When our daughter came along, followed two years later by our son, my husband was quick to get to know them—how they liked to be held, what soothed them, what entertained them. Who he didn’t know then though was me, not in my new role of mother. It wasn’t his fault; I didn’t know myself either. We couldn’t have guessed how having kids would transform us or grasped how we’d wandered into a land not set up to care for us, otherwise known as modern parenthood.
Having lost my job just before our first child was born, I became a stay-at-home mom by default. I’d never imagined not working. I’d enjoyed my job, had a Masters degree in the field, and besides, my mom had always worked full-time at a business she owned in a building she owned. With her as my model I’d never envisioned a life at home. On top of that, my husband’s job required him to be out of town often, usually for two weeks at a time.
What’s this got to do with me? you might think. I have a wife, but she works, and I’m home every night by 6.
I was living a life I hadn’t considered, much less planned for, one that took everything I thought I knew about myself and flung it on the floor, like a child who’d lost a board game. Maybe something similar has happened to your wife or partner, and maybe you don’t even know it, or you have suspicions but aren’t sure.
What I wish my husband had known then, and what might be helpful for you now, is this:
- At first, I felt like I’d lost more than I’d gained. My identity was stripped away, and I didn’t know what or who was left. I mourned for my life pre-kids while feeling like I had no life post-childbirth. Even though I’d wanted our children the grief lasted years.
- Just as my husband’s anatomy didn’t uniquely equip him to earn money for our family, my anatomy didn’t uniquely equip me for domestic duties. Pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, yes, but beyond that I had no special skills nor interest in developing those related to cooking, cleaning, or changing diapers, keeping a running mental tab of what our family required, or reminding my husband and/or kids what needed to be done when and by whom. Even in male-female partnerships where both people work full-time, and even when they believe in an equitable division of labor, the woman still generally performs a disproportionate amount of household labor and caretaking, and often the man doesn’t realize it. Nor does he sometimes realize the bitterness or suffocation that can accompany it.
- I needed space for me. My time was valuable too and so was/is my spirit. It would have mattered far less how much I’d dedicated to domesticity if there was still plenty of room for the rest of me—the best of me—the part that’s engaged and engaging, creative, fun. As it was, devotion to home and family took over—and nearly took—my life.
- Likewise, I needed to use my brain. You’ve probably noticed caring for babies and small children can be mindless and boring. My brain is my best asset, and it requires regular exercise, its curiosity both stimulated and satisfied. Without it, I was depleted and unable to enthusiastically give.
- My struggles weren’t his fault, but I did need his full support to overcome them. Support that’s the equivalent of, “I’m not standing in your way” isn’t sufficient. I needed the kind of support that likely would have required him to be uncomfortable or make change or understand things he didn’t want to think about. I needed him to be open to me and my experience. I needed him to try to hear me even when I wasn’t communicating well.
Maybe you recognize these in your partner and are inspired to have a long-overdue conversation. Maybe you’ve experienced some of them yourself and could make a list of what you wish your wife had known when your kids were little. I hope you will.
To one degree or another, we’re all expected to shoulder burdens, appear stoic in the face of adversity, and push our needs aside to fulfill the roles we’ve been assigned. We must understand what each other is going through so we can create change that allows us, and our children, to thrive.
Though divided by the titles of “father” and “mother,” as parents we’re all in this together.
Ashley Kim is the Owner of Adventure Motherhood, which provides opportunities for moms to reclaim their adventurous spirit through travel, outdoor programs, and coaching. Follow on Instagram and Facebook.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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