Getting your partner involved

The concept of ‘letting in’ your partner to help you with the kids and household chores seems pretty straightforward, right? Who wouldn’t want someone to help them? However, for me it wasn’t that easy. In many ways my husband and I had a fairly traditional relationship after I resigned from my paid employment. He went to work and I took care of most things in the home. With each child, my workload increased. By the time we had our third child, I felt I had very little time to get all the household chores done.

If I asked my husband to do something such as vacuum the floors, he was happy to help out, but it wasn’t something he’d do of his own accord. I found it frustrating having to ask him to do things that I could clearly see needed doing: if I could see it, why couldn’t he? So I didn’t always ask; I held out to see whether he would just do it. The scenario ran a bit like this:

I’d wait for him to see that the floors needed to be vacuumed.

He’d be oblivious to the fact that the floors needed vacuuming.

I could no longer tolerate the condition of the floors and would vacuum them myself in a huff and give him the silent treatment as I internalised my frustration.

He’d have no idea why I was so cross.

Whatever he did next that I didn’t like — no matter how trivial — would make me react in a way completely out of proportion to the actual incident.

He’d have no idea why I reacted as I did, nor that the state of the floors was my trigger.

This scenario — with slight variations — was played out numerous times in our house. I’m not sure why it took me so long to work out that we simply saw things differently. It wasn’t that he was choosing not to be helpful (well, not all the time anyway!). Coming home from work in the evening, he didn’t see the house the same way I did. I was at home most of the day. This meant looking at things such as dirty floors for long periods of time, so the fact that they needed cleaning was naturally more of an issue for me.

Once I’d worked out that we saw things differently, my next aim was to work out how to manage this so the workload could be shared — even if it wasn’t on his radar.

Allowing your partner in doesn’t only relate to household chores, but also to hands-on parenting. Being the primary carer means the children are more familiar with me and — particularly when they’re young — want me to be the only one who does things for them. This pattern of behaviour became particularly entrenched when my husband was studying as well as working. During those years I became self-reliant in parenting the kids and they became accustomed to Dad being quite busy most of the time. Once he’d finished studying and was available more often, it took the kids and me a considerable time to adjust and allow him to be more involved in parenting. In essence, I had to take a step back and encourage the kids to rely more on their dad.

Discussing expectations

The best way to allow your partner in and to be more involved is to have regular, open discussions about both his and your own expectations.

Household chores

The first time I discussed my expectations of my husband’s contribution to the household cleaning with him, I chose a time when we were both calm, sharing a bottle of wine and talking about how things were operating at home. I had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted, but to ensure his involvement was going to be sustainable I needed to reflect on my views and listen to the way he saw things.

We didn’t agree on everything. My standards were different from his, but we found a middle ground that we could both live with. When it comes to cleaning, there’s a certain basic level of cleanliness and tidiness I need to maintain to keep my stress levels in check. The major issues for me are vacuumed floors, clean toilets and basins, and a clear benchtop. Before this discussion, my husband didn’t know how important these issues were to me, and while he thinks vacuuming every day isn’t sane, he did happily agree to vacuuming once a week. We also agreed on matters related to other household chores including cooking meals and ironing.

Clearly defining the boundaries around the household chores has significantly reduced the number of disagreements we have over the condition of the house and my husband’s contribution to it.

Time with the kids

My husband has thankfully never been one to come home from work and expect to be able to sit in peace for a period of time before engaging with the kids. He’s greeted excitedly, and usually jumped upon, the minute he enters the house. He gets changed while talking to the kids and then helps with the bedtime routines. Despite this, our kids still often come to me (even on weekends) rather than seeking him out for assistance with their various needs.

My husband was the one who chose to raise the matter of how to best manage this situation and get the kids to go to him more often when he was available. He was happy to take on a more active role in parenting on the weekends, but I needed to let him do this. We talked about how I could redirect the kids from me to him and with time I’m getting much better at doing this.

There are some key developmental stages when boys need their dads to take the lead role in parenting. I read many parenting books and often talk about the key learning areas for kids with my husband for two reasons: so he understands what’s influencing my parenting style, and to share strategies we could use on the kids. After reading He’ll be OK: Growing Gorgeous Boys into Good Men by Celia Lashlie, I asked my husband to read the book too as our eldest son is heading towards adolescence and some of the information in the book is particularly relevant to dads.

