The Part I Play

So I’m feeling like a jerk for hanging my husband out to dry. Yes, he could work on some stuff, but so can I. And he really is a good person, a caring husband and a dedicated father. I think in the end it just comes down to him being exhausted and overwhelmed, and lucky enough to have a wife who will step in and get shit done. Who wouldn’t take advantage of that if they had the chance?

And of course, I play a part in our dynamic as well. No half of a relationship exists in a vacuum, the other person is always involved in some way. I am in no way a perfect partner and it is not my intent to play the martyr. Sure I’ve tried to make changes in our relationship, but I’ve also tried to make changes in myself and I don’t always succeed.

There are many things my husband puts up with about me, I’m sure he could write his own post about all the annoying shit I do. He is a better listener. He stays calm when we talk, even if I’m saying something hurtful. He is understanding and supportive, even if he doesn’t really understand why I’m upset. He’s so good at playing with our kids, really listening to them and being present, while I’m always half way between them and a chore, or sneaking glances at my phone. He is a much better judge of how they are feeling and when they need a break; it has taken me a long time to read our daughter and accept when she just can’t do the next fun thing I had planned. He doesn’t get disappointed when plans change and is much better at managing his expectations. He is incredibly smart and very funny–no one can make me laugh like my husband. He is very accepting of my weaknesses and limitations, while I clearly struggle to do the same for him. He really is a good husband and father, I think he just struggles with the realities of raising two kids in an expensive city where both parents need to work.

I think it’s unfair for me to put out such a one-sided account of our struggles to achieve equality in our marriage. It’s also no very productive, as the only person I can change is myself. So, here is what I bring to our dysfunctional table:

I am someone who likes to get things done. I take pride in in the sense of accomplishment. I don’t necessarily like doing the actual task, but I like crossing it off my to do list when I’m done. I definitely grew up with the mom who did more for me than she probably should have, but I also grew up watching her sacrifice for us, and I definitely learned that that is what a mom does. My husband watched the same, but maybe the message didn’t feel as relevant to him because it was his mom doing it and not his dad? I guess my point is I bring a lot of this “you have to do it, it has to get done” mindset from my own childhood, and I probably need a let a little bit of that go if I want my husband to have opportunities to do more.

I can also be a bit of a perfectionist, and I will admit to the satisfaction I find in doing things my way. I am sure there have been times when I could have delegated a task to my husband, but didn’t because I wanted the final product to meet my expectations. Also it should be noted that my expectations can be rather high.

I tend to take on more than I can handle, drive myself to the brink of insanity and then lose my shit. My husband and even my kids have felt the fallout. Sure I get more done this way, but I also cause some damage. My husband may seem unwilling to step up, but he is VERY cognizant of his limitations and he respects them. He rarely over commits to the point where he can’t handle what he needs to do.

I am really shitty at having crucial conversations. So I struggled mightily to communicate what I need in a productive way. That is definitely part of the reason why we have made so little headway.

And this is hard for me to admit, but I think I do take a certain amount of pleasure in being the one who does more. I think I feel more comfortable when I can claim a certain moral superiority, than I would if we were equals. I am just realizing this now, as my husband offers to step up with increased sincerity and pragmatism. It is hard for me to give up the high ground and stand with him on a level playing field. I clearly need to work on this myself, which is one of the reasons I wish I could be in therapy right now.

I am also not good at accepting help. There are times when my husband offers to help, but I always find some reason to say no, like the way he asks or something he said earlier in the day, or my fear of what his attitude will be like while or after he does it. If my husband offers to do something, I will often say no, and I think there is  part of me that expects he will insist after that first “it’s okay, I’ll do it.” Maybe that is because I frequently insist, or I do things to help him without his asking. I guess I expect him to insist, or do it without my asking too, which is ridiculous. Clearly he offers once and if I say no, he assumes I don’t want or need his help. I need to say yes when he offers and then stand back and let him help. I don’t know why I’ve perpetuated that cycle. (I will admit, he usually asks me if I need help folding laundry, and that is “my job,” while dishes are “his job” and I think I want to respect that division of labor, because I like how clean and easily defined those lines are.)

