When you go to a dance, do you know what to do?
Swing your partner, swing your partner, swing your partner to you…
-lyrics from ‘Swing Your Partner Round and Round’, by Judy Garland
It’s a dance, parenting (when there are two of you) – sometimes a waltz; sometimes a jitterbug; sometimes a good ol’ country square dance; but always an exercise of partnership, of moving together in harmony and avoiding stepping on each other’s toes.
Good parenting involves teamwork. It involves communication and co-operation. It requires us to extend ourselves beyond our selves and figure out how to bring out the best in someone else. Needless to say, this isn’t accomplished by pointing out one another’s faults. And yet, just the other day, I found myself telling West, “Well, I hope you enjoyed playing with Buzz Lightyear while your son sliced his fingers to ribbons.” It felt good, for about a nanosecond, and then I realized that it was neither true nor helpful; the baby had only picked up a dull table knife, and West had only been momentarily distracted. All I had achieved was the fleeting satisfaction of being snarky.
It’s so easy to get into the habit of making sharp little comments or criticising one another; it’s too easy to see all that you do and miss the things he does… And the thing I’ve found with this kind of interaction is that it breeds discontent and causes more sniping, and more unkindness, and more ingratitude towards your spouse. I’ve been guilty of perpetuating that kind of atmosphere at times – when I’ve been extra-tired or hormonal or otherwise emotional – and it’s just not nice. All of a sudden we find we’re at odds more often than not. Neither of us can anticipate or appreciate what the other is doing, and it’s hard to find some common ground; indeed, without effort on one or both parts it would be easy to see that any common ground would soon be lost.
Good teamwork – having an effective parenting partnership – requires us to maintain a healthy balance in a few main areas.
One of the most important areas couples need to work on is figuring out an agreeable division of labour. We have to share the workload.
I’ve often heard women complaining that their husbands don’t carry their weight around the house, or that their men act helpless when it comes to looking after the kids – and often this complaint comes in the same form: “It’s like I have another kid to look after!”
But what do we do with our kids and chores? We all know that our kids will happily accept the status quo if we regularly do all the work around the house. If we pick up their clothes from the floor, put away their toys, clear the table, make their beds, etc – even if we grumble and gripe while we do it – it’s unlikely that they’ll have an epiphany about the injustice of it all and motivate themselves to help out a bit instead. If we haven’t trained our children to do so, we wouldn’t expect them to see what needs to be done and just do it without being asked. So why do we expect that of our spouses?
If we want our husbands (or wives) do to something more, or to do something differently, then we need to communicate that. Most of us would never actually make a decision to avoid teaching our kids the life skills required to live healthily and happily in community; but by failing to instil helpful habits (tidying, clearing up, and contributing in other ways to the household) we do just that. And in the same way, we make a choice not to have an equal partnership when we neglect to communicate our feelings to our spouse. He might not spend time with the kids unless he understands that it’s something you feel is part of his responsibility as a Dad. She may not voluntarily clean out the car of all the kiddie-debris unless you mention that it bugs you when it gets so filthy.
This communication is best accomplished with a healthy dose of grace. Sometimes the little things should just be done for the other person as a kindness, without resentment. But when the scales start to tip – or even if we just feel overburdened by our share – then we need to talk about it. This may not always change much in the actual division of chores, but more often than not it will expose areas in which we need to support one another. Parenting can often be an exhausting job; both partners can feel like the workload is too heavy, and both might be right. But sharing the burden of caring for the family and the household does lighten that burden and make it manageable.
It must be said that communicating our needs as partners is not the same as nitpicking. It’s very easy to point out what the other person is doing ‘wrong’, but in focusing on someone else’s faults we often fail to acknowledge our own weaknesses. I remember hearing some great advice to think of the acronym THINK before we speak to our loved ones, to determine if what we’re about to say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.
The way we support one another is also key to a good partnership. It’s not enough to lend lip-service to the concept of being a team; our actions need to prove that we’re working as a unit. This means having one another’s back when the kids are trying to play us off of one another; it means standing up for each other and intervening on the other’s behalf when the kids are disrespectful or unkind. When one of us is unable to function at our normal ‘best’, we need to exert an extra effort to cover the difference – without allowing ourselves to become bitter or resentful.
This is an area of weakness for me, I must confess; when West is sick I am a crabby and impatient nursemaid. I can’t wait for him to get better, but it’s not altruism that motivates this desire – it’s selfishness. The very best relationships are those in which patience and kindness accompany the partnership even when the burden cannot be equally shared. This is the perfection to which I aspire, but for now each time I’m not functioning at my best I am reminded of my need to be patient when Westley isn’t able to contribute in the way that I’m used to.
Finally, we need to honour and respect one another’s roles. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then maybe a little bit of interplanetary diplomacy is in order. We all do things differently; because men and women tackle the same jobs from different perspectives, and because we are all individuals who have our own take on how to accomplish chores.
I may have chuckled at how silently and solemnly West changed a nappy (without any of the chatter or tickles or kisses I bestow during changing), but I’d never have criticised him for performing the task in that manner (and as the years have gone by, nappy-changing has become more of an interactive activity for him). Likewise, West might never understand why I’ve occasionally made the kids late in leaving for school just so that I could scribble their lunchbox love notes and tuck them in with the sandwiches – but he respects me and my role as ‘chief nurturer’ enough to be patient with the process. Westley has never come upstairs from his home office and questioned why the house is still a mess and why dinner’s not ready. Maybe one of the fringe benefits of having a work-from-home hubby is that he knows what goes on all day to prevent me from getting stuff done – and thus he knows better than to ask for an accounting of my time… He’s far more likely to pick up the vacuum and attack the dust-bunnies than to open his mouth and criticise me for not having done my share. I’m more likely to answer a question he hasn’t heard or give a hug to soften his discipline than to nag him about listening or question him about giving one of our boys a time-out.
Ultimately, it is impossible to keep an accurate tally of everything each of us contributes to the household – to try to do so is not only pointless but detrimental to the relationship. Partnership – a good partnership, that is – requires us to share the workload; communicate effectively (especially remembering to THINK before we speak); support one another; and honour and respect one another’s roles.
When we parent as partners, we move together in harmony and grace. It’s a beautiful thing.