Like most women, I have been thinking a lot about my own emotional labor and mental workload of motherhood and the toll it takes on me to bear the weight of it all in our household.
I grew up in the ’80s with a stay-at-home dad, which at that time was rather unusual. My dad was a bit rebellious and never really got around to settling down. At age 44, he married my mom and they had me. A Boston firefighter, he was injured when I was young and retired shortly there after. So at 52 years old, his primary job was to take care of me and my younger sister.
He bore the emotional labor of parenting. He drove us to and from school every day, listening to our endless school stories and friend woes. He took us to all doctor’s appointments, orthodontist appointments, and play dates. He packed lunches, made dinners, double checked that we had our homework, remembered our jackets and hats, and was our primary entertainer for the whole summer.
He made us toast and tea on sick days while we watched Live with Regis & Kathy Lee and gave us money to buy clothes at the mall. He signed us up for Girl Scouts, karate, and cooking classes. He remembered birthday parties and teacher’s names. He fed us countless snacks, ensured we always had our favorite cereals and broke up endless fights.
And he did all this without cell phones, the internet, and Netflix. I never recognized how exhausting that must have been. About a year before he passed away, I called to ask him.
“How did you do it all? How did you remember everything? How did you stay so calm?”
“There was nothing I would have rather been doing. That time with you girls was a gift. My happiest memories. But yes, exhausting…”
Since starting my journey into motherhood, I have been in that “primary parent” role. I stayed home with EJ for a couple of years upon returning from Ethiopia. I then took a career path that enabled him to attend school with me for a few years. For three years, we were even in the same building. I was never “off the clock,” providing hugs, snacks and support whenever needed.
I did most of the appointments, handled the teacher meetings, play dates, and activities sign-ups. I researched and visited daycares and schools, desperately searching for the perfect fit. I spent hours discussing ADHD medications with his doctor, creating plans with his teachers, taking him to tutoring and OT, and worrying. I questioned everything I did and every decision I made. I felt like the keeper of all things. And I also felt like when things went wrong, as the keeper, it was my fault. The weight and responsibility…the anxiety. It felt like too much.
I spent years saying to Mike, “You should know what I need you to do!” Mostly in response to him asking how he could help me when I was feeling overwhelmed. Seeing my father do it all, I expected that all men knew the complicated layers of parenting and how they weave together. But the truth was I had taken on this role with such force and determination, that I truly thought only I could do it the right way. I didn’t always allow him in. He literally didn’t know what I needed him to do because I never involved him in the process.
I worried he wouldn’t do it right. I questioned the smallest of his choices, “Two cookies before dinner?” “Did you give him enough water today?” “Those pj’s were too hot for tonight!”
So I always just did it myself. And then started to do the big things myself.
And then got mad when I felt alone.
Coming to this revelation this past year has been really freeing. I think for us both.
We are completely different. Mike is never going to think, make decisions, or parent exactly like me. An introvert, he is always there and attentively listening but for a writer and fundraising, ironically, I am not always the best communicator. My expectations for him were higher than the ones I set for myself. I expected him to understand where I was coming from and what I needed without ever clearly articulating these things. I wanted him to step-in and get things done when I never really told him what those things were. I wanted him to understand my exhaustion, frustration, and anxiety when I hadn’t even explained what led up to it.
I finally realized that I needed to treat him like a partner in parenting. He wanted to take some of the weight off of me, but he he just didn’t know how.
“I need more help. I can’t do all the appointments, sick days, and dishes. I can’t be the keeper of all his information and decisions. It feels like it is too much.”
Mike is never going to check and see if EJ’s clothes match, remember the socks he pointed out three months ago to order for his Easter basket, or worry about his water intake or body temperature with quite the same passion as I do. But he will create a work plan with his teacher, tackle the ups and downs of playing on a team, give advice on friendship, remember favorite cereals, order books for them to read together, and go to endless orthodontist appointments.
In an effort to get things done, the way I wanted it and how I thought best, I often excluded my husband. I will always be the “primary parent” by default and the emotional weight and worry that comes with that is exhausting some days. But as we work together to raise an empathetic, compassionate son, I can recognize the strengths that we both bring to balance the emotional labor of parenting.
And I try to remember these strengths when he returns from an orthodontist appointment without asking the questions we discussed and with no recollection of what was said at the appointment.