Emotional labour was eroding my marriage—this is how we tried to fix it

I don’t want to be the only one who initiates, plans, delegates and worries about every task.

Photo: Erik Putz

Waiting in line at Target, I felt like murdering my husband. I didn’t wish to physically kill him, but I wanted to yell at him—a lot. He’d agreed to get the baby monitor fixed, but weeks later, he still hadn’t done it. So there I was, picking up a new monitor that I had researched and ordered, while my twin toddlers were napping at home. Instead of crashing on the couch during kid nap time (usually the most blissful two hours of my Saturday), I was silently cursing him. Why did I end up having to execute every household project, even though we both work full time?

In his defence, Brendan usually does what I ask him to do. But I don’t want to be the only one who initiates, plans, delegates and worries about every task. I was sick of reminding and cajoling him, and resentment had bubbled up. This imbalance of emotional labour—the invisible work that ensures a household runs smoothly—was eroding my marriage. I felt like the CEO of Twins Inc., a startup company my husband and I had founded together, but now I was running it solo.

When Brendan and I decided to have kids, I worried that my work-from-home (albeit full-time) job would make me the default caregiver and household manager. We discussed how we’d tackle parenthood as equal partners, but we didn’t expect to welcome twins. Plus, all the talks we had pre-kids were about imaginary scenarios. I soon learned that keeping our little family of four functioning is about way more than just the weekly grocery shop and endless laundry—it’s knowing which kid misplaced her mittens (and where they might be). It’s remembering the deadline to return the completed school picture forms and having the foresight to book time off work to take the girls for the flu shots we’ll all need to fend off daycare disease this winter. Since I became a mother, long lists with tasks like these take up valuable brain space, stress me out and chip away at what used to be precious “me time.” I doubt Brendan ever feels as overwhelmed or exhausted by the relentlessness of the to-do list.

Entrenched gender expectations from our upbringings also didn’t help us start off on equal footing. As involved as Brendan wanted to be, he wasn’t taught how to run a household, whereas my (very traditional) mom had prepared me at an early age to keep a tidy house for my future spouse.

While my husband is, objectively, a fantastic father, my mom friends and I commiserate constantly, sharing memes about dads versus moms and bemoaning our fate as working women-moms-unpaid household bosses. A recent Statistics Canada survey confirmed our sentiments: Moms spend 2.8 hours a day on housework (nearly an hour more than dads) and shoulder more of the routine child-care tasks, as well as caring for adult family members when needed. This lopsided division of labour results in resentment that festers over time and takes a toll on relationships. When I posted a link on Facebook to a story about emotional labour that resonated with me, it was my mom friends who chimed in with praise and comments. Of course, not all couples with kids fall into the stereotypical, heterosexual gender roles. One friend mentioned her husband was actually the “scorekeeper” in the relationship, constantly tallying who is completing more parenting-related tasks. I sheepishly realized I was indeed keeping track, and in my head, it was, “Me: 848 tasks completed. My husband: 1.”

I broached the topic with Brendan, and he confessed he wasn’t totally happy with the division of labour either. For one thing, he resented how I criticize the way he handles a chore. He also said he’s well-aware of the imbalance at our house—it makes him feel guilty, which makes him want to do more. But he completes tasks as fast as possible, which leads to mistakes, which I then have to fix (and can’t help but criticize).

Sure, the research is validating, and I have friends to complain to, but knowing I wasn’t alone didn’t make the situation any better. How could Brendan and I get out of this rut? We both wanted to make a change, but we had no idea how to recalibrate our relationship and co-lead as a team.

Modern Marriage - Till Chores do us Part Modern Marriage – Till Chores do us partI decided to get advice from the experts: a productivity specialist, a marriage counsellor and a reproductive psychiatrist who specializes in the emotional life of motherhood. (It’s not lost on me that it was, once again, me taking the lead to solve a family problem. But I’m not supposed to be keeping score.) Brendan and I agreed to test out their tips and record our thoughts in an online journal to track our progress. Here’s what we learned—and what happened when we implemented the ideas.

Divvy up chores based on what you ENJOY

Like a lot of couples, our dynamic worked this way: I’d delegate, get annoyed when it wasn’t done correctly, do the errand myself and then stew about my endless to-do list. Rinse and repeat. Our cycle was like a load of laundry with a dirty tissue stuck in a pants pocket—a big old mess.

A conversation with Carson Tate, a workplace productivity coach, helped me realize I was trying to make my husband handle projects exactly how I’d tackle them, which is not the way his brain works. If we wanted to be more productive and less frustrated, Tate’s advice was to play to our strengths.

“Create a list of household items that need to be done that are causing friction,” says Tate. “Then, look at your productivity styles. It doesn’t feel like a burden when we play to our strengths.”

