A new partnership

Recently my husband and I ended up fighting on and off all weekend about (of all things!) housework. The argument went something like this:

He said: The house is so messy right now.

I heard: You are falling down on the job.

He meant: I’m so f***ing tired right now.

I said: So you wish we were back in the patriarchal model and everything were sparkling when you walked in the door?

He heard: So you’re are a misogynist pig?

I meant: I am just so f***ing tired.

Re-phrase and repeat for several hours of nitpicking each other.

We hadn’t really fought in months, but after a long trip, and a flurry of church activities and a few illnesses thrown in for good measure, we were both exhausted. That type of tiredness that sticks around even after a full nights sleep.

It’s funny how the old tapes com rushing back whenever we clash over housework. If he even mentions that something is messy, I feel instantly insecure and angry at myself for not keeping up with it. We both have old phrases and ways of talking about things that trigger the old gender roles and resentment. I get defensive, he gets angry. I get angry, he gets hurt. And instantly I doubt myself, what if I’m wrong and all the old beliefs are true. To keep our home calm and strife free, maybe I really am supposed to keep the whole home up and running, rooms clean, laundry kept up, meals planned and on time. Then my husband could come home and be free from stress, able to relax and put up his feet after a long hard day of work. Except… then I remember that those teachings were wrong. When we adhered to the patriarchal roles we fought more than ever, and I was even more tired.

Truth is, we are doing so much better now than we were then. We have had very little practice seeing each other as true equals, we’ve only been at this for the last 2 years, and it’s been a lot of trial and error along the way. Sometimes I get so frustrated with myself for repeating old patterns, falling back into old beliefs and self-hatred. I get so fed up with the now. Sometimes it feels like this is never going to get easier, like I am going to be fighting guilt over allowing my husband to help around the house for the rest of my life.

But, I know that isn’t true. We have been getting better at this. My husband changes diapers now, and he’s learning how to do laundry. I’m getting better at asking for help when I need it, instead of shaming myself into doing it all. I get up with the babies all night long, but then he wakes up with them in the morning at dawn and I sleep an extra hour. Our communication skills continue to improve. And sometimes it seems like we need to fight a little just to re-assert our mutual goal of being equals.

Sometimes at the end of a long day I still find myself apologizing that I am behind on the laundry and I’ve left the baking pans on the counter for almost a week now. And then my husband reminds me that caring for the home is both of our responsibility. We both work during the day, he goes to his office and I care for our 4 children. And then at the end of the day we have family time and we tackle the house together. The housework is both of our responsibility, if I can get some of it done during the day, great! If not, that’s OK too.

When we eliminated the artificial gender role blueprints from our family, we had to figure out what worked for us for the first time. It was so scary to drop all the ideas about marriage that we understood as mandatory for a good relationship. Even though those ideas weren’t really working for us, what if abandoning them meant our marriage couldn’t last? But we’ve more than lasted, we’ve thrived. It’s meant that he has to be accepting on the days he comes home to a disaster, and I have to be OK with him accidentally throwing my bra in the dryer.We work as a team, (an imperfect team, but a team) juggling kids and housework together. He is just as capable a parent as I am, and somehow all the housework gets done, even if sometimes we catch up on the weekends. Now we have communication instead of expectation, and that makes all the difference.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06233321050691782148 Michael Mock

    Wonderful! That's a really great set of developments.

    "Sometimes at the end of a long day I still find myself apologizing that I am behind on the laundry and I’ve left the baking pans on the counter for almost a week now. And then my husband reminds me that caring for the home is both of our responsibility."

    My wife and I have had this conversation, too. (Her: "I'm sorry the house is such a mess right now." Me: "Meh, if I cared that much, I'd be cleaning things. We'll catch up when we're less exhausted.") And our marriage has never been founded on a patriarchal model; it's always been about having each other's backs.

    Those expectations are weirdly ubiquitous. They sneak in at the weirdest times (usually when you're tired, hungry, sick, or otherwise not at your best). Good on you guys for helping each other not listen to them.

  • Anonymous

    Melissa, every young couple brings pre-concieved notions to their marriage that end up having to be discarded. Yours was the patriarchal stuff, but others have their own stuff. Parenting young children it pretty much the definition of "F*#king tired". What sets you and your husband apart is your willingness to communicate, to change and to grow. You will be fine. The housework that needs to get done will get done. Your children are very blessed.

    Just don't fill in the "F***" word in front of them. Take it from me, it is embarrassing when your darling toddler quotes you saying it. I don't really think that would be a problem for you — you are a far better mother to young children than I ever was. Maria

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04738076740941616678 Rebecca

    Love this. It's what marriage is about – trying and trying again; working it out; communicating; and realizing it's not always gonna be perfect.

    Keep writing and sharing – it's all so so good!

