Dear Dad-who-could-do (a-little) more,
I was a “hands-on” dad. I “pitched in.” But now that my kids are grown, I look back with regret that I left my wife holding the bag 99% of the time.
It was right in front of me. Did I have blinders on? Was I tone-deaf? I was raised by a feminist and believed I was a new-age, sensitive guy. Definitely not a go-get-me-a-beer type of spouse. So why couldn’t I see what was right in front of me?
Maybe I was too wrapped up in juggling being a new parent plus feeling the pressure to hold up my responsibility to “provide” as a man. That old school mentality that it was my job to keep the family afloat mixed with my new-age identity as a sensitive male who listened to my wife and engaged more with my kids.
Most of the time, dear dad, I felt totally overwhelmed.
All that pressure drained any confidence that I was doing anything right. I privately waited for a piece to fall out. Like a giant game of Jenga, I imagined my whole life crashing down. And I mean CRASHING down: failure at “being a man,” shame, depression, divorce. I would die alone.
I felt a desperate need to preserve time for myself. I needed time to relax and regroup. Looking back, I hoarded that “me time” as if my life depended on it. If I gave it up, I felt like I would drown.
The first time my wife left me alone to take care of the baby, I felt like a fumbling caveman who suddenly found himself responsible for keeping a toddler and an infant alive! When she drove off, I nearly had a heart attack I was so scared. I have NEVER felt like more of an imposter, more out of my depth, than I felt that weekend.
Of course, I survived (oh, and the baby made it, too).
Somehow, even after the most stressful weekend of my life, I remained ignorant to the fact that my wife did everything I just did -- every day -- without breaking a sweat. With my blinders on, I handed our baby back to her when she got home and breathed a sigh of relief. I clapped myself on the back for “doing more” than my dad would ever do.
Mentally, I went off duty. I regret that I didn’t see, when I handed her the baby, that she went back on duty. If I would have paid better attention, I would have noticed that, just like most of her life as a mother and a wife, her shift was 24/7.
Sure, I did take on some household responsibilities over the years, but I only did so when she asked and I often forced my wife to negotiate. She had to work for months to get me to agree to do the laundry, to take over the trash and recycling. And then, even after I agreed (ugh, this is hard to write), I didn’t take true responsibility. I still needed reminders and left my wife with the invisible labor of remembering.
Looking back, that’s my biggest regret: I did very little to lighten her mental load. I had NO IDEA how much of a burden she carried at the time. I did very little to reduce my wife’s having to always remember everything, that same invisible labor that burns out many working moms.
I know now. I only wish I realized it before.
The worst feeling is the fear that I may have shortened her life in the form of stress and burnout. Those are years she is (and we are) going to want back on the back end.
It’s no joke that traditional heterosexual marriage has always provided a benefit for men, extending our lives further. The opposite applies to the women in these relationships. It makes sense. Think about it, dear dad: your wife wears herself out keeping in mind the need to pick up the cleaning or prescriptions that you forgot while you make sure that you got time for yourself. The result? You extend YOUR life span and reduce YOUR stress.
What happens to her stress level? It only goes up.
Now add her picking up every toy and forgotten sock that your kids leave everywhere (someone has to do it!). Now add the fact that more moms nowadays need to bring in income to keep the house afloat. Now add the time it takes her to ask for help, still have to remind you, and sometimes still have to do the work herself.
Where does she find time “for herself”? If she’s like most working women I know, she doesn’t.
And here’s the biggest insult in this gender dynamic: I’m not going to speak for you, dear dad, but I was socialized to take advantage of my privilege, even in ways that seem innocuous. For instance, I had lots of little pockets of “me time.” But it never felt like enough.
On the other hand, most women I know were socialized to put themselves last. Always.
I’m not suggesting you change everything, just start.. If you can give 10% of your mental energy or sacrifice even 10% of your “me time,” you have the opportunity to use your privileged position for good.
A Dad who (eventually) learned how he could do a little more
Ready to change the dynamic? Where can you start?
Start by showing that you are willing to take on a small doable task. Take on something you can handle every week.
Pro Tip #1: Make an offer. Don’t wait to be asked.
The invisible labor that weighs your spouse down is having to remember. Work on taking the need to remember one thing off her plate.
Pro Tip #2: It’s not about perfection. It’s about completion.
No one is grading here. And the flip side is also true: don’t put away one load of laundry and wait for applause before you do it again.
Pro Tip #3: When you take responsibility, do it 100%. Start to finish, AND clean it up.
While your wife may be burning herself out, you may be sitting on a reserve of time and energy that could be used to help her. Think about giving up a little bit of that precious time… and make sure you don't half-ass it!
Do you want more ideas to get your life on the right track?