We read her book, Work Simply, and took her online productivity style assessment. Brendan scored high as an Arranger and a Visualizer, while I was firmly a Planner and a Prioritizer. As an Arranger, Brendan is best at communicating, so he took over any task that involves talking, like text-ing babysitters and calling our internet company to fix our spotty service. I owned menu planning and making the grocery lists because I love that kind of stuff. Most of our cooking involves prepping meals for our tiny but hungry eaters, so we alternate who prepares it or we tackle it together (he rustles up the main meal, while I chop fruit). Instead of demanding that Brendan complete tasks exactly as I do them, Tate suggested I let him use whatever process works for him. No micromanaging allowed.

Under this system, I’m still the head honcho. Brendan is the intern learning the ropes. I want to hover over his desk and check his work, but I’m learning that barking orders isn’t exactly the best way to motivate someone. When I expressed concern to Tate that my beloved husband would mess up, she suggested setting a deadline so he’s clear on when a task needs to be finished, and then following up—only once—to go over any outstanding details. I do my best not to nag or criticize him.

Automate your routine

After our girls went to bed at 7:30 p.m., we’d rush to make our dinner, prep their dinner and breakfast for the next day, fold laundry, wash a sink full of dishes and discuss everything else going on that week. “Discussing” was really me delegating chores and grumbling about all the mental labour involved in managing every damn detail while Brendan got defensive, and then we’d collapse into bed around 11 p.m., whining like overtired toddlers. Tate suggests creating a better workflow at home. I got a paper calendar and listed our weekly duties, assigning some to Brendan and some to myself. Once we got into the rhythm of it, we loved checking off our chores, and I was no longer nagging him as much, because he knew what was expected. We also now designate one weeknight for a 30-minute household chat. The time limit keeps us focused and has made us more efficient. I send a weekly “check-in” email with a bullet-point list of projects (like hiring child-care help or planning our summer vacation). Brendan responds. No more late nights of harried project management. For some couples, this plan might sound over-the-top, but for us, the check-in emails, the calendar and our 30-minute meetings meant we didn’t let our evenings get consumed by a blow-by-blow of who did what. I’m still driving the process (as a Planner and Prioritizer), but slowly, I’ve seen Brendan take on some emotional labour. Recently, I happened upon a birthday present for an upcoming kids party, already wrapped with a gift bag, tissue paper and a card—completely unprompted. It’s a small step, but my intern is getting the hang of it.

Make a contingency plan

The reality is kids get sick, you get sick or work is super busy. During our month of testing out our revised roles, I became horribly ill with a stomach virus, and menu planning was the last thing I wanted to do. Brendan had to manage all the cooking, cleaning and toddler tantrums while I was chained to our bathroom. With one of us down for the count, our precarious new system nearly crumpled. I asked Tate how to handle this.

Striped and multicoloured playing cards formed into a house of cards. Two cards lie at the bottom near the formation.
Photo: Erik Putz

“This is what I tell companies: Have a contingency plan,” she says. “For menu planning, make a list of five meals you can easily make from ingredients you always have at home. Then, ask each other, ‘What happened? Where did it fall off? What strategies could we put in place?’”

Based on Tate’s suggestion, we decided to always keep ready-made meals stocked in our freezer and pantry (like canned soups, frozen veggie pizzas and boxed mac and cheese) for quick meals. It was now also clear to us that we needed backup help for unexpected kid sick days, so we interviewed babysitters who had daytime availability. When Brendan forgot to book a babysitter to help me before he departed on a long trip for a friend’s wedding, which would have left me with two toddlers for four days solo (including a weekend), we wrote a detailed checklist of what we needed to do before either of us travelled again. (Top of the list: secure extra child care.)

Negotiate what is necessary and drop what isn’t

Sure, we’d all love a spotless house and homemade meals, but to manage a household, you need to compromise on what both parties can live with, suggests Lawrence Stoyanowski, a marriage therapist in Langley, BC.

“In true compromise, you win a little bit and you lose a little bit. If a couple comes up with an agreement they can live with, that is actually success,” says Stoyanowski. “No one is ever going to do as good of a job as you. But if your partner does within 80 percent of your satisfaction, that has to be enough.”

This advice isn’t easy for me to put into practice, but when I’m exhausted, I tell myself, Let it go. For example, if Brendan folds the laundry a certain way, I’ve loosened up the reins and will give in instead of taking over or insisting he do it the way I would. This also applies to babysitters, grandparents and any other caregivers for my children—not only my husband. I can choose to do everything myself, or I can accept help.

Appreciate your partner’s contributions

Give specific praise, recommends Stoyanowski. “It can be small things. Catch your partner doing something right. There are tons of good things that are happening that we can appreciate, but we don’t,” he says. He’s totally right—I realized I was only telling my husband what annoyed me, not what he did well.

So we instituted a daily thank-you list of three things we’re grateful for in the partnership. It’s a practice we were already doing at bedtime with our daughters—we thank them for tidying their toys or helping feed our dog, because we want to embrace an attitude of appreciation in our house. But we never thought about doing the same for each other. Sure, it sounds like an awkward, earnest team-building exercise, but when Brendan thanks me for dealing with double poopy underwear or I thank him for ordering new shoes for our growing girls, we feel valued. And feeling valued seems to magically melt away resentment. Often, by the end of the night we’re too harried to remember anything all that special. But if we forget that night, we text each other our gratitude lists during the workday. This advice was shockingly restorative for us. The thankless mental gymnastics I did every day were finally getting props, and Brendan appreciated that I wasn’t a battering ram of constant criticism.

