combine that with a type B personality and I can see how you might be stuck in this dynamic. I’m glad you are really able to acknowledge what’s going on. Good luck to you on making it through this hard part, I hope the elementary years will bring you the relief and reward you are looking for.

    PS have you talked to him about his feelings since having kids… Like, he didn’t want kids in the first place, but is he finding that having kids is a rewarding or in any way fulfilling experience?

    1. I’ve been wanting to having a conversation with him about it (how he sees the decision now, looking back on it, and his basic feelings about being a father now), but I know we need a nice, low key evening for me to bring it up or he will feel put upon to talk about deep stuff, which he is not a fan of doing. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity sometime soon.

      And hats off to you for managing twins. I don’t know how people do it! You are a rock star!

      It’s interesting that the dynamic has changed since having a singleton. Why do you think that is? Just because it’s easier to do it yourself? Is your husband managing the twins and you deal with the singleton? I’m fascinated by this dynamic.

      1. It really is easier to just do it myself! When all of us are home he usually manages the big kids and I have the baby, that is just how it was when she was always nursing or sleeping on me, and it continues. Sometimes when we go out, now that baby is 17 months and running around, sometimes he goes off with her and I go off with the big kids. But usually it’s the other way. We had to divide and conquer, we are outnumbered, and so I got the higher maintenance one and he got the two lower maintenance ones haha!

  9. Ummm… if you can, start talking now about your son next year getting to preschool earlier to improve Husband’s workday hours. Also talk to preschool about how long he naps because shortening his nap over the next few months, carefully, in tiny increments, could cause him to fall asleep earlier at night while still getting the same number hours of sleep daily. I find schools see the child sleep during naps and they are unaware of and sometimes disbelieving that this impacts night time falling asleep in negative ways. At 4 very short naps and earlier bedtimes should really be happening and helping you both!
    What an amazing and non-blaming series on how and why you have the task division you have in your marriage. Helps us all in looking at our own lives in fair and honest ways. Thank you for posting so regularly. Your posts help me stay grounded

    1. Our youngest fought naps on the weekend for a while and we finally gave in just before 3 yo (my oldest gave up naps sooner). But she was still napping at daycare which was really throwing things off at night. We finally had to negotiate with teachers to let her quietly play/”read” during nap time and not sleep. Made our lives so much better.

        1. He is only three and really seems to need his nap. Also, we had big issues at our day care when our daughter dropped her naps at 3yo. They just don’t have the space to separate the kids who are sleeping and those who aren’t, especially not in the 3yo room. So I don’t think dropping his nap is a possibility yet. Maybe when he’s 4. (Of Course if he drops it we’ll have to figure it out, but right now he is super tired at 1pm and falls right to sleep).

  10. I just want to chime in that you’re not alone- and we aren’t even parents! My husband takes out the garbage. And he changes lightbulbs, smoke detector batteries things like that. That’s IT. And what’s worse? He’s the one who’s always been on the “you must work” bandwagon so that it’s “fair.” In our case, he would literally not care if crap were piled to the ceilings and if there weren’t clean laundry? He’d just go buy new underwear! So, if I want things to be somewhat clean I have to do it. And currently since I’m working 60+ hours a week I’m resenting it. A lot. So, I feel for you.

  11. I feel you on being stuck with the invisible work and getting no recognition. Ugh. I am currently working 500+ miles from the spouse and girls and am still doing a lot of it, planning well child visits and I will soon be ordering groceries for them. Obviously it makes sense right now I pitch in wherever I can but I’m just keeping work I always do. I just bet I will spend 90% of my visits home cleaning because it’s such a mess and then my spouse wonders why I get so stressed out about visits home… sigh. I wish there were a way to make the work split easier and to fix the emotional labor problem.

  12. There are two sentences in this that I particularly noted:
    1. “… my husband decided he’d rather have a family with me than leave me to live kid-free.” That’s the key, and that’s what he needs to live up to.

    2. “I’m sure I do as much to maintain our dysfunction as he does.” That’s the tough bit – identifying what you do that perpetuates a system that stresses you. I wonder … the idea of identifying yourself as Type A and him as Type B seems to give you both an excuse for continuing to perpetuate the status quo.

    I remember my SIL saying to me, before she had her first child, that she knew her husband wouldn’t do anything around the home, and that she was therefore prepared to effectively be a single parent. “Anything he does,” she said to me, “will be a bonus!” She accepted it because she wanted children – it meant she didn’t have the resentment either. I have to say that I was appalled at the idea – and later the reality. Yet it seems to have worked for them. That’s the hard part, isn’t it?

    Good luck in finding what works for you. I suspect it will always be a work in progress, but then that’s life too.

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