Face it: for the 45,567,234th morning in a row since schools closed, there is no one waiting at the bottom of the stairs with a warm cup of coffee, slow-clapping in gratitude for the Herculean job you did to drag your ass out of bed early.
Are they the same crickets you have heard for years of Herculean (Amazonian?) effort as a mom and wife? No, this is different. After 45,567,234 days stuck-at home, you have nothing left in the tank.
After surviving the worst school year in the history of school, you desperately need a break.
First of all, you are programmed to think that YOU are the problem. If you just did a better job of self-care/time management/organizing/etc. then everything would be humming along just fine. You know this is a trap, right? It’s a story you tell yourself that has a lot of gender bias in it.
It’s not you, especially with all the extra stress in this moment. Your difficulty juggling e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g right now is a function of capitalism. Yes, the very way that you keep the lights on and pay at the supermarket. The way you (would in a normal world) go on vacation. It’s a system that is held in place by a rigid set of gender rules (who works, who takes care of the kids, etc.).
The problem that I can help you solve: you can change the role you need to play in The Game of Capitalism. More importantly, I can help your partner adapt their role.
First of all, I know that not all mothers stay at home. Most share the financial burden for keeping the lights on, or at least tried to before COVID. You may be the primary breadwinner in your family. A growing number of mothers are parenting by themselves. And partners who share the same gender, are non-binary, or trans also have to negotiate a balance. Every family has unique dynamics.
This solution applies to any couple with a perceived breadwinner, and especially families with male breadwinners.
Some of you have told me that your partner is different. While this gives me hope that we are raising better men, I suspect that this formula could also benefit you. Write me to tell me if it doesn’t. I want to hear your story.
Male breadwinners create an imbalance. Remember that it wasn’t our choice. We were born into this, the same as everyone forced to play the game. Here’s the message that I was brought up with: As the male breadwinner in my family, I need to provide for the family or we will starve. I cannot fail. This is the story on the surface. The real story is deeper and darker. This is part of my thought process in the last few months:
“I need to provide for the family or I will feel desperate, without a purpose, and will die alone because I won’t deserve love. I will feel ashamed for not ‘being a man’ and it’s the embarrassment of that shaming, in my family’s eyes, that is the most horrific fate that I can imagine. So I’m not going to imagine it. I’m just going to fight through the desperate fear that grips me and wakes me up in the middle of the night, crisis after crisis. I’m going to do what I was trained to do with feelings: push them down. Instead of feeling them and dealing with them, I will work harder and faster to make sure that we stay afloat, which is really about me keeping it together.”
I’m not unique in hearing this story in my head. We need to change this dynamic for you and your family, and also because it’s damaging the physical, mental, and emotional health of too many men. The problem is that most of this story is unconscious. I locked a lot of this fear away to protect myself. You can call it fragility but, again, it’s a gender role that is reinforced by capitalism.
How does this information help you? We aren’t going to dig deep to unlock your partner’s unconscious story. That’s for their therapist to do. We are going to work to change the behavior that impacts you.
Follow these steps to give yourself some breathing space:
Step 1: What’s your bottom line?
Example: I will make dinner two nights in a row. Three is too much.
Step 2: Hold your boundary
Make a commitment to yourself and get support. Holding your boundary will take some time, some trial-and-error. You are allowed to have a learning curve.
Recruit an accountability partner to help you hold this boundary: ask a friend to check in with you. Suggest she create her own bottom line.
Step 3: Have a heart-to-heart
At some point in this process, you need to sit down with your partner and say, “this is what I’m doing. I need this or I’m going to completely lose my mind. At some point, I will need your help, not just kind words.”
When you have made the change, after a week or so, repeat Steps 1-3 for something else you need, or need to give up.
After you make a few changes, when a pattern starts to emerge, it’s time to sit down and have an extended heart-to-heart.
Step 4: Lay out what you need
“I was raised a certain way. My role as a mother and your partner was one thing and then it changed when things got added to my plate. You didn’t do it. The schools did. The economy did. I don’t know if you can see it, but I had to adapt to the added demands on me. I gave up things and figured out ways to do more.”
“I know that you were raised a certain way. You have responsibilities as a father and partner. We’re not going to be able to change that. We need to keep the lights on. The problem is that the world hasn’t added to your burden the same way it has for women. That was fine, sort of, until this pandemic. Now it’s breaking me.”
“We need to shift things. You might have to go through a little discomfort the way I have. We both need to adapt how we are splitting up the responsibilities.”
Making a bigger change will take a few times around the track. You need to begin somewhere. What is the most important thing you need, or need to give up? Let’s start there.
If you need additional help navigating these conversations, I have designed a brief, affordable coaching package for parents during this stressful time.
For additional ideas, check out this brilliant explainer of the mental load that women carry and two recent blog posts speaking from my perspective as the male-identifying partner: