You are here

Mad At Dad Part Two: How to Get Past the Anger

"It actually brought tears to my eyes," wrote one mom, who called herself Mamaford, after reading Parenting's February article "Mad at Dad." "I know I'm not alone, but to see some of my exact feelings on the page allowed me to let go of some of the anger."

Another mother, who called herself BNA's mom, wrote, "I'm so grateful for the 'Mad at Dad' article. I felt like the worst person in the world. My husband is one who can sit and watch TV but can't hear his son asking him to play with him while standing at his dad's feet... Thanks for letting me know I'm not the only one."

We struck a nerve with our "Mad at Dad" story, which talked about the surprising and regular anger many women feel toward their husbands for not sharing the family-life load. Based on a nationally representative survey of 1,000 moms, the story lit up the blogosphere and also got picked up by The New York Times, Salon, The Huffington Post, and the Associated Press, among many other places. And hundreds of parents -- moms and dads alike -- vented and shared their opinions and frustrations on (A note to those involved pops out there, like Sportswriter Dad, who chimed in that "I can braid hair and wipe butts with the best of them... I can do the chores and stay in tune to my kids' wants": We're not mad at you.)

It's a tough world out there for moms. We're surrounded by Judgy McJudgersons who jump down our throats if our kids have a meltdown in the cereal aisle, and if the thank-you notes don't get written, we're the ones who are viewed as disorganized -- not our husbands. Many of us are trying to keep it all together while holding down outside jobs, as well.

Is it really any wonder, then, that we sometimes feel crushed by the expectations, both our own and others'? When we don't get equal partners in the domestic trenches, the anger that results can sink our once-thriving relationships. It's one of the most common problems that Bonnie Eaker Weil, Ph.D., a New York family therapist and author of Make Up, Don't Break Up, sees in her practice.

"I'm finding a lot more women burned out," she says. "Two thirds of all women work outside the home and usually spend an additional thirty hours per week on childcare and housekeeping?and that's lowballing it. That's why they're so angry."

It can be a real danger to a marriage. You've seen the wear and tear kids put on a couch. They can do the same thing to your relationship. In fact, as many as 70 percent of partnerships start to nose-dive when kids enter the picture, Weil says. So how do we make things better? While you can't make a guy wake up and notice that the bathroom lightbulb's been burned out for three weeks, there is hope. We've got a five-step program that can help defuse a variety of flash points and make your marriage a happier partnership.

Step One: Raise Your Expectations

Even if you didn't negotiate an ironclad prenuptial agreement that he, too, shall scrub the gooey remains of dinner out of the kitchen sink, you can rewrite the rules of your marriage. Experts say it comes down, in part, to expectations.

First, recognize that equality is an attainable goal, says Francine M. Deutsch, a professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College and author of Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works. "As much as you see written about how the norm is that women do more," she says, "there is a significant number of couples who truly share the work of the home."

Women need to expect (and demand) an equal partnership. There's a message that fathers who pitch in are somehow special. Isn't she such a lucky woman to have a guy like that? we say.

While it's important to respect the pressure that men are under to provide for their families (even though most moms also work outside the home and many are the main breadwinners, too), we need to view a fifty-fifty partnership as a choice a couple makes together.

Regardless of whether you both hold jobs outside the home or one partner stays at home, you need to "establish the principle that the work at home is just as valuable, just as hard, and just as worthy of time off as the work outside the home," Deutsch says.

Step Two :Get Him On The Same Page

Both times that she went out of town, her husband either hired a sitter to "give him a break" or called in her mom for backup. Afterward, when the whole family was together for a week on vacation, he told her he had a much better idea of what her life was like. "He was much more appreciative of me," she says. And now he understands why she">// Once he's walked in your shoes, you can come up with a plan for managing your life together.

Step Three: Divide and Conquer

The best way for both partners to correct the unequal division of labor (and understand it, if the Freaky Friday switcheroo didn't drive home the point) is to put it in writing. Start by each making a list of everything you're doing on behalf of the family and the time it takes to do it. This includes bill paying, cleaning, shopping, organizing, taking the kids to the doctor's office, filling out their permission slips, helping with homework, RSVPing to birthday parties, wrapping gifts... it's going to be a long list.

And it will be eye-opening. Both of you will see, in black and white, just how much you're managing. You might also realize he's doing some things you hadn't recognized. Just as likely, though, he's going to see that there's more he can contribute.

Ask yourself, too, whether you're doing some things that don't need to be done, like striving for a House Beautiful standard when House Adequate is fine. Liesel Anderson, a Santa Cruz, CA, mom, settled for that when her daughter was a preschooler and her son was a colicky infant. Her husband was working 12-hour days, and she felt like she was shoveling a mountain with a spatula. "It hit me, as I was rubbing fingerprints off the fridge handle at eleven o'clock on a Tuesday night, that I had to let some things go."

A word of advice: Seeing the hideous imbalance on paper will likely reignite your anger and frustration. As you work together to even out the division of labor, try to stay positive, even though it may be challenging. You want to feel like you're solving things together instead of having dump-on-Dad time, says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., author of Peer Marriage and dozens of other books on relationships.

Once you've completed your lists, start discussing who should do what and when. As you reallocate responsibilities, keep in mind each other's strengths and weaknesses, but don't be limited by them, advises Weil. Just because he's never been great at planning a week's worth of meals for the grocery-store run doesn't mean he can't learn.

