When my son was a three year-old and “No!” was his favorite expression, my husband and I decided upon a strategy to cope with how draining parenting could be (even though we only had one child). It worked surprisingly well for us.
What was it?
We banned the word “tired” from our vocabulary. Of course, we came up with various ways of hinting about it… “I’m extremely fatigued…” or, “I’m totally zonked at the moment…”. And hopefully the other would laugh.
But why did we go to all this trouble to avoid one simple word?
Because it could easily lead us into the argument of “who’s working harder?” What does that fight sound like? Here are some examples. (See if you hear yourself…)
“I go to work every day and then come home and work some more. I do everything around here.”
“You don’t understand how hard it is to be with these kids all day long — alone. You get to go to lunch with people. You get adult time.”
“You only have them on the weekends, and you don’t realize everything that goes into the daily grind.”
And perhaps the most damaging.. both to the couple and to the kids..
“It’s your job to keep the kids. I have a job that I go to every day.”
What’s underneath the “who’s working harder” argument?
A myriad of often unexpressed feelings lie underneath this fight. Pressure, fear, anxiety, loneliness…even jealousy. But often you don’t take the time – or even have the time – to dig up what’s underneath. Instead, you feel attacked. And attack back. It can happen in childfree relationships, but it’s particularly damaging with parents.
Parenting — good parenting — is hard work. While it brings a sense of fulfillment found no where else, it’s still a continuous, non-stop effort. You’re not quite sure you’re doing it “right” — whatever that means. Children are little black holes of need — typically the younger they are, the more this is true. You may have a child or children who have special needs – children who aren’t going to reach more normal markers of growing up and away. Many things can happen along the way that are frightening – drug abuse, alcohol use, sexting over social media, bullying, depression, peer pressure to do crazy things, school shootings.
You can feel totally lost in the difficulty of it — especially if you feel alone.
Seven steps to being vulnerable with your partner…
So what would it be like to actually talk about those feelings — the loneliness, the fear — that are underneath the “who’s working harder” debate?
What might that sound like?
“I’m needing a little reassurance from you.”
“So often, I’m not sure what to do.”
“I worry that we’ve got too much going on. The kids are on their iPads all the time.”
“I’m not sure how they’re handling the divorce.”
“I’m afraid my job is taking over my life. And I feel like I’m not present with the kids.”
You may not be partnered with someone who’d naturally think of having this kind of conversation. Or maybe you struggle yourself with revealing vulnerability.
That doesn’t mean you can’t try. Here are seven steps that may help you avoid falling down the rabbit hole of blame and defensiveness.
- Talking about talking — set up the conversation for success before you actually begin it.
- Take responsibility for your part, and gently point out that sometimes both of you can get angry or blaming. But you’re talking about it rationally — not jumping down anyone’s throat.
- Admit that you don’t show gratitude enough. Many of us don’t.
- Talk mostly about yourself, not your partner. (Use “I’ statements.)
- Ask questions rather than always pontificating about what you think. Invite your partner to do better, hopefully appealing to their desire to parent well.
- Reveal your own vulnerability, and invite your partner to do the same.
- Set the stage to make decisions together — you’re saying you value the partnership.
These steps can work for many couples. It may be a little awkward at first, and may even deteriorate into the same old pattern. But you can try again, using all seven steps, with the the conversation sounding something like this:
“You know, sometimes when we try to talk about the kids, I know I get mad and want credit for what I’m doing — and sometimes I feel that you do too. It’s hard to risk hearing that you may not agree with me about something, because I’m worried or scared. I want to get to a place where I let you know that I respect you, and even thank you more for what you do. And it would feel good to get that back. But I’d like to talk about Aaron’s dyslexia (or whatever the topic might be…), and try to be more open about what you’re saying, and you be open to me. Would you be willing to do that? Maybe we can decide what both of us need to try to do, and do it together.”
Not simple. But kindness and respect can go a long way toward making both of you feel competent as parents.
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Originally published on November 11, 2017; updated and republished on January 8, 2023.