  • http://www.liberatedfamily.com Rebekah

    Awesome post. Everything you wrote about being equals in marriage is so healthy and true. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03117752360285429048 Jessica

    Melissa, have you read the book Spousonomics? I found it a really helpful take on approaching household chores (and everything else) in a marriage without falling into either the trap of division-of-labor-by-gender or the notion that everything has to be divided equally.

    Deconstructing what you meant vs. what he heard and vice versa is something Mike and I do all the time with each other. Just last night I made a comment about not keeping our pumpkins above the sink because they were getting moldy, and Mike snapped back at me. Then he explained that he'd heard it as "You should have known better than to put them there" and I said, no, I didn't think that at all, I was making a suggestion for the future. I agree that communication is so important in marriage, because we've headed off a lot of fights by recognizing our communication weaknesses.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03792937108732259684 priest’s wife

    …reading into things! Dangerous! But as a good married couple- just try to give each other the benefit of the doubt- that the other person really has good intentions- even if everyone is TIRED!

  • Elizabeth

    You are so fortunate to have your man. I mean, what if *you* realized you can't go on with your old beliefs anymore, but he refused to go along? It's wonderful you're finding ways to grow together as a couple.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13674332089949439989 Melissa

    Michael- Yes! Expectations do tend to sneak in, and wreak their havoc on relationships. I like what you said about a marriage where you have each others backs. :)

    Rebecca- :) It isn't always perfect, and that's OK.

    Rebekah- You're welcome :)

    Jessica- I haven't read that book, but it sounds interesting. Dividing by gender or percentages doesn't really make a lot of sense. We've found dividing by gifts/what we enjoy doing works for us, and we actually end up doing many of our chores as a family.

    Priest's wife- It's the hardest when everyone is tired. Sometimes it's better to just go to bed! lol!

    Elizabeth- No kidding! We would not have come this far if he was not the sweetheart he is. It's scary to think how easily my story could have been different. So thankful that we've been journeying together.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10853868724554947854 Sheila

    My husband and I have that fight all the time. And it's almost the only fight we ever have that ever turns ugly.

    I don't understand why housework is such a big deal. It's just some dishes and laundry, right? And I don't believe it's a job that belongs only to either of us.

    Sometimes it's hard for me to tell the difference between "I'm really tired and having a messy house stressed me out" and "I expect you to do 100% of the chores because YOU SAID you wanted to be a stay-at-home mom." Especially because, when he's angry, he tends to say things like the latter. And yet I'm so hypersensitive to anything that smacks of an attempt to dominate me that I must admit I overreact every bit as much as he does.

    How to sort through this fight? Especially when "really tired" describes both of us all the time?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17871256362646081536 Amber

    Oh Melissa, I wish I could chat with you on the phone. I understand exactly what you mean by undoing years of patriarchy. I know that with my working–the first time ever in our marriage–it has been an adjustment, for both of us. So thank you for sharing your journey, and know that I am reading and wishing I could just chat with you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13674332089949439989 Melissa

    Sheila- Whew! I feel your pain, sometimes as a parent of young children it feels like we'll always be tired. I can't tell you how to work out the debate between you and your husband, I wasn't really the one who put the wheels in motion over here (it was actually my husband who decided that he wanted to change how we did things!) I will say that with all the kids we have had to relax our standards a bit and be able to live with a bit of a mess, reducing the amount of stuff we have has helped (less stuff, less to clean/maintain) and doing many of the chores together so we can have fun socializing has helped too. Also just thought, even if the housework was 100% your job, why would he have any say over how you do it? Do you criticize his performance at his workplace?

    Amber- You are an inspiration! Watching you go through your adjustment to working out of the home has been encouraging for me. I'd love to chat :) Feel free to email me or message me on facebook to continue the conversation. :)

  • Sarah Z

    I love this. I remember back in the day (as in five years ago but feels like 25) when we were doing our laundry at your house. I was running late from work one night and feeling bad because the load I had put in that morning still needed to be dried before I could take it home. I knew your husband was home studying and thought if I called and asked him to throw the stuff in the dryer then I could take it home right away and not interrupt your evening any more than necessary. So I called and I will never forget your husbands response. He said "Um sure…how do I do that?" I thought he was asking what setting so I told him it was just towels and jeans and any setting was fine. He basically repeated his question and it dawned on me that he didn't know how to work the dryer. I remember in that moment feeling so sorry for you, and thinking that it was such a pity his mom was a "magic cleaning fairy" and hadn't taught her kids how to do things around the house. It was a few more months before I realized it was a gender thing not a lack of education thing. You guys have come so far from that place. I am so glad to hear that he is helping out more, and that you are getting confidence in knowing that you can do whatever you want and be whoever you want to be.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13674332089949439989 Melissa

    Sarah Z- Hee hee! Yeah, he really had no idea how to do anything. :) Sweet, but clueless.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03772650901291752373 David

    I grew up in a household with no religious practices. My Dad was an atheist, and Mum was a lapsed Catholic. They were also older than the norm when they got married and started a family, so Mum had worked for nearly twenty years prior to marriage.

