Since I got married, my “love language” has become the love language of picking your crap up off the floor — because nothing kills romance or libido faster than cleaning up after someone like a 1950’s housewife. And yet this is the norm for many heterosexual new parents: That the woman, whether she works or not, will do most of the labour (much of it unseen) around child-rearing and housekeeping.
We may have had egalitarian relationships pre-kids. We may anticipate that we’ll enjoy a pristinely fair division of labour post-kids. But when the actual baby arrives — well, it can be like a bomb going off in your marriage.
For one, the sheer volume of work is not really comprehensible in advance. The Sisyphusian labour of dishes, laundry, housekeeping, admin and childcare is just… brutal and inexorable, like being caught in a years-long, slow-moving mudslide. Most people have a hard time feebly mumbling, “I don’t think you understand how hard I work around here,” whilst scooping mud out of their face.
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But the second major problem is more insidious. It lies in our understanding of gender roles, and not in broad “only men should work and only women should stay home” strokes, which I think we’ve (mostly) moved past. It’s more that a million little pieces of information are passed to women via a social pipeline — information that is generally not passed to men. A girl’s first job is often babysitting, and in adulthood she will attend baby showers in which (whether she wants it or not) she gets an earful about the best straitjacket sleep-sack and best infant containment system; by talking to older mothers, she perhaps has already formed an opinion on cry-it-out versus co-sleeping or attachment parenting versus arming children with machetes or whatnot.
This information puts mothers, even on day one of parenthood, way ahead of fathers in terms of know-how and expertise. And unless she’s willing to instruct (and he’s willing to be instructed, and the instruction is more worthwhile than just doing it herself) it’s easy to slip into an arrangement in which mums shoulder the bulk of the childcare and housework. This is slowly changing — men attend baby showers now, and daddy blogs are a real thing — but women are, generally speaking, still running the domestic show.
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Which brings me to resentment. Which brings me to Jancee Dunn’s new book How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, which she wrote after a crisis in her own marriage involving division of labour, anger, vicious fights and finally, the realisation that if things didn’t change, divorce was inevitable. Her meticulously researched book pulls together the social science behind domestic labour and gender roles (news to me: Men are more likely to be awakened by “strong wind” than a crying baby, whereas women will levitate awake and sprint into a child’s room — running through the air à la Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon — at the merest infant sniff) with first-person interviews and her own marital experiments in couples counselling. She even sought help from an FBI crisis negotiator.
A note: Her how-to is primarily for heterosexual couples — there is a larger body of research on heterosexual couples than there is for same-sex couples, and hetero couples have all the aforementioned gender-role programming to deal with — but the book is pretty helpful for anyone at all who’s ever resented their partner after having a baby.
I spoke with Dunn to get her top five tips for not hating your partner after kids.
1. Let him screw up.
A friend of mine recently said, about her husband and new baby girl, “He would take a bullet for this kid, but he might forget to put a hat on her.” Remember that social pipeline of information? He doesn’t have it, and if you don’t let him learn, you’re engaging in “maternal gatekeeping”, or keeping him from participating in the nitty-gritty of childcare.
He has to bond with his kids too, and you have to let him make mistakes. That means not hovering and not signalling, overtly or subtly, that you know better. Total immersion is the only way, says Dunn. “Leave the house. Get a coffee, or go away for the weekend. His way is not the wrong way.” (I have recently learned that it doesn’t actually help my sweating husband, when he’s struggling to get the kids out the door, to raise my eyebrows and say, “Classic mistake — always put your own coat on last.”) If you don’t have both partners fully taking ownership, then you’ll stay stuck in the employer/sullen teenage employee dynamic.
But what, you ask, if your husband doesn’t want to do any domestic labour? What if he’s content to let you be the maker of the grocery lists and the keeper of the paediatrician appointments, play dates and special laundry instructions? Then, Dunn, says, you are going to have to learn to…
2. Stay on your own side.
You need to advocate for what you need, or stay on your own side. Now, this advocating can mean losing your temper and screaming that he needs to get off his arse and fold a load of laundry, or no it isn’t OK to take a long nap after a long hot shower after taking a long solo run all morning, or you can have a civil conversation and divide up the chores. And keep having that civil conversation, weekly or monthly, as new responsibilities crop up and others fade away. (Goodbye nappies, hello footy team.)
Dunn suggests dividing housework based on who likes or loathes what chores — her own husband hates the grocery store (“the crowds, the florescent lighting, whereas I like seeing the new products and thinking about what I’m going to cook”) so food shopping has become her responsibility. He’s compulsively punctual, so he’s in charge of all things time-sensitive, like bill-paying and taking his daughter to her classes.
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Not staying on your own side means stewing in silent fury as you do the dishes, bathe the kids, pack lunches, and fold laundry — while your spouse reads a magazine in bed. It means presenting things as a choice: “Do you want to do baths or dishes?” and then, after that, “Do you want to fold laundry or pack lunches?”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you get to dictate exactly how the chores get done — my husband prefers to pack lunches and do dishes in the morning, so unless I want to do these things myself… they’re waiting until tomorrow.
