The Power of Two — A Working Mom’s Partner
The perfect partner makes all the difference — even when they’re not perfect
Part five in a six-part series, Creative Parenting for the Working Mom, from Reinventing the Working Mom®
Tonight, my husband came home exhausted and dragging from a hard day at work. He dropped off his briefcase — which in his case is a backpack — and went straight into the kitchen. He cleaned, he organized, he did the dishes, and then started on the laundry.
I was so frustrated I almost cried.
He was trying to help, of course, as he always does — and I love him for it. The night before I had fallen down the stairs over our daughter’s toys and went to bed injured. I was fine when I woke up, but he assumed I would still be limping. It was such a wonderful gesture, and I am so grateful that his mind is always on the family. But he didn’t understand that I need to do the dishes. I need to do the laundry. Doing dishes and laundry allows me to shut off my brain. It gives me that heady feeling of absolute control. It’s productive meditation.
The same goes for folding the clothes. Using the Marie Kondo folding method is incredibly satisfying — feeling the fabric, and creating straight, even creases. When the clothes go in the drawer Kondo-style, they fit perfectly and come out unwrinkled. Even my kids use this method, because the increased visibility makes color-coordinating easier, something my artistic nine-year-old son takes seriously. But maybe most important, when my life feels like a massive machine filled with so many moving, and sometimes broken parts, I can home in on one gear or one lever, and fix it. I can slow down, and breathe deeply again. And everything feels right.
I know it sounds petty. How many working moms say that their partners, supportive in every other way, don’t even notice a messy kitchen or step right over an overflowing hamper? How many working moms don’t even have partners?
But for me, no issue is too small for communication.
My husband had left for work at 5 a.m. and returned home at 7 a.m. to work remotely for the rest of the day. Ideally, I would have liked him to put his feet up and relax, or even take a nap — that’s a long day for a 57-year-old, and we all need him healthy. Remember that massive machine? We need all the cogs functioning or the whole system breaks down. If, for some reason, he came home bursting with energy and desperate to work, he could have done one of his designated jobs, like mowing the lawn or painting the basement. All I needed was a “Honey, what do you want me to do?” But he decided to help.
The Value of Partnership
Partnership has countless advantages; in fact, not too long ago, it was crucial for survival. When housework included making stirring lye to make soap, dipping tallow for candles, and carding, spinning, and weaving wool, families needed two adults and an army of children to keep food on the table. These days, technology and modern appliances have made the two-partner family optional, not required. Also, everyone — single or married — has felt overwhelmed at times.
But that’s why communication is everything.
This took me a while to learn. The best thing I can say about my first marriage was that, mercifully, we had no children. Even in my prime childbearing years I couldn’t get pregnant, maybe because he wanted children for the wrong reasons. My ex-husband was an angry, controlling, abusive FBI agent; after our divorce, I kept a low profile for years, afraid he would find and harass me. Getting out of that marriage was worth me surrendering two homes and over a million dollars. But my mother was right, as mothers so often are. “You can always make more money,” she told me. “You only have one life.”
In my last installment, I wrote about my plan to be a single mother. About my rebuilding my savings from less than $700 my ex-husband left me after he drained our account. About my improving my health and putting my teams in place. Sure, after my son was born I still felt overwhelmed at times, and I even suffered from post-partum depression, but I never imagined what was missing was a partner. But when my two-year-old son started approaching strangers in the park and calling them Daddy, I decided to try to find him a father.
My Plan: Find a Father
Unlike becoming a single mother, this plan took a lot less effort — and, of course, there was some luck involved. Just like I did when I wanted to get pregnant, I announced my intention to find a partner. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is nothing like the power of intention. Saying it out loud clarifies your goals and sets you on the right path. Because your mind and body are subconsciously working toward that goal, it almost certainly will come true.
I informed my friends and family that I was looking to meet someone, and asked them to scour their address books, offices, and parent-teacher nights. When I met Laura, another Chinese American woman, at a birthday party for Matthew’s friend, she was less than enthusiastic, but mentioned her brother was single. “He doesn’t usually date Asian women,” she said, looking me up and down. “But I could mention it.”
I too had my doubts. Wilson was nearly 50 and had never been married or had children; as the youngest of eight siblings, he had slipped into the role of caregiver for his aging parents. And he wasn’t my type either — although I am a petite Chinese American, I had almost exclusively dated blond, blue-eyed men standing over six feet tall. But Wilson was fun, sweet, and loving, and his reservoir of compassion ran deep; his transition from perfect son to ideal husband was so natural that even though I was already 44, we decided to have another child.