Invest in your emotional bank account

For a while, I had no interest in date nights. Oh, you mean doing the work of finding and booking a babysitter, and then paying her a bunch of money so I can spend alone time with the guy who isn’t pulling his own weight? No, thanks. But for a happy marriage, Stoyanowski recommends “making deposits into your emotional bank account,” and that includes planning regular date nights, connecting with each other, forgiving each other and practising having patience with your partner, like you would with your children. All of this sounded a little hokey, but I had taken vows. (I’d also vowed to my editor that I’d do whatever the experts said to do.)

So we bumped up our monthly date nights to weekly. Per Stoyanowski’s suggestion, we downloaded the Gottman Institute Card Decks app to spark more romance during our dinners out. I’ll admit that the relationship-repairing app seemed cheesy, but we gave it a go. It really worked for Brendan. He felt like the conversation topics and prompts on the app’s virtual flash cards led us to have the kinds of talks we had back in our twenties, and he mentioned he felt we were very connected. For me, date nights didn’t erase all the resentment of the emotional labour I was carrying, but they healed some wounds. Plus, my rage blackouts were lessening because I started liking the man I married again.

Prioritize self-care

Self-care sounds idyllic in theory, but who has time for that? Most days, I consider it a win if I have time to brush my teeth and my hair. But theoretically, I know it’s essential.

Self-care is not selfish—it’s self-preserving,” says Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist and co-author of a forthcoming book on the emotions of pregnancy and new motherhood. “It’s necessary to prevent caregiver burnout, to avoid feeling depleted and to have energy left to give to your romantic relationship. Nourishing yourself and other aspects of your identity also sends a healthy message to your children and gives them some breathing room to foster their independence.” Sacks suggests making a list of self-care experiences you miss and then creating (and sticking to!) a caregiving schedule with your partner so both parties have time off.

We designated Sunday evenings for self-care. After we plop our kids into bed at 7:30 p.m., we go our separate ways. Brendan will see a movie solo or meet up with his buddies for a drink. I luxuriate with a facial mask, soak my feet in a massaging foot bath and read magazines. I want two hours of silence, during which no one needs me and I can read about celebrities and look at fancy shoes I won’t buy. After a weekend of playdates, errands and grocery shopping, this alone time is my salve to the crushing burnout from being a working mom.

Before our self-care Sundays, I felt like I was in an endless loop of prioritizing other people’s needs, but now, I take a break. The annoyance I feel about the imbalance of emotional labour takes a night off, too.

A few months later: The results are in

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. One Sunday, I blew up at Brendan after I was left with chores while he went out with a friend. He felt like we sometimes reverted back to some of our old habits, such as me nagging him about his projects and him trying to complete tasks as fast as possible without the attention to detail I wanted. Much like potty training, we had days that were perfect and some days, we pooped out. But overall, the scales are slowly tipping back toward his side.

Our marriage therapist also pointed out that Brendan’s knowledge gap is wide, so I have to make peace with the fact that he won’t ever catch up to my considerable caretaking experience—and the many years of gendered expectations that have shaped who I am and how I parent. As a girl, I grew up doing household chores and started baby- sitting at age 12. My husband didn’t know how to do his own laundry until he left for college. He learned to cook only after we moved in together.

I’ve also spent decades in jobs where I had to hustle to move up the ranks, often earning less than my male predecessors. I’m used to doing more for less, all on my own, while my hard-working husband has had support for household and administrative tasks his whole life. He also admitted that pre-kids, I had been invisibly running the house solo, and that he had never considered all the household tasks to be as important as our careers.

But by shouldering the emotional labour of raising kids more evenly, I hope we can break this cycle: Our daughters will see their dad not only actively participating in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of our household, but as a more-than-capable problem solver. Maybe one day, he’ll even become our family’s Chief Problem Anticipator, fully able to think up the to-do list himself, instead of relying on me to devise what’s needed .

Brendan has been talking about all this with his dad friends, and has discovered that every single one of them has the same “I feel like I do a lot, but my wife says I do nothing” issue.

“I place varying degrees of blame on my friends,” he says. “Dads expect a lot of credit for clearing some very low bars. But I found it interesting that this is so universal.” He told his buddies what we were doing as a couple to address the gap, and some friends were interested. Others felt resigned to their current family dynamics.

Lately I’ve been talking to another mom friend who adopted some similar fixes with her spouse. She and I both feel a lot more content in our marriages. Instead of complaining that we, the women, are doing everything under the sun, we’re trying our best to communicate our expectations, and our partners are playing a role in household management. It’s still not perfect, but I’m beginning to feel like Brendan and I are running Twins Inc. together again, and that’s made all the difference.

Read more:
A dad’s confession about household chores
Helping your postpartum partner: a guide for new dads

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