3. Insist on your half-day.
Dunn tells me that “weekends should not be a forced march” of childcare and chores. “You need to negotiate weekend time, and ask each other, ‘What are we doing this weekend that meets everyone’s needs?'” She calls it the “everyone sort of wins” strategy.
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My husband and I long ago agreed that we would each get a half-day off, every weekend, in which we could sleep in and had no childcare or housekeeping responsibilities. Even if we’re all home, one parent is off duty. When my kids inevitably ask me if they can have a snack/watch TV/set fire to something, I say, “Daddy’s in charge till lunchtime,” and they take their requests to him. (Answers: Yes, yes, and depends on what it is.) I read in bed or go for a run or meet a friend for coffee, with no comment from him. He watches the Braves lose five games in a row, with only a few comments from me (“This is how you relax?”). It’s blissful.
4. Have sex during Tae Kwon Do.
Who has energy for sex when you’re caught in a mudslide? Many new mothers feel like sex is just another demand on their time and bodies, and it’s often easier to say, “Not tonight, dear, I have a long Netflix queue.” Dunn cites research that claims the marital “sweet spot” for sex frequency is once a week, and that the ideal length of time for intercourse is seven-13 minutes (insert standard note here that intercourse is of course not the only way to have sex). That’s really not a lot of time — and if you, as Dunn did, ask your husband to take some of the evening routine off your plate by putting the kids to bed a tad early, it won’t cut into your precious, precious, sleep time.
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For others, scheduling sex is the only way to make sure it actually happens. Dunn tells me about a friend who has a standing sex date with her husband while their twins are at Saturday morning Tae Kwon Do (a drop-off class, I presume). My own husband, at one point defeated by the relentless demands of a baby and a preschooler, said desperately, “We’re going to have to start paying for sex.” When I asked him to, uh, clarify, he said, “We need to hire a sitter to take them out of the house for a few hours or we’ll never have sex again.” Nothing like paying for a babysitter to make you use your time productively!
And having good sex means you’ll want to have more sex, so getting over that first hurdle, so to speak, will make you more eager to do it again. (Disclaimer that no one should be having sex unwillingly — these are just tips for finding time and getting in the mood.)
5. Learn to fight fair.
“Know that your baby is affected [by your fighting],” Dunn says. “If you’re fighting over her head, making a few choice gestures, she’s getting those stress responses. We were in a pattern called ‘Demand-Withdrawal’,” in which one partner tries to get the other to do something, or to engage and communicate, and the other one just shuts down. The relationship gurus John and Julie Gottman call this stonewalling, and it’s one of the big predictors of divorce. (Um, maybe because it’s enraging.)
Dunn and her husband went to couples therapy — and even consulted with an FBI crisis negotiator — to learn to fight fair, and to fight away from their daughter. They learned techniques such as “mirroring”, when the person echoes what the other person just said, and paraphrasing the gist of their complaint. She said, “And sometimes you have to laugh because the paraphrasing is wildly off — ‘You’re angry because I stepped around you while you were emptying the dishwasher’ — ‘No, I’m angry because you stood there jingling your keys and saying let’s go instead of offering to help.'”
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For her part, Dunn had to learn to control her temper, which a therapist told her was verbally abusive, and to ask directly for help, rather than spiralling into a rage cycle when her husband couldn’t read her mind.
How To Not Hate Your Husband After Kids is extremely helpful, and even comforting, if for no other reason than you realise that many couples are confronting the same programming and conflicts you are — and have managed to fight their way clear.
“We’re only a generation or two away from the homemaker/breadwinner model,” she says. Every couple has to reinvent what’s right for them — a strict feminist model calls for a precise 50-50 split, but Dunn argues for what “feels equitable” to each couple.
And Dunn notes, while we’re talking, that her book isn’t necessarily going to help a marriage that’s really far gone. All of her research-backed advice is predicated on the belief that both parties are good people who want everyone to be happy — it isn’t, obviously, for people in abusive relationships or even for women married to partners who are just fine with watching football all weekend while their wives clean, cook and chauffeur.
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“A lot of people have come up to me [since the book was published] and say, ‘Too late! I already hate my husband!'” she says. Her stock answer has become: “‘Therapy, both couples and individual, really helped me — and maybe it can help you.'” To me, she continues, “and maybe it will help that person get out of their marriage — to ask themselves, ‘Why am I letting myself be treated like this?'” Towards the end of her book she cites a comment from sociologist Scott Coltrane: “One of the biggest shifts in recent years is that many women will simply not put up with partners who don’t contribute at home.”
We can’t necessarily do anything about the mudslide. We can’t necessarily do anything about the gender-role programming we received in childhood (and continue to receive). But we can stop and have a conversation about who takes the kids to soccer and who goes through the bills. We can have sex during Tae Kwon Do. We can make sure that everyone sort of wins. And that’s how not to hate your husband after kids.