    The thing is, the housework was sorted by ability, not gender. Ok, this did leave Mum doing the inside stuff and Dad the outside for the most part, but dishes were always done together, with us kids helping as we grew, and Dad could cook and clean if he needed to, and did.

    Now, I am approaching fifty myself and am quite capable of doing the cooking or the laundry or ironing a shirt if I need to, and I do. If my wife is ill or busy with other things life goes on as normal for us and the kids because we are both equally capable of running the house, and we are both equally willing to do so. It is a job that needs doing, not 'her job' or 'my job'.( And I often cook dinner etc. because I want to, and we both cook different things, so who cooks can depend on what we feel like eating)

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    hehe, oh guys and laundry. This is not something that is only limited to patriarchal culture. I remember one time when I was at my ex's house and I accidentally got the oil he uses for his guitars on one of my favorite shirts and was upset. His response: "Well…it's all-natural?" LOL! He's anything but into gender roles, was certainly not raised to be spoiled, and has been doing his own laundry for years (not very well, I guess). I just think men still get the message some how that they don't need to know how to do domestic things, even if they're not consciously expecting a woman to do them.

    You really lucked out with your guy, which I know you know. I think the strength of character it takes to really question and reject much of what you've been taught is rare in a person–particularly when those teachings have been that you get to be the boss all the time. How many people can really do that? Giving up power is not something most people are willing to do, even when having that power doesn't actually make you happy–it's still addictive.

  • Anonymous

    This made me laugh so much! I love the beginning! The root problem of everything can come down to being just Sooo tired! My husband and I also have 4 kids, and I stayed home and even homeschooled until this school year. Now the kids are at school and I work in his office- quite a change. We have this same fight sometimes- thanks for sharing! You are a very talented writer. Keep writing! – Bridget

  • Disillusioned Ex-Homeschooler

    I really enjoy your blog, Melissa, and I wish you and your husband the best as you work toward an equitable division of labor. It can be an area of tension for all couples, but especially if you're raised with a set of expectations that do not fit your situation and become a burden place on oneself or one's spouse. You sound like a great couple, and I admire your dedication to thinking through your assumptions and coming up with solutions that work for you both.

  • mollymakesdo

    I'm so glad to read this post, I think you and your husband are making great strides. I remember a post (the "Shame" post) where you asked for some house help and he rebuked that he was too tired from work (even though you'd been working with the kids for the same amount of time that day) and you slid back into your old way of thinking. I remember feeling a twinge about that post – I wanted to shout that Yes! Both of you had had long days at your "jobs" and if you'd just pitch in together you'd both get to put your feet up for a moment with out guilt or hurt feelings.

    Even entering into a marriage with ideas of equality this is a hard thing to balance – I often get frustrated that my husband and I don't do equal housework… and then I remember that I'm a perfectionist when it comes to making dinners, doing laundry and deep cleaning and I see the fair trade of having him have father/son time while I get things done right the first time ;)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08944990982584233095 Jessica

    Hello Melissa, Just catching up with you- always appreciate your insight and honesty. It seems like you and your husband have found a really great balance after some huge changes- I'm sure that many couples would not fall into a new pattern nearly so quickly. Changes like this could mean disaster for some marriages, it is really great that you have been able to stick it out and communicate and appreciate each other like you do.

  • Jakob

    I am tired all the time, today (Saturday) I intended to take a short nap after lunch before I wanted to get some work done and I ended up sleeping for two hours. I wonder how I will cope with all the work and chores when our first child arives by the end of this year. What frustrates me is that I always looked forward of growing up, being an adult with a regular day job and starting my own family, but now, as it all finally starts after so many years of schooling (college, law school, PhD) I am just tired all the time, unhappy with my job and struggling to find a job I would enjoy doing. I expect that such a job would give me the energy back I used to have. I hope that I am just tired all the time out of the disappointment with my current job. At the same time I feel that I might be unable to keep the unspoken promise to myself and my wife that I will be able to provide for our family (my wife makes for money than I do plus she loves her job, but with the child ariving – how will things change?). Is there an end to being tired all the time? Before "re-tire-ment"? During the time of the "real life"?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13674332089949439989 Melissa

    Jakob- It sounds like you are unhappy with your work situation, and it can be scary to contemplate changing it with a baby due soon. I hope that things will even out for you, have you thought about looking into seeing a Dr in case you have a health condition contributing to your tiredness? It can be overwhelming to put so much energy into years of school and find yourself done and "in the real world". The ways I know to help me resolve my tiredness are, living a simple enough lifestyle that we don't have to work 90 hours a week to support us, making sure that I take care of my body and my health, and talking out any emotional questions or issues I may have.