Marriage and parenting can fall into the "you don’t know what you don’t know" category. You don’t know what you should have agreed upon until you’re full-fledged, certifiably—IN IT! Until the 1000th dirty sock you pick up off the floor makes you blow a gasket. Or when you feel like you’re dragging your infant to every family wedding and bar mitzvah across state lines, only to pass her around to total strangers for hours instead of spending cozy, quiet time with her. Or when your partner says, "Honey, you never laugh anymore." And you say, "BECAUSE NOTHING IS FUNNY!" Like I said, in it.
Partnered parents can spend a lifetime locking horns or brewing under-the-surface resentments. Ideally you would have known exactly what conversations to have before you braved this whole parenting adventure together. Somewhere under the rainbow you are in lockstep—but rainbows are so temporary and we live in this reality, with opinionated aunts, uncles and in-laws. The good news is, there’s still time to talk it through.
Here are two of the most common topics I see warranting open, empathetic, patient discussion for partnered parents. While of course, there are others to discuss, when couples begin to see progress in these two areas, some of the other conversations around career, life and dreams begin to open up with possibilities instead of roadblocks.
1. Your approach to including extended family
Family can be quite a polarizing topic and approaches can vary widely in different cultures. So, when you put two different cultures together in a marriage and raise the stakes with a child—you get a lot of room for discussion and debate on how closely involved your extended families will be in both parenting and your lives in general.
My recommendation is that you and your partner become a unified front with a single message to family. You two work together to agree on how inclusive your immediate family will be. You choose what is important to your new family and which traditions, holidays and birthdays will be celebrated where and with whom. If you are not together on this, resentments will grow and you may feel you are constantly on the defensive due to an overwhelming influence from extended family members.
Know that both of your families will be disappointed sometimes. And when those moments come—whether it’s with plates flying across a dining room or with a look that can sear through you like a laser—take a moment to let all parties involved know that you understand this may be hard and you care about each of them, but doing what you and your partner feel is best for your immediate family is priority. Setting boundaries will not be easy, especially in the beginning, but if you and your partner discuss what’s not working for you, create a plan together and continue to be aligned—it does get easier.
2. The desired division of labor
Here’s where we need a cultural reset. If you grew up with a stay at home parent and now you’re in a partnership where both you and your partner work full-time, assume there needs to be a complete disruption in the cultural norms of who does what around the house. If you are the partner who feels completely overwhelmed by not only the number of tasks you’re doing, but also the number of family related roles for which you’re the one in charge, you’re due for this sit down with your partner, ASAP. If you’re the one who wishes your partner wasn’t so negative and "naggy" all the time, you can bring up this topic with empathy and a willingness to listen.
When it comes to dealing with what’s now being called "the mental load" of parenting and family life, it’s important to separate the feelings that come from the unequal division of a task and how you can better distribute. It’s communicating things like, "When you’re sitting on the couch watching TV while I’m doing a steady stream of dishes, folding laundry, making lunches and unclogging the sink, it makes me feel like I’m in this alone. I’m angry and overwhelmed and I need your help in making a change." And, "When I try to help, you tell me I’m not doing things right so I’ve basically given up trying. When I can’t do things in a way that you approve of—I feel helpless, useless and see us growing farther apart." By working through some of the emotions that have built up around the division, you’re setting yourself up to approach the tasks at hand with clearer heads and a commitment to help each other through.
Then when it comes to the actual tasks, I like to take a page from one of my favorite books on this topic, Tiffany Dufu’s, Drop The Ball, where she recommends that partners create a spreadsheet (or list with paper and pen) of all the tasks, determine which are the most important and must be done and assign them to someone "in the village." This could be either partner, the kids (if they’re old enough), extended family members, babysitters, neighbors, etc. And then choose the tasks that together you’ve decided you will not do. Don’t assign them to anyone and work to release any guilt you may have around not doing them. Meet about your list weekly or twice a month to reduce the urge to nag about tasks not completed.
As with any weighty topics you discuss with your partner, they’re best done 1) while you’re alone 2) in a calm environment and 3) not in the heat of an argument. When you’re in an argument, you will most likely say things you would never say with a clear head. I recommend that before the conversation, you do something that brings you energy like exercising, chatting with a close friend, or listening to music you love. When you do those tasks that bring you energy, you reduce stress and become more open to possibilities. And for these intense topics—you’ll want to get your creativity muscles working to their peak performance. These are not easy conversations and things may never match the ideal in your mind, but the more you work through them and acknowledge your progress, the more you can commit to each other that you will continue to practice.