I was sitting in my counselor Celeste’s office one afternoon, discussing how I was doing in general. The circumstances surrounding my marriage were a little more stable and we had temporarily branched off to my personal life including the day to day jive as a mother. The topic of stress came up and I relayed to her that I was constantly overwhelmed at home with our four small children. Wanting to dig a little deeper, Celeste asked which specific responsibilities were considered mine in our family.
I happily replied, riddling off a Santa-length list from the never-ending laundry to the tedious annual tax preparations and everything in between. There were the groceries, doctor’s appointments, homework help, dishes, cloth diapers, dinner, school lunches, bathrooms to clean, clothes shopping, balancing the checkbook, bills, and so on. It took a while to fill her in on the entire scope of what I was managing, and at last, I was done. It felt good having successfully portrayed the uphill battle I greeted every morning and I waited anxiously for her response. I expected a gasp of amazement, her eyes growing as large as my to-do list, but she just sat there pondering and a moment of silence ensued. It was the next question that completely caught me off guard.
“So what do you let your husband do?” she asked, genuine curiosity in her tone. I was a bit flabbergasted by her question. What did she mean what do I let my husband do, what kind of question is that? Noticing my struggle to digest her query, she fed me a smaller, more bite-sized question. “Sounds like you are pulling the majority of the work in the home. When something needs to get done, do you just do it right then and there, or do you allow your husband the opportunity?” I thought for a moment and responded. “I normally just do it.”
Something clicked in my mind, and some of the pieces started slowly coming together. She seemed to have so easily solved a part of my stress inducing riddle, but it wasn’t the answer I expected. And while I would have rather reveled in the idea that I was a martyr against my choosing, it was obvious that she could see right through that illusion. “I let him change the baby’s diaper sometimes,” was the only thing I could muster as I searched my mind for proof that her instinct wasn’t spot on. My ammunition was gone and I was completely unarmed and embarrassed. The truth hurt. I finally realized that I was responsible for a large portion of my struggle.
I had grown up in awe of mothers like my own who seemed to have everything under control. Rarely did I ever witness them asking for help or expressing their inability to manage the everyday tasks that came their way. In my mind, I painted a picture of motherhood as easy and effortless. Yes, sometimes I remember seeing my mom a bit flustered when we kids wouldn’t clean our rooms after she asked us for the fortieth time, and I do recall being confused when seeing her laying in bed on the weekends trying to keep her eyes open after a long week of non-stop mayhem. Those were just minor details, or so I thought.
Part of my childhood dream was to fulfill the role of the ideal mother, the lady who would do it all, and make it look easy. Unfortunately, this woman turned out to be as real as the Tooth Fairy, unicorns, and Narnia. While a heartwarming thought, it was just not compatible with reality.
While it feels good to accomplish goals and create a home environment that is both enjoyable and functional, I had taken it too far when I began assigning it to my worth. I felt a sense of fulfillment when I cleaned the kitchen, mopped the floor, spent hours balancing the checkbook and paying bills each month. My belief was that being overly busy with the temporal jobs every day meant I was wanted and needed, and as much as it made me want to pull out what little postpartum hair I had left, it seemed at the time well worth the cost.
I took pride in attempting to “increase my value” as much as I could and consequently was able to temporarily satisfy my hunger for belonging and love. Just showing up every day wasn’t enough to prove that I had value, I had to create it visually every day and that became the biggest task of all.
Owning My Expectations
One of Kevin’s favorite phrases in our marriage has been “Own your expectations.” It is something we both know I struggle with. When it is obvious to me that I am overwhelmed and in need of help, I sometimes assume that my husband should observe this happening, understand the issue, and take immediate action to remedy it.
I’ll be dishing up plates for all the kids, hungry, and annoyed by four voices throwing requests at me from all different directions. Kevin might be at the table eating his dinner already, cool as a cucumber. “Why isn’t he helping get food for the kids, can’t he tell that I could use a hand?” I would wonder. Soon my concerns with his inability to naturally see what I see and feel what I feel would lead to conclusions such as, “He’s being such a lazy jerk. If he really cared about me he would see I need help.” I would take his nonchalant attitude as a personal attack.
In the ideal world husband and wife would be telepathic, and psychic. They could then foresee and understand the needs of each other without a single word escaping their lips. Unfortunately, this is not reality. If I need help, which I regularly do, I am responsible for making those needs known in a direct, respectful, and verbal fashion.
As I tell my kids when they flop their bodies on my lap, gifting me with their moans and faces of anguish out of nowhere, “If you want me to help you, you are going to need to use your words.” Beating around the bush in hopes that he will just figure it out and respond to my silent pleas for help doesn’t benefit anyone, and results with me feeling stressed and resentful towards him. I can’t expect him to do anything if I never ask.
The Training Process
I had a part in training him. Him meaning, my husband. When we got married there was no sit-down talk about who was going to do what around the house. We just kind of dove in and saw what each other came up with.
My strength as an achiever began to be overused and abused from the get go as I happily hoarded tasks and attempted to balance them with outside work and other responsibilities. I found immense satisfaction in completing visual chores needing to be done, and once checked off my list, I just kept adding more and more. Kevin and I naturally fell into what was comfortable and seemed to be working, so why would he ever think to change something? Why fix something when it ain’t broken? As the children joined our family, this pattern continued. I played the balancing act as best as I could, but things got heavy quickly, and I was feeling it.
