Updated: Jan 24, 2021
I was getting ready to step into the shower when I heard it. My son’s screaming and crying. Naturally, I felt an urge to run out of the bathroom to find out what was happening and comfort him. But I didn’t. I reminded myself, my husband was there and he was totally capable of managing whatever was happening. He was also capable of asking for my help if he needed it.
It hadn’t always been like this. I used to run into the room a lot and took over when I felt that my son was crying either too loudly or for too long (he was blessed with well-developed lungs from the day he was born and used to cry for 30-45 minutes at a time for various random reasons). In my mind, I was just following my mother's instinct, since every part of me wanted to comfort him when I heard his cry. I thought I was being helpful and saving my husband from dealing with the seemingly never-ending crying. But to my husband, I was undermining him as a parent. My actions told him that I didn’t trust him as a partner and a parent. Worst of all, I was robbing him of multiple opportunities to bond with our son, to show our son that daddy is also a source of comfort for him.
When my husband first shared his perspective that I was undermining his parenting, I immediately got defensive. “Are you telling me I can’t comfort my own kid?!” Once I calmed down and thought about it more, I realized that my husband was asking me to let him share the load of comforting our son. I had a lot of practice and had become quite proficient at it. It was time for me to take a step back and let my husband figure out how to soothe our son his own way. It was time for me to get out of my own way and share the load with my partner. In stepping back, I helped strengthen my husband’s relationship with our son, and modeled for him what an equal partnership looks like. Most importantly, I let go of the expectations that I should always play the role of the caregiver, the nurturer because I am a woman.
I see this pattern play out in many other households. Even though there are technically two parents, one of them is almost always the default parent. In heterosexual relationships, it most often falls to the mother. If you’re breastfeeding and taking the first half (or most often, all) of the parental leave, you naturally have more time to bond with your child, to develop an efficient system for managing the endless tasks of caring for a newborn, and to figure out the best ways to soothe them when they’re upset. Because you have more time to practice doing it, you become the "better" parent. And since you’re "better" and more efficient at it, you might as well just do it instead of asking for help; or worse, you ask for help but then intervene when you see your partner struggle to do it the "right" way. It’s just easier that way, you tell yourself. But, is it?
Now, some of you may think to yourself, "I shouldn't have to ask for help, can't my partner see how much I'm doing and just step in and help once in a while?". The thing is, parenting is a job. It's an unpaid job but it is still a job. So, imagine that you've just started a brand new job. Your new co-worker has been doing the job for a year and they're really good at it. They know exactly what needs to get done when, and the best way to go about doing each task. You never get a proper orientation to any task. You're expected to just watch and learn. You pick up bits and pieces through observation but you struggle to see the big picture. Every time you notice something that needs to get done and you do it, feeling proud of your progress, your co-worker would step in and redo what you just did because it wasn't good enough. How would you feel?
Most couples never have an honest, direct conversation about the domestic and parenting work load. We assume that everyone agrees on what needs to be done, and the "proper" way to do it, as well as who should be doing what. The truth is, until you work together to create an inventory, you and your partner do not share a common understanding of what it takes to run a household and raise children. More importantly, you likely do not agree on the priorities of everything on the to-do list (if you've ever felt resentful that you're stuck with the kids and a messy house while your husband paints the fence, you know what I mean). If we treat running a household and parenting like a job (which, again, it absolutely is), we need to agree on common goals and values. What is important to each of you? What is important to you as a couple, a family? Why do those things matter? Take time to share your thoughts and listen to the other person so you can arrive at a shared understanding. Once you've agreed on what's important, it's easier to edit and prioritize your to-do list together as a team. Then, it's time to divide and conquer, making sure that you also agree to a timeline and performance standard for each task. As life demands constantly evolve, it's important to frequently revisit and adjust as needed.
So, are you ready to share the load?