(I don’t know if I would have ever dated Wilson if I weren’t looking for a father to my son, but I do believe that miracles happen if you keep yourself open and know what you want. Then the right people are sent to you.)
Wilson is my soulmate. He is the kindest person I know. He has no ego and is happy to have me set the family routines. I stay home with the kids when they’re not in school; I cook the meals, pack the snacks, do the laundry and clean the kitchen. He has rearranged his work schedule to get the kids off the bus, help with their homework, do yard work, and clean the rest of the house. He teaches Matthew all the sports he no longer has time for, and helps Chloe take the time to express her thoughts. (They also love playing Barbie Dream House together.) He is the “good cop,” the soft touch; when I take business trips, I know the house sees a lot more play time, which always helps with my traveling mom guilt.
Sounds perfect, right? But that’s exactly why communication is so important — especially when there is nothing, really, to complain about. That’s when it’s time to Stop. Think. Reflect.
Stop. What am I really upset about? What do I need right now? Think. What was Wilson thinking when he did it? What should we both have done differently? Reflect. How does today’s issue fit into our big picture? How lucky am I that I found a man who loves me the way I am, and will do anything to make my day easier?
Together, we constantly work on how to be better partners; together, we have shaped and molded our lifestyle around our kids, putting them first, work second. This means twice daily visits to the skatepark to inspire motivation for schoolwork. (We are trying to teach Matthew to transfer his passion for scootering into something — anything — else, but it hasn’t sunk in yet. Maybe next year.) This also means no eating out, because the kids hate restaurants and waiting for their food. But I’m not fighting that one — it’s healthier and less expensive to eat at home. We may not agree on everything, but we trust and love each other, and we value our kids as our top priority. With that kind of foundation, all communication is possible.
Some Things to Watch Out for:
· Some partners won’t want lists of what to do. Talk about what kind of responsibility sharing you both need and how you want to go about it. It might be daily text reminders, or pages taped to the refrigerator. A friend of mine has always resisted becoming “a nag” but her husband needs her help remembering anything. Before they leave for work, she asks if he needs a reminder that day, then she picks a limit of three jobs for the weekend. He comes up with more on his own, but this way he knows what is most important to her, and she doesn’t feel she’s overloading him. It’s about eliminating (or at least reducing) resentment on both sides.
· Be careful of emotional labor creep — you may be happy making all the lists and the plans, or you may want to share that too. Be careful not to start organizing things only because it comes easier to you, because then it’s your job forever. Decide who is going to do what and stick to it.
· Make sure everyone sees you as the partners you actually are, and that this partnership is in everything you do. The late Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s husband relocated to a new city and sold business interests to help her further her career; he also cooked, and rocked their daughter to sleep as he watched her study in the nursery. But they were always equals; she famously admonished her son’s school for repeatedly calling her with problems. “This child has two parents,” she said. “Please alternate calls. It’s his father’s turn.”
· Always communicate. No matter how busy or tired you are, make time for each other. Date nights may sound like a cliché, but few things are more important in a marriage. And they don’t have to be anything spectacular. My brother cooks and watches the kids twice a week so we can run errands or take long walks and talk about how are kids are doing, and what we need to do to let them grow up. Above all, skip the pressure and the guilt, and take time to enjoy your family. Kids show you how amazing life is and how much there is to learn. They remind us that we must grow every day, because each day is a gift.
After seven years, Wilson has given me the space to really enjoy our kids — and to avoid doing what I don’t like to do. Folding clothes aside, in some ways he can read my mind. But it took a lot of talking and working out our own value systems to raise kids we hope can be community leaders someday, and to do it together. Because even soulmates need to communicate.
You partner is the most valuable member of your team — but you’ll need the whole family involved. Which brings us to Article Six: Strength in Numbers: Make Your Family Part of Your Team, coming soon.
Just joining us? Check out Part One: So, You’ve Decided to Have it All…, Part Two: Want to Be a Working Mom? Pick the Right Job, Part Three: It’s Not Just Your Job — Your Life is Scalable Too, and Part Four: Working Moms Can’t Do It Alone: Teamwork Is Everything.
Can’t wait for the next installment? Get the Creative Parenting for the Working Mom e-book today, complete with worksheets, checklists, and practical tips, from Reinventing the Working Mom.® Email firstname.lastname@example.org for information.