I was 27, sitting at the kitchen table across from my wife, Mel, the first time I said, “I did the dishes for you.” Then I winked, seductively, as though I expected an award. Actually, I’d probably said something like that before about any number of domestic duties — to which my wife probably rolled her eyes or quietly seethed. But this time, about five years into our marriage and still adjusting to Mel being a stay-at-home mom, she called me out.
And thank goodness.
At the time, I was attending graduate school full-time in addition to teaching classes. We’d been living in Minnesota for just over a year, and with our closest family in Utah, it made sense for Mel to stay home and care for our two young children, Tristan and Norah. It was an adjustment, to say the least. Until then, she’d worked full-time at a hardware store while I worked full-time waiting tables and taking classes for to get my undergrad degree.
I’m not sure what exactly came over me when she became a stay-at-home mom, but for some reason, I drifted into this 1950s mentality that Mel had one job, and that was to manage the home. I didn’t really think much about the fact that I lived there, too, or that she was caring for my children.
It was evening when I mentioned doing the dishes. Our two children were in bed, and Mel was in pajama bottoms and an old concert T-shirt. I was in jeans and a black T-shirt. Mel leaned back, crossed her legs under the table, folded her arms, and looked me square in the eyes.
“Did you make sure to put in all your cereal bowls and dishes from lunch?” she asked.
I smiled back at her, ready for praise. “Sure did!” I said.
“And did you get the kids’ dishes from dinner?” she asked. “And the griddle from me making you your favorite chicken fried steak for dinner?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “I got all of it in there.”
“Great,” she said. “It sounds like you got all of your dishes, and all of our children’s dishes, and all of the dishes we used for our dinner, so it sounds to me like you really helped yourself. Nice work helping yourself and our children. That was sweet of you.”
I’ll be honest, this was not the reaction I was expecting. I assumed that because I’d helped out with what I saw as her stay-at-home mom duties, she’d be thrilled. That she might lean across the table, kiss me, and find our way to the bedroom where she’d perform a glorious act of gratitude. Instead, she made it sound like I was really only helping myself.
And the thing is, I didn’t even really wash them. I put them in the dishwasher which, more or less, took me about 20 minutes. And yet, there I was, expecting some gracious pat on the back, and when Mel didn’t give me gratitude for doing the dishes, I was offended.
I think a lot of men fall into this trap. We are happy to help out around the home, but when we do, we still feel like we are doing our wife a favor, when the reality is, we are simply pitching in. Not that you shouldn’t give your partner praise; you should. But let’s be honest, guys, do we really deserve praise for washing our own dishes? Or making the bed we slept in? Or doing our own laundry? Or doing our own children’s laundry?
Ultimately, partnership looks like pitching in and doing these tasks because, you know, they need to be done.
Naturally, I didn’t figure this out until the next morning. That night Mel called me on my crap, and we got into an argument. A big one. We went to bed angry. I felt offended, and I’m confident Mel felt like she’d married some self-centered dickhead. It wasn’t until the next morning when I watched Mel unload the dishwasher that I started to really consider what she said.
I watched her take out every dish as I ate breakfast, and I thought about the fact that I had some connection to each one. I thought about what she said, and I realized that she was right. I hate when that happens, but I think everyone does, man or woman. Despite my wounded ego, I did the mature thing.
“You’re right,” I said. “Those dishes were the family’s. Not yours.”
I didn’t say anything more, but I didn’t really need to. Mel gave me what I’d been looking for the night before.
“Thank you for understanding,” she said. Then she kissed me and went back to unloading the dishwasher.
I got up from the table and helped her.