Having said that, I am quick to do the dishes when I know he’ll be out late. Partly this is because I want to be nice, partly it’s because I know he won’t get to one side of the sink for days and it grosses me out, and partly it’s so I can feel good about myself. Then I feel resentful that he never offers to cover the laundry when I’m out late. I know I need to stop this, and I have abstained from doing any dishes, despite my husband coming home late a few times in the past weeks. I do think it’s helping and I will continue to let him get caught up on the dishes during his own time, no matter how gross the sink gets. I do hope that some day I can find joy in helping him out, but I’m just not there right now.

I need to request more time for myself. My husband is horrible at giving me time, but if I ask for it, he always says yes if it is logistically possible. I need to ask for time more often. I was doing a better job of this last year, when I saw seeing friends more, but since the summer I’ve basically stopped trying to meet up with friends, not because of anything at home, but more because of a disillusionment with my friendship situation. My new schedule at work also means I need to workout more in the evenings, so there are nights he puts our daughter to bed so I can workout, but that doesn’t feel like a night off because I’m still around to be hounded by the my daughter. There is a part of me that feels like asking for time to workout at home three times a week means I can’t ask for time to be away from home. But that doesn’t need to be the case. I need to give myself one day a week where my husband puts both kids to bed and I am out of the house. If I don’t have a friend to visit I could always go to a café and read. I wish I could afford a yoga class (or exercise anywhere away from home)… that would be a great way to spend an evening.

I’m sure there are more subtle and overt ways that I perpetuate this dynamic and I will continue to think about them. In the meantime, I’m going to (1) ask for more time away from home, (2) point out when my husband is assuming I’ll be home to watch the kids when he’ll be out, instead of asking if I’m available, (3) say yes when he offers to help and then step away and let him do it and (4) tell my husband to cover at least one bath night during the week (we only give them bath 2-3 times a week, so that is almost half). These are baby steps, but hopefully they will get us moving in the right direction.

Thank you all for making this such a thought provoking conversation. I’ve gained so much insight into our dynamic and for the first time in a long time I feel like I have a solid understanding of what I should expect from my husband and what I can do to help him meet those expectations. There may be hope for us yet.

12 Comments

  1. I feel like I could (and have!) easily write multiple posts about how my husband doesn’t step up to the plate, but figuring out my own shortcomings is much much harder.
    The fact that you’ve acknowledged these things and are working on them is, to me, more than 75% of the issue. the other part is actually TALKING to him about this, letting him know how you are working on this, so he can start to recognize what his role and obligations are.

    1. It was so much harder to write this post about me. And I KNOW that I have my own issues, but identifying them is so much harder.

      I do want to have a conversation with my husband soon, where I say how much I appreciate him stepping up in the ways he has, and to outline the ways I’m going to be trying to change my part in our dynamic. Already this morning, when I was trying to arrange a play date for my daughter, I suggested he take her and her friend somewhere, or have them over at our house while I was away, when normally I would have tried to plan it for when I was home. And I asked for some time at school to plan ahead. It was actually harder than I thought it would be, but I’m doing it.

  2. Good luck!

    I am a huge fan of communication and communicating in constructive ways. Because most people aren’t mind readers and couples generally love each other and want each other to be happy in addition to being happy themselves, but don’t always know how to get there.

    My DH has been taking on more and more household responsibilities the longer we’ve been married. Part of that is that I just *can’t* do everything as we get more stuff to do both at home and work and I’m naturally lazy so he has had to step in. Another big thing was DH taking cooking classes about 5 years ago where he learned knife skills so I no longer had this huge comparative advantage in making food. (Half his class was college girls, and the other half married men or couples who had gotten “learning to cook” as a Christmas present.) I know money is tight right now so that’s probably not an option, but I will say that almost the *only* chore my father did/does is cooking and that’s because he took cooking classes in SF while he was still a bachelor.

    1. Most of the things that would help us right now are not an option because of money. Funny how all the things that make life easier cost more…

  3. There seem to be a lot of hardworking, high-achieving women who get themselves into these situations. I think it’s the combination of being someone who generally cares about others and also someone who is used to being competent and in charge. So the household things don’t seem like a big issue at first, and part of you is like “oh, whatever, I wanted to do it all anyway to be sure it’s done right”. Or even, “maybe it’s just me, because I am a go-getter, and not everybody is.” Because we’re used to trying to be understanding and tolerant of others. It’s a shame, because being sympathetic and being on top of things are two really good, important qualities to have. And yet they seem to get people into trouble with life partners.

