Updated: Aug 8
This post is in response to another post on the FB Moms In Tech group. The post was around that women tends to do most/all of the "emotional labor" around household/family responsibilities, while men tends to.... not.
I don't have the data on this, but based on the responses to the post this seems to be a common problem between married couples. While my husband and I certainly had our share of struggles and fights, over the years I feel like we've addressed some of the larger "load balancing" issues, and below is some tips/tricks/ideas that might help.
Over 10+ years of marriage counseling, I’ve realized that many men have a much stronger sense of “task avoidance” than women do. If they don’t feel like they can/want to do something, they can pretty much ignore it and usually someone else (mom, wife, etc) will pick up the pieces. OR, it’ll just fall through the cracks; it doesn’t bother them as much when things don’t work out because, they (with inherent privilege) will often be able to “fix” it (beg for forgiveness, ask for an exception, please please just this one time?), or they manage to just let it go.
Here are some solutions (at least I hope these are solutions).
Part 1: “learned helplessness.” Whenever they don’t know how to do something, they ask a million questions because they want to “figure it out.” But the reality is they don’t want to figure it out themselves, they want YOU to figure it out.
In this case, give VERY CLEAR instructions about what you’re looking for. Example: You: “Please register/sign up/login our child on the school app (Google Classroom, Clever). Please 1. go through the email from the teacher/principal/IT guy to figure out how to log on, and 2. Teach the kid how to log on. Your job is done when the child can log onto his school chromebook without needing either of us for help. And add: I KNOW you can do this because you set up your own workstation at work, which is MUCH more complicated than logging onto the school app. I believe in your capabilities.”
Him: “I can’t find the email from school.”
You: “Hm, I wonder if you’re getting emails from the school. Please email the principal directly to get added to the system so you can get the same emails I do. The kid needs access to the school app by _____ date. Please make sure that he has access before that date, thank you!”
(Check-in before school starts and ask your child to show you how to log onto the school app)
Over time they will learn how to do these things and won’t need such clear instructions every time.
Part 2: “I don’t want to screw it up,” which happens to my husband a lot. He really does want to help, but doesn’t want to “do it wrong.” Example:
Me: “Please clean out the fridge. Please throw out anything that looks/smells old, or anything you don’t want to eat anymore. You DON’T have to check with me if you throw it out. If you throw out something that I wanted to keep, that’s my bad. Once you’ve thrown the food out, please also put the dirty containers in the dishwasher, or just wash them and put them away. THANKS! I know you’re better at this because you’re much more sensitive to food that’s old/food you won’t eat, so you’re a much better judge than I am.”
Him: “can I check *some* of the things with you?”
Me: “Nope. You have FULL AUTHORITY to throw ANYTHING out. I promise I won’t be upset.”
Part 3: it’s easier to not see the problem. Example: I get up every morning to make breakfast for the kids. I do this because the kids need food, not because I enjoy getting up early or making breakfast. Husband gets up leisurely, showers leisurely, and strolls into the kitchen when we’re already eating.
Me: “I need more help with the kids in the morning.”
Him: “Looks like you’re making breakfast and you’ve got it covered. Kids can help getting the plates out.”
Me: “No, I don’t need help with cooking, I need help with the kids. Before breakfast they need to pack up their stuff, go pee and wash hands. I can’t cook AND get them to do the things, so I need your help.”
Him: “What time should I get up in the morning?” Me: “I don’t know how long it will take you to get ready. Since breakfast is at 8:00 am (during the school year it’s 7:00 am), please be ready to help the kids at 7:50 am. However long it takes you to get up, shower, get dressed…. That’s up to you. I need you ready to deal with the kids at 7:50 am.”
Part 4. They don’t know the urgency of the problem. Some things you consider very urgent, they might think it’s something they can do over the next two weeks.
In our house we do the “top 3” every weekend. Every weekend:
husband: “What are the top 3 priorities for this weekend?”
Me: “#1, #2, #3. #1 being that it HAS TO HAPPEN before the weekend is over, and so on. I sometimes ask if he needs help with #1, but #1 is the ONE thing I need him to do.”
Sometimes he’ll add more things to the list, but I know those are “nice to haves” and don’t expect that they get done.
Part 5: Everything has an owner.
Just like at work, someone has to “own” the project from start to finish.
