Moms do too much. Period. In most families, Mom still orchestrates family life and Dad helps out. Even though today's fathers are much more involved with their kids and the housework than their own fathers were, mothers carry around an endless to-do list -- from buying birthday presents to making playdates to signing permission slips. Most dads have no idea how many details their wives deal with. In my work as a psychologist, I suggest that couples make a list of everything they each do on an average day and show their lists to each other. This is usually incredibly eye-opening for both.
Unfortunately, when a man does share more of the responsibility, it's often hard for his wife to let him take charge. The biggest gripe most dads have is that their wives criticize them, pointing out that a task is not done quickly enough or is done too quickly, or that the kids weren't fed right or dressed appropriately. But it's tough for a mother to stop being controlling because our society still blames her if her child is late for school or dressed improperly.
The result of this situation, however, is that Mom feels frustrated because she's swamped and Dad is angry because his wife makes him feel like he's never doing a good enough job. That leads to resentment, a lack of intimacy, and disagreements over minor issues.
Usually -- but that doesn't mean the balance of responsibility can't be more equitable. Even when moms are home full-time, they're likely to take on additional responsibilities -- with school committees, sports, or church -- and be just as frazzled as moms who work outside the home. A father shouldn't become more of an equal partner just so his wife won't be overburdened, but also because it'll improve his relationship with both his wife and his kids, and spice up the couple's sex life.
If Dad is more of a team player, his wife will feel as if she's being comforted and taken care of -- and that will make her more relaxed, affectionate, and interested sexually.
One of the main reasons why dads still tend to be less involved with child care -- and one they rarely own up to -- is that they think it's boring. Of course, most moms would be quick to admit that there are plenty of times when they'd rather be reading a book than driving their kids to soccer or putting them to bed. But it's during such "boring" moments that kids are likely to talk about what's happening in their lives. That's what keeps moms motivated -- they know in their gut that they're getting something back from their kids. When dads are part of the daily routines, their kids will look to them as well as Mom when they need comfort or advice.
People tend to think that dads are stricter and moms are more softhearted and willing to give in. There's some truth to that, but more often, fathers tend to be theoretical disciplinarians and sticklers for rules, while mothers are more flexible and pragmatic. For example, Dad might think it's wrong to give a child a snack before bed, but Mom has learned that it makes bedtime smoother and even cuts down on crankiness the next morning. Parents should try switching roles for a few days -- let Dad be responsible for getting the kids out of the house in the morning, for instance. He'll quickly become more empathetic about what his wife goes through every day and less judgmental about her decisions.
Sometimes you can't avoid it -- if you're in the car when you have a disagreement, what are you going to do? It's not okay, though, to call each other names or to bring up your laundry list of grievances. Try, at the very least, to make up in front of the kids, so you'll teach them how to solve disagreements.
Take a time-out yourselves. It's amazing how five minutes of calming down can give you a much clearer perspective on the issue.
For fathers, it's not just a question of changing behavior but changing their general attitude. (You even want to avoid talking about Dad's "helping out" more, because that term reinforces the assistant role.) Both parents need to agree that they're going to try to do things differently because it will be good for the whole family.
The most important thing moms can do is bite their tongue -- don't criticize, guide, editorialize, or monitor your husband when he's doing something for the kids. Unless your child is in danger of being hurt, just let it be. You'll be shocked how much more willing your husband will be to do things when he feels less micromanaged.
It's also a good idea for a father to call his wife shortly before he's expected home to find out what's going on -- who's in a bad mood, whether there's a lot of homework -- so that he'll be prepared to pitch in. The two of you should also try to spend at least a few minutes every evening talking about the details of your kids' day. The more both of you become experts in what's happening in their lives, the more engaged you'll feel and the less likely you'll be to fight.
Finally, claim your rights as a couple -- to have a private conversation even when the kids are around, to be affectionate with each other, and when you feel ready, to put a lock on your bedroom door. By focusing on nurturing each other, you can avoid the distance that develops between so many couples with young kids.
Copyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the June issue of Parents magazine.