    If you hadn’t guessed, I am totally like this. 🙂

  4. You are so very honest. It must be really hard. And, everything you wrote was already part of what you had written before. You actually had not, by my reading, thrown your husband under the bus as the sole imperfect human in your marriage. You have always mentioned his strengths and your weaknesses as well as vice versa with real open honesty.
    I find living with myself to be difficult at the best of times, living with another person who automatically definitionally has different strengths and weaknesses is simply harder yet. With real luck two people balance each other, listen and share honestly with each other, and actively try to support each other’s growth and path through the world. It is very hard work. You are a strong voice in telling this truth. Thank you.

    1. I second this and would say much the same things but less eloquently. You do a good job of pointing out both of your strengths and weaknesses and the complexities of managing to work together as a result.

    2. You know, I’m cognizant of the fact that if he weren’t hear I would do more, but I often wonder if I wouldn’t be more content because I would KNOW that I had to do anything and not feeling disappointed when someone else wasn’t doing as much as I expected. I think I might for a little while, but eventually I’d realize that, holy shit, there is a LOT to do when you are doing it all yourself. When he’s not around I forget to feed that cat a lot. That isn’t good. 😉

  5. I really liked and appreciated this post. What food for thought. I think it is very self aware, and really digs into the traditional female gender role stuff that makes up the other side. When you said: “And this is hard for me to admit, but I think I do take a certain amount of pleasure in being the one who does more. I think I feel more comfortable when I can claim a certain moral superiority, than I would if we were equals. ” I was like wow! That was what came to my mind when you didn’t answer my comment yesterday about possibly letting the kids stay to a later time when he could pick them up now and then.

    Back when I was breastfeeding, I was kind of a control freak about her and did so much more. I *had* to be the one who washed the diapers. I did all the other laundry. I was in complete and total control of the breastfeeding stuff, and every bit of solid food she was having while learning to eat. I did much more of the pick up and drop off (of course then, it was better located for me to do so). I did ALL night duty, and my daughter literally woke up about 5 – 8 times per night, every night. I dressed her, bathed her, etc. But my job was picking up and demanding more and more and more of me. I had a huge, complicated, international project that I was very directly responsible for the success of and that was going to last for years. I couldn’t let go of some of these childcare and home things though because it was very important to me to “be it all”. And I felt better knowing I was doing them right. I thought I would be a failure if I didn’t keep it up and did not think he could do things right. Plus, I occasionally travelled and left them both alone! How could I not do all these things when I was there? And…I eventually basically ended up with a full blown nervous breakdown by the time she was 2.5, my anxiety disorder had spun completely out of control and I started having frequent, awful panic attacks both at home and at work. He helped me see that I needed help and I got the medical attention I needed, because my daughter seeing me freak out during panic attacks was so much worse than him feeding her a strawberry before I thought we should introduce those, or taking over sleep training in a way I would think was not “attachment parenting” enough. Now I look back and realize how I did that to myself and this post made me think again about how some of it was because I was trying to be the perfect working mom – which is like a way, WAY higher standard than what our society thinks of a great working dad being.

    This whole exchange has led me to question my own roles, in the other way now – I’m starting to worry I’m becoming like a dad from the 1950s or something. Once you explained better how your husband came home late, not really the just going out for drinks without telling you but working late sometimes and assuming you would be there I realized I actually do that EXACT same thing. I am normally home by 6:20 – 6:30 but I don’t think anything about working a bit late and coming home at 7 (our dinner is at 7-7:30, and my husband is always responsible for it unless he by prior arrangement physically isn’t there, in which case I’d be doing pick up anyway). I asked my husband if this was disrespectful to him, and his response was, “Of course it’s ok that you assume I am going to be here, that’s our deal!” So I guess some of this is really figuring out what your “deal” is between you two and both accepting it.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I appreciate hearing that these posts, and the conversations they started, were meaningful for you.

      I have been thinking a lot about what I ask my husband to do so that I can feel better about the division of labor between us. While I don’t believe it’s really possible for him to get to both kids by 6pm on public transportation (he’d have to leave work 1-2 hours earlier than is allowed, so he’d be taking hours every week to do that, which doesn’t seem like a good plan in the long run), I can ask him to be home by 6:30 at least once a week so I can leave and he can handle dinner (at least the eating part) and bedtimes for both of them. And knowing that there is one day that he has promised to be home earlier so that I can leave, will make me more accepting of when he stays later the other days. I think having an agreement like make the “deal” between us more concrete.

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