Get What You Want (and Need) from a Less-Present Parenting Partner

My husband works long hours and I’m a stay-at-home mom. He’s also not the world’s best communicator. Or at least, he didn’t grow up with a therapist for a mother and a professional lecturer for a father like I did. When I start in on the long emotional haul or the exhaustive list of to-do’s, his eyes gloss over within moments.

To his credit, my husband does respond well to lists and schedules. He has our expenses in a constantly updated Excel spreadsheet down to the shifting cost of our daughter’s recent move from diapers to Pull-Ups. He has our Google calendars linked down to his Fantasy Draft pick nights and my favorite yoga class. It’s pretty phenomenal how well technology straightforward thinking work for him. I live in a world of creative expression and long-ass conversations about topic ranging from the fact that the dishes weren’t done to how the sauce-laden pot made me feel when I discovered it in the sink the morning after he said he’d wash it.

You see where this is going: our differences in communication styles, coupled with our completely different lifestyles as the full-time working provider and the homemaker, have led to clashes. When we first became parents, I found myself getting really frustrated with my husband for just not getting it. I appreciated how hard he was working to provide for us, but I also didn’t think he got how hard I was working inside the house, too. Furthermore, there were things I needed and wanted him to do that just weren’t getting done, which led to a lot of frustration, tears, and arguments.

We needed a solution, and fast. Here’s what worked for us, and hopefully it will for you, too:

Step One: Tell them you want to hear how they feel, and mean it. It’s very easy to get lost in our own mental spaces and understand situations just based on our experience of them, so my first step in fixing this dilemma was to ask him how he was feeling. I knew it would take a peaceful afternoon, a big cup of coffee, and the resistance of my own urge to speak over him.

It turns out my husband (not surprisingly) experienced me as a constant nagger. He even admitted that he often dreaded coming home from work because he knew he would be confronted with a grumpy to-do list, plus a heaping side of attitude. Ouch. I hated hearing that, but I also couldn’t drop everything and have him exist in our home without pitching in.

Step Two: Set chores lists and individual expectations together, not for each other. Don’t go so far as to tack up a chore chart on the fridge for your spouse, or they might they just lose their sh*t on you for real. We did go over in a constructive way the things that made most sense for him to handle, the things we both enjoyed doing, and where we could each improve. This is not a conversation to have on the tail end of an argument, but when you’re both in a good headspace and ready to make some changes.

For us, what worked is him taking over the “outside” (trash, gardens, lawn, pool, and coordinating any and all service people related to said); and me taking over the “inside” (laundry, cleaning, beds, organization, and any and all service people like carpet cleaning or plumbing). He also loves to cook and I hate it; coming to this realization knocked me down so many stress levels, I was happy to handle the dishes from there on out.

Step Three: Divide the excess. After taking care of the day-to-day, we divvied up the rest of the weekend dredge: He loathes taking the kids to birthday parties, but has no issue hanging pictures or grocery shopping. So, when we’ve got bigger projects to tackle on weekends, we allocate them to times when I have set activities the kids need to get to. Or, we crank up some good music, pour a couple mimosas, and rolls up our sleeves to tackle it together.

Step Four: Set aside time for yourselves. As a stay-at-home parent, there is that constant nag lying just beneath the surface — that desperate need to GTFO and do something for myself. I was drowning in my inability to communicate to my husband how jealous I was over the simple fact that he can schedule a hair cut for himself on any given day and scoop by to have it done without coordinating childcare. We built in success by setting up free time for me every weekend to get my nails or hair done, or even just sit on a bench somewhere and think.

Likewise, he needs the time! It’s easy to forget that your working partner is not only absent during all those stressful parenting hours we SAHers deal with; they’re also working. Encouraging my husband to find a hobby and taking over a few extra hours on a weekend morning for him to dedicate to it made a huge difference. I have never seen him so eager to bundle the kids up and take them off my hands for a few hours as he was after his first two-hour Sunday morning bike ride once we started communicating better.

Look, no one is perfect and no marriage will ever be. But establishing a system where you both can talk about what you need, and each know what your expectations are, means a lot less nagging, and so much less bickering. Now if I need a picture hung, I rest it up against the wall where it’s going and he knows what to do. If he’s low on workout clothes, he gathers the dirties and tosses them on the laundry room floor for me. Done!

We wordlessly communicate about the boring stuff so we can spend more of our talking hours actually enjoying each other’s company. Imagine that! (It’s possible; just takes some time. And don’t forget the coffee… or the mimosas!)

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