I got an email the other day from a mother of a toddler with special needs. She works full-time and feels overwhelmed with parenting and housework. She wants her husband to help more with their son’s care. Whenever she’s asked for his help in the past, he’s responded for a couple of days. Then he’s quickly slid back into his usual slacker dad ways.
Her story reminded me of my own life, when our daughter was 1. She was sick nearly constantly due to the various germs she picked up from daycare. One week it would be a high fever. The next diarrhea. Then a rash. Since I worked at home, I was the person who cared for her when she was sick, which meant that I usually got sick, too.
If someone had asked me how I felt on any given day, I would have responded, “Exhausted, and my back hurts.”
My husband was not exhausted because he was rarely home. While I was dealing with a double GI illness (hers and mine), he was out with his friends.
My husband and I, of course, had our share of fights, most of which ended in tears (mine, not his). After these fights, he’d do more around the house for a while. Then, slowly, over time, he would disappear from our lives, and I would start planning his funeral.
Flash forward 4 years. Last week, I had the flu. As I lounged on the couch and watched Brokeback Mountain, he cleaned the house. Then he cut the grass. Then he made me a smoothie. Oh, and it was my turn to ferret our daughter to and from Pre-K, but he did that, too.
All without me asking.
And this is how he is most of the time. Most of the time he is not the slacker he was 4 years ago. Most of the time, he’s the guy who notices that the kitchen trashcan is full and who takes it out instead of waiting for me to do it.
What made the difference? Me asking for help over and over again.
It’s important for you to understand that your spouse is not intentionally trying to annoy you. Unless your spouse is a true sadist (rare), your spouse really does not enjoy seeing you upset. The vast majority of people would rather keep their spouses happy than risk the tears and/or yelling. Your spouse doesn’t help you for two reasons:
1. He’s clueless. He really might not see the dirt that bothers you so much. He probably doesn’t have your bionic nose, so he truly doesn’t realize that your baby has a toxic situation going on in his diaper. He also might not mind the clutter and the dirty clothes. The mess and clutter might bother you, but it might not bother him at all. You’re the one with the agenda. For him to follow it, you need to share it with him.
2. He hasn’t developed his housework and parenting habit. He needs to practice over and over again, in order to get into the habit of helping you in the way you want to be helped. Him helping for a while and then backsliding is a lot like what most people do in January. They exercise for a while and then stop. It’s part of the human condition. He needs your help to stay consistent.
(Note: You can easily swap a “she” for my “he’s.”)
Now, let’s talk about asking for help. This will require one or more big conversations and several smaller ones.
The Big Conversation: When you are both calm, tell him how you feel and what you would like him to do about it. For the “how you feel” part, try to move beyond your anger and disappointment. Here are some words that might work: overwhelmed, like I am drowning, exhausted, like a failure, scattered, scared. If you can, give him a specific example of how this problem plays out in your life. Are you too tired or too overwhelmed to do something you once loved, like tennis or golf? Say, “I want to become the woman I once was, the person you fell in love with. I need your help because I can’t do this on my own.”
Then be as specific as possible with your request for help. “Help me around the house” is not specific. “Prioritize me and our child” is not specific. “Every day, I would like you to pick up the stuff on the floor, wash the dishes, and watch our son so I can take a nap” is specific.
The Small Conversations: Whenever you see him doing nothing, ask for his help. Let’s say he’s watching car racing while you are folding laundry. Say, “Could you help me fold these sheets?” Let’s say he’s reading the paper while you are washing the dishes and your son is tugging on your leg. Say, “Could you entertain him while I do this?”
Then, whenever he helps you with anything, say, “Thank you.” Even better, hug him. If you are up for it, have sex. Reward him. Whatever you do, do not micromanage him. Let him change a dirty diaper his way, even if it’s not your way.
Are you thinking, “But I shouldn’t have to tell him what to do. No one tells me what to do and I still do it.” That may be true, but that’s not going to get you folded laundry. The only thing that’s going to get you help around the house? You asking for it-repeatedly.
If you do ask for it repeatedly and you continually reward him for his help, you will, over time, eventually come to marital nirvana, where he really does do it all without being asked.