Experts tells us that long before we find ourselves exhausted in the parenting trenches, we should sit down with our partner and have a frank conversation about how we are going to work as a team to care for our growing family. It’s important to do this, they say, if only to confirm what you already know is the case. And to avoid any nasty surprises later.
All excellent advice. But what do you do if you realise that what you agreed to up-front just isn’t actually working in reality?
And this is exactly the problem an over-tired mother was having when she asked for advice when Kirsty Levin was our resident relationships expert on Helpline. Kirsty is a psychologist with The Parents Village and knows well the unique challenges that having a new baby can bring to a relationship.
“I’m just so over it”
“My partner won’t help with the kids after he’s gone to bed at night. This was our agreement from the start. He would work and I would stay home and raise our babies – but I just had no idea how full on parenting 24/7 could be. And now I’m feeling really overwhelmed, and if I’m honest, really resentful of my husband’s stance on this,” this frustrated mum explained.
“I know he’s busy and tired and his work is important. But he won’t help me out with our baby and toddler through the night because I am the stay-at-home parent, while he needs sleep to go to work the next day. This is what we agreed upon before our kids came along. But honestly, sometimes I feel like this is not fair. I also work hard each day and night with our babies. I am so very desperate for a break. Some sleep, some time to myself. What can I do? I feel like I’m letting him down but I’m just so over it.”
Let’s unpack what’s going on here
Firstly, there are different little things at play here that are creating a build-up of resentment. “It looks like there’s mismatched expectations, and a lack of open communication on what the changing needs are,” Kirsty explains.
If you make an agreement on how you’re going to deal with life as parents before you have kids, it’s not so surprising that you may have to adjust and renegotiate the boundaries as time goes by because, let’s be honest, you really have no idea really what to expect before those kids arrive on the scene.
“There is a real need to set aside some time and make an agreement to actually nut this out and discuss it,” Kirsty says, “because underlying that resentment on the mum’s part is an unmet need and a call out for help.”
Listen to Kirsty Levin on Feed Play Love
Keep it calm and constructive
Kirsty also believes that her partner may have some misunderstandings or misconceptions about what the load of being a full-time parent really looks and feels like, day to day. So it’s important for both of them to sit down and unpack that from all those different angles.
But it’s important that this conversation doesn’t feel like an attack. It needs to be calm and constructive.
“[Explain] your needs and the fact that you’re feeling really lonely, or really stretched and fatigued. And then call upon what you’re hoping to change by going through a bit of a negotiation process. And perhaps in order to negotiate some new territory and a new agreement you might need to give a little bit of exposure to what it feels like to be a full-time stay-at-home parent,” Kirsty advises. “Perhaps the dad hasn’t had enough exposure to being at home with the kids by himself to really understand how it stretches you. So there could be a little bit of practice involved in order to come to a point of renegotiation, so that he can realise what it actually feels like and understands how taxing it really is.”
With a bit of on-the-ground experience wrangling kids solo, your partner is much more likely to be open to suggestions that may feel more equitable.
“Perhaps you could negotiate that one weekend, or one day of the weekend, you get a sleep-in,” Kirsty suggests. “Or, given that your partner does have to be fresh in the morning on workdays, perhaps you could negotiate that one night a week they might be on duty and perhaps that one night a week is the Friday, so it’s at the end of the week and no one has to get up in the morning.”
Keep reviewing the goalposts
And because things with kids never stay the same for long, it’s important to keep the communication channels open so you can revisit and renegotiate in the future. What works for you as a family with a baby, may no longer work for you all when you have a toddler in the house.
“I think also there’s so much hidden work involved in parenthood – and in particular motherhood – these days, that sometimes it’s hard to see what all of those tasks and the mental and physical load really are until you write them down,” Kirsty says.
“There is some value I think in mums collecting a live diary of activities for the day and for the night so that they can show that to their partner and say, ‘Look! I know you think I’m not doing all that much as a stay-at-home mum all day’ … because a lot of partners do think that you’re just washing a few dishes, putting the kids to sleep, making a few meals … so what’s the big deal, right?
“But hello! It’s actually a really exhausting, taxing, all-encompassing experience and I think until you write down every little thing that you do, and have to think about and pre-empt and forward plan for, your partner won’t truly understand how that plays out.”
So write it down, ladies!