I was in the living room playing Legos with our 3-year-old while my wife was at the kitchen table helping our middle daughter, Norah, with her homework. She’d been leaving her math homework at school for over a week, and now that it had come to light, she had close to 100 math problems to get done over the weekend to get caught up. It was not awesome.
The funny thing about when your child hides their homework and falls behind is that suddenly we all have to suffer. Because the fact is, Norah didn’t want to do her homework regardless of how much we incentivized her, punished her, or supported her. She was basically this unmovable homework boulder sporting brown bangs and kitty tights, and as I sat in the living room with our youngest, I could hear the frustration in Mel’s voice.
She wasn’t at 11, but close to 9, and suddenly I was faced with two options. I could hide out in the living room and avoid the whole situation. And I will be honest, I thought about it. I mean, honestly, I didn’t want to battle our daughter over her homework any more than Mel did. I don’t think any parent wants to sit next to a fidgety grade-schooler and drag them, kicking and screaming, through a slew of math problems.
I also had an out. When Mel asked for help, which she most likely would at any moment, I could tell her I was busy with the toddler. It was a valid excuse, but ultimately, it wasn’t 100% true. Aspen wasn’t fussy, and for the most part, she was playing on her own.
My second option was to step up and take over for my wife. I know her well enough to now when she’s had enough, when she needs a break. We’ve been together for almost 13 years.
I’ll be forthcoming; there was a time in my marriage, early on, when we first had children, that I would have, without a doubt, taken the first option — used the little one as an excuse and plugged my ears.
But what I’ve learned after being married for a while is that although, in the moment, avoiding stepping in for my wife in a frustrating situation might be nice for me in the short term, long term it was a dick move. It made me selfish, one-sided, and the fact is, that’s not what I want in my marriage. I want a partnership, and sometimes that means tagging in when your spouse is leaning over a steaming hot pile of dishes, her hair oily from not showering, eyes bloodshot from a long day with a tantrumming child, and offering her the chance to take a hot bath while you take over.
Sometimes it means stepping into the restroom when you hear your spouse struggling with a child who, for the life of them, cannot stop splashing water all over the bathroom.
And sometimes it means sitting down next to a very frustrated little girl who needs to finish her homework but is digging in her heels, and although you know it’s going to be a frustrating couple hours, you feel confident that once your partner is rested, they will tag back in until the task is complete. Teamwork.
And here’s the thing: That’s ultimately what you get out of being there when your partner needs you. I’m using a lot of examples in here from myself, but the fact is, I know my wife will step in for me too. I’ve seen it time and time again. I’ve been elbow deep in toddler potty training drama, cursing and frustrated, and she didn’t bat an eye. She stepped up, a box of wipes in one hand, and change of underwear in the other, and told me to step away, and take a breath.
There’s something very special about having someone in your parenting corner. I mean, honestly, what could be more frustrating than parenting? It’s wonderful and rewarding, sure, but at the same time, my children can make me blindingly frustrated to the point that I want to leave them in the woods and hope that a nice family of wolves takes them in. But I can’t do that, and I wont do that, and I know that Mel wont either, so we have to back each other up.
So I took the second option.
I got up off the floor and sat down next to Norah, on the opposite side of my wife. Mel had her face in her hands by this point. Norah had her arms folded, head down on the table, in protest. I didn’t have to say that I was stepping in. I just looked at Mel and gave her a half-forced smile. I wasn’t happy about it, but this wasn’t about a happy moment. It was about partnership and support.
She let out a breath, and stepped away from the table, and into another room to calm down.
Norah asked for her mother to come back, like all our children do, and I said, “Mom’s on homework break. I’m covering her shift. Live with it. What problem are we on?”
Norah didn’t say anything for a while. Then I tapped the table, handed her the pencil that she’d dropped on the floor in protest, and said, “Come on, kiddo. Let’s get this done.”
She grudgingly started working again.
In the background, I could hear Mel turn on the shower.