Then convert those responsibilities into a weekly schedule. Need help? Consider using a free online calendar like the ones at Google, Windows Live, or to manage tasks, activities, and shopping lists. Agree that you will both look at the schedule every night to see what needs to be done the next day.

For best results, all the experts stress the importance of affection and positive reinforcement. Weil is a big fan of combining talks about the daily schedule with a hug or a kiss. Not only does this remind both of you that you're sharing these responsibilities as a team, but the physical contact also gets the endorphins flowing, which will help you associate family-care tasks with a pleasurable dopamine high!

Having a formalized plan hopefully will mean that one partner (okay, you) doesn't need to nag the other to do his share of the workload, which is, of course, a common source of stress. "The more you can build the sharing into your schedule, the less it becomes a contentious issue," says Amy Vachon, who with her husband, Marc, wrote the forthcoming Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents. She and Marc alternate chores like picking up their two kids from school and making dinner on weeknights.

Another tip: When it comes to housework, keep an eye out for the chores that are hot spots. Most couples end up arguing about the same few trouble areas, says Amy Vachon. If you can isolate and tackle these problems -- like how frequently the bathroom needs to be cleaned, or who is going to buy the dog food -- both of you will make huge gains.

Step Four: Lower Your Standards

If you've been in charge of many aspects of your home and your child's life, you're naturally going to be more competent at things like the schedule,says Amy Vachon. You'll need to let go of some of that turf.

This can be the hardest part for a mom who's been in the driver's seat for a while. Your husband isn't going to do everything to your exact specifications. Just because we're fanatics about dust-free baseboards doesn't mean our husbands have to be. And just because we never feed a baby pureed spinach for breakfast doesn't mean it's wrong.

Anderson, the Santa Cruz mom, had to let go of her "control freak" ways when her husband took the sugar-free peanut butter she'd purchased and used it to make sandwiches -- with marshmallow fluff.

"It was something the kids called a 'daddy sandwich,'" she says. "It's become one of those 'legend in our family' things, and it's a treat -- not an everyday thing -- but a Fluffernutter sandwich is not going to ruin my kids."

As you work with your new schedule, try to appreciate the small steps forward when you can, like when he does the laundry without being asked. "If he didn't fold the clothes, try to be happy that he washed the clothes," says Weil. Yes, it's frustrating when everything isn't done the way you would do it. But is your relationship really worth less than neatly folded laundry?

Sometimes, experts say, being happy with the effort leads to greater feelings of happiness overall. "Fighting can leave you feeling really worn out," Weil says.

And if your partner does something mind-numbingly stupid, like forgetting to feed the kids, resist the urge to blow up and seize control. When you do this, you make your husband feel incompetent, says Schwartz. You also train him to expect that you'll cover for him.

"You really have to stand back and talk about it in a calm way, not necessarily when it's happening in the heat of anger," adds Deutsch.

The bottom line: Involve your husband as your partner, not your employee. Ultimately, this is a gift to your children, says Marc Vachon. "Moms and dads are different, but they both need to be equally valued," he says.

Step Five: See What You Can Learn From Him

Moms are mighty machines of awesomeness in the ways we multitask: We can fill out school forms, stir pasta, and keep the baby's fingers out of the cat's eyes all at the same time. Many men, however, seem unable -- or unwilling -- to do more than one thing at once. Ask him to watch the kids after breakfast and he will. But the dirty dishes may still be sitting on the kitchen table when you return.

Fact is, though, that doing ten things at once may be overrated at home. "It can mean that you're not in the moment with your kids as much," says Marc Vachon. "It's useful to multitask, but it's also useful not to multitask."

Another lesson we can take from Dad's playbook: Find time not to do any "tasking" at all. In our original survey, 50 percent of moms reported that their husbands got more time for themselves than they did. Given free time when, say, the baby is napping, many moms are more likely to use that time to load the dishwasher, while dads might use it to surf the web or check the score of the game.

At the advice of her marriage counselor, Martin, the Seattle mom, started designating a quitting time each day. Even if it's as late as 9 p.m., having a stopping point to her workday has done wonders for her happiness and her relationship. She can pick up a book, chat with her husband, watch a movie with him, or do whatever she wants without feeling guilty -- almost.

"It's been really great," she says, "even if it's hard not to feel guilty. But my husband doesn't feel guilty when he wants to read and there's laundry to do, so I'm trying to enjoy myself."

Another mom from our February story, Lucy King of Franklin, TN, has started taking walks by herself after dinner while her husband tidies up the kitchen and watches the kids. "This is really helpful," she says, "especially when I have both boys home all day and they fight constantly."

It's critical to have time to do things that make you happy. You can't leave your needs out of the equation, and it's difficult to take care of yourself if all of your time is spent taking care of your home and family.

In the long run, everyone is happier when dads contribute more -- even dads. In her interviews with 150 couples for her book, Deutsch found that the men who'd made the compromises required for a fifty-fifty parenting split were more satisfied at home.

"Every single one of them felt there had been this incredible payoff," she says. "There were huge benefits for the parents and the kids." Not the least of which is a mom who isn't angry all the time.

Martha Brockenbrough is the author of Things That Make Us [Sic], a snarky guide to avoiding bad grammar. She lives in Seattle.