For example, in my house I own the food, so I’m in charge of meal planning, the procurement, preparation, cooking of the food, and dealing with leftovers. When my husband cooks I leave him clear instructions on what to make, but ultimately I am in charge of food.
Similarly, he owns the yard/garden. So anything that has to do with the yard is his, unless he specifically asks me to do it. Same thing with taxes. He owns our taxes so it’s his job to get all the documentation to our CPA, answer all the questions, and make sure that taxes are filed in a timely manner. If the taxes aren’t done because he didn’t send the CPA the document, that’s his problem, not mine. And if we have to pay a fine, that’s what it is.
Where there are no clear owners, assign ownership. Example: “I’ll read all the emails from school if you deal with homework.”
And if/when your kid didn’t do/turn in his homework, and you get a nice reminder email from the teacher - DO NOT RESPOND! Your husband owns this, let him deal with it.
If something is clearly not working out, ask him to trade his thing for another thing. If he doesn’t want to deal with homework he can deal with pickups every day.
Part 6: There are many ways to do things, and his way and your way might be different. Example:
Me: “Please clean up the garage so I have this much space [insert dimension] to work out.”
Him: “You mean this stuff? Or this stuff? Or these are all things to donate, where should I donate them?”
Me: “I don’t know. Maybe you could post on Nextdoor? I don’t really have a strong opinion about any of the stuff, except that I need this much space to work out. It’s super for me that I can work out tomorrow, so can you have it cleared by tomorrow morning at 9:00 am?” Husband proceeds to make a giant mess. Then he does get everything cleared off the floor, except there’s a giant pile of kids' art work in the corner. Don’t obsess about the pile, you got what you asked for, which is space to work out.
Anything you’ve asked your spouse to do, leave him to do it. Don’t fix it, don’t obsess. ASK for the thing you actually NEED (i.e. space to work out) and manage for outcome, not process.
Part 7: It’s like training a dolphin.
Have you ever seen a dolphin show? Every time the trainer asks the dolphin to perform a trick, as soon as they’re done, they get a treat. Same with husband. :-)
Husband put dishes away from the dishwasher, even though you did it 2 times before -- THANK YOU for putting away the dishes, it saved me a lot of time!
Husband vacuums after dinner (even if you vacuum every day) - THANK YOU for doing that, it was bothering me and I didn’t get a chance to do it.
Husband sends in the school forms, even though you collected them. THANK YOU for doing this part. (Then next time give him the other parts to do)
If your husband is into physical rewards, a hug or a kiss goes a long way.
The fact that they don’t express appreciation for what you do doesn’t mean you can’t thank him in the moment. If you want acknowledgement for the things you do, that’s a separate topic and should be discussed separately.
Part 8: Communication is KEY.
For my friends who are getting married, my #1 recommendation to them is to do a “weekly sync” (just like you would at work) at a specific time every week.
During the sync, talk about your upcoming week. Are there any particular days that will be challenging for you? Ask for help.
Figure out who’s cooking dinner what nights (if different from the norm). Who’s dropping off/picking up the kids (if different from the norm).
Talk about what things you need to do together (example: plan a trip for Thanksgiving), and what projects you’re doing separately. If you’re doing a lot for a particular week, bring that up too and see where he can contribute. For example, the first week of school is always stressful.
Me: “I will take the kids to school every day, BUT, I need you to help get the kids ready so we can get out the door by 7:35 am.”
Him: “What do you need?”
Me: “Get the kids up, dressed, pee, wash hands. They’ll need masks everyday. Socks and shoes on.”
Me: “I will put all the holidays/school closures on our joint calendars so we are prepared. Can you book backup sitters (if you work for FAANG, you get basically free backup care) for all the days that schools are closed? If you’re not sure let's go through the dates together.” If he’s not sure how to do it, you can walk him through the app ONCE then leave him to it. If he didn't get a sitter on a school closure day, then HE is on the hook to watch the kids.
Finally finally, it takes 2 to make a relationship work. Also marriage counseling. My husband and I started seeing a marriage counselor before we got married, then continued for the last 10+ years. Not every session will be a breakthrough experience, but over time it’s a great way to know what motivates you/your husband, what things are helpful to say, and more importantly, what things are NOT helpful to say. Marriage counseling is not a cure, but it’s a great starting point. I can’t recommend it enough.
Editor's note: It was a little scary posting this to a large FB group (15.4 K members) so I asked my husband to help me edit this. This post was written with his help.