Just as Sebastian from The Little Mermaid says, “You want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.” I’ve lived this motto for most of my adult life, and while it has worked in some areas, it has failed miserably in others. When any large or small task would appear, I would want it done two ways- now, and perfectly, which in my definition means done by me.
I believed that if something was going to happen that I would need to be the one to do it because otherwise it won’t get done or it won’t get done correctly. This was an idea I created. My husband is very smart and capable, and while we do things differently and in different time frames, that doesn’t equate to my way being superior. Everything doesn’t have to be done my way.
I came home from my counseling session determined to make changes. After retrieving a pile of sticky notes and a marker from our junk drawer I sat cross-legged on our living room floor and began writing out every task that I had been managing. Soon, I was surrounded by dozens of blue squares, each a small piece of my the stress puzzle I had helped build. I brought in Kevin and introduced him to the blue sea of chores that kept our household functioning. We talked about my discussion with Celeste and how I wanted to relieve some of the pressures that I had placed on myself. I explained in a calm and respectful tone, that I had taken on too much, and I really needed his help.
We looked at all the tasks together and I started pulling a few, one at a time until only items that I felt were realistic for me to do regularly were left. Then we scanned the “extras” and after shuffling through them realized that a couple were simple enough for my seven-year-olds to handle with a little support from our end. Lastly, we reassigned what was left, giving some to Kevin and deciding that one or two just weren’t necessary anymore, as much I had thought they were. My husband, being the great responder that he is, was willing to take on the new tasks, and my kids were open to helping too. After all that time of taking on too much, I found a simple solution in asking for help.
While this sticky note solution doesn’t solve every issue involving stress as a mother, as some areas are out of our control, I have found a lot of benefits from trying to delegate tasks to others instead of keeping them all to myself. Things are still far from perfect, but I am trying to minimize the hint dropping, and Kevin no longer has to rely on his mind reading skills to know that his efforts are needed when getting the kid’s pajamas on, scraping dried up food off the tile, and folding the Mount Everest of laundry that frequently towers over the counters of our laundry room. I have to remind myself on a daily basis that the mythical perfect housewife and mother doesn’t exist. I cannot be everything to everyone, and living that truth doesn’t mean my value as a person is going to decrease.
Over the years my husband and I have only become a stronger team, defying any cultural ideas that our willingness to contribute is defined by “women’s work” and “men’s work”. I’m no stranger to a lawn mower or assembling furniture, and he’s done loads of laundry and is many times the one tackling bathroom time accidents that involve going through half a container of baby wipes. I better understand now that we are co-captains of the team and we have to approach each other and the to-do list this way if we are going to thrive as a family.
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Camille Christensen says
You and I are so alike now as adult/wife/moms! Except my clean laundry basket is called the “eternal basket” because it just keeps on going and I haven’t seen the bottom of it empty in like five years. I wish I still lived close so we could see each other once in a while. You’re awesome I love you!
I love the “eternal basket” that’s so accurate! Thanks so much for your kind words:) I miss seeing my childhood friends. Tricky when you are no longer in the same neighborhood anymore.
Marci Dorman says
Have you been spying on me!? Joking, but you’ve tapped into something very intimate and personal, but also maybe a little universal. Well captured.
I loved this part, especially: “When it is obvious to me that I am overwhelmed and in need of help, I sometimes assume that my husband should observe this happening, understand the issue, and take immediate action to remedy it.”
I had twins, and even though My husband and I both agreed to try and have kids, I was always more interested in having kids, and then got pregnant quickly—with twins no less—once we did decide to have kids, which I felt guilty about. So, I think I wanted to cushion my husband from any uncomfortable side of having kids, which as you know there are a lot of uncomfortable sides. So there was a lot I started blocking him from, and only a little I allowed him to do—even though I dealt with feeling overwhelmed, alone, resentful, etc. I blamed him for not doing more to help, even though I’d essential done many small things to cut him out and take over.
Like you, I also placed a lot of value in what I was doing, and wasn’t sure where my value would come from if it wasn’t in doing the motherhood thing well (since there was no time for anything else!), so was probably reluctant to let go of tasks for those reasons also.
We’ve gotten much better in recent years with division of labor and communicating, but I really liked your post-it idea, and I’m totally stealing that. I still have a lot of work to do, and reading your blog reminded me of why these feelings keep cycling through. I do still often think: why doesn’t he see what I need and jump in (exactly as you described!) even though I say the same thing to my kids when they’re thrashing around and obviously needing help, “I’m happy to help you, but you’ve got to ask for what you need!”
Anyway, great insight and reminder!!
We’ve got a lot in common Marci! Thanks so much for sharing your experience and taking the time to comment. It’s ongoing work to get myself out of these cycles that I wrote about. Just last night I was fretting over the potatoes in the instant pot that weren’t as cooked as they should have been, and as I’m trying to remedy the issue so we can eat, my toddler was asking for a banana over and over again. I felt like a volcano about to burst! Husband was on the couch and I was feeling that same “Can’t you see I’m struggling over here?!” “Do something about it!” And like you said these are the same expectations we have for our small children, so yes we are responsible for them too.