For various reasons, Lashlie advocates that at the age of 11 or 12 — when boys approach adolescence — it’s time for Mum to get off ‘the bridge of adolescence’ and for Dad to step up and take the lead for a while. Lashlie isn’t saying that mothers don’t have a role to play, but that at this critical time in a boy’s life he needs his father more. Our parenting style was not heading in that direction, so I was very glad I read this book when my son was 10. It gave me time to prepare for stepping down and for his dad to step up.

Together, my husband and I began working out ways to transition our involvement with our eldest son, and made sure we had clear expectations of who was doing what. The biggest changes were actually about small things. It’s now his dad who discusses with him the tidiness of his bedroom, and who helps him with his homework.

Teaching your partner the know-how

In the past I’ve been guilty of laughing with other mothers about some of the deficiencies in our partners’ household skills. While it might be amusing to tell the stories, it doesn’t actually do much towards encouraging partners to want to do more in the house, nor does it help them do things better next time. I have to remind myself that I know how to do the household chores because I’ve learned and practised them. If I want my husband to be involved and do things properly, it’s only reasonable that I show him the most efficient way of doing them.

This is where having processes really helps. My husband finds it easy to follow a process, especially if it includes notes! Lunchboxes are a great example of this. Before I had a process in place, there was no way my husband would attempt to prepare lunches: ‘Too many moving parts,’ he would say. However now, if I’m out in the evening, I have a process for him to follow that allows him to take care of the evening preparation for school lunchboxes.

Doing it his way

My processes can make household chores easier for my husband, but I appreciate that they’ve been built by me to suit my style, and I can’t dictate to him how to do things as we work in different ways. For example, in the evenings I like to work through my list of things to do and then sit down to relax whereas my husband prefers to relax first.

On nights when I head to the study to blog and my husband is on tidy-up duty, I make a conscious effort not to comment or direct him when I take a break from blogging. As hard as that is, interfering with his methods isn’t helpful and decreases the level of harmony in the house.

Giving your partner space

We’re continually working on teaching the kids to go to their dad for help and guidance (and not always to me) not only so that I’m not constantly in demand, but also because it’s disempowering for my husband if I step in regularly when he’s completely capable of sorting out an issue on his own. This is a work in progress for me and I sometimes find it difficult not to engage in a situation. Luckily, my husband is pretty quick to quietly let me know if I’m overstepping the mark.

I’ve also observed that I sometimes unintentionally stop him from taking a more active role with the kids, particularly as he’s at work during the week and naturally isn’t aware of what’s going on at home — for example, preparation for excursions, homework assignments and after-school activities all mainly take place while he’s away from home. To keep him informed I give him the forms from school to read.

Tip: Increasing your partner’s confidence

As you can see, my husband’s increased connection to the household chores and the kids has been an evolution. It’s taken time and a planned approach to make him more involved. If you’re trying to get your partner involved, don’t expect too much too soon.

⇒ Discuss expectations.

⇒ Make small changes to your daily routines to incorporate your partner’s involvement.

Build on these changes, working on the areas of his strengths first.

Don’t give up. If your partner starts well but then tapers off, don’t let things slide back to the old way. Discuss expectations again and work together to get back on track.

Let your partner in and give him the space he needs to be able to participate.

Once my husband was more actively engaged in the running of the household, we decided he should take a couple of days off work to stay home as the primary carer. This didn’t happen until our fifth child was born, which was quite recently, but it’s the best thing we ever did. I had a project I was working on and needed time to complete. I’d head to the study from 8 am to 6 pm (with breaks) and my husband would do all the things I would usually do: the school runs, the lunches, the cleaning, the washing, the playing, the after-school activities and preparing dinner.

For this to work efficiently we had to be prepared. My husband had to:

know the kids’ kinder and school timetables

know the baby’s and toddler’s routines

be left alone to be the primary carer (which meant I had to stay out of the way)

be given help to learn this new role.

The first few times we did this, I helped out quite a lot, but each time he’s been home, he’s needed less assistance from me. These sessions have increased his self-confidence with the kids — he now knows the kids’ routines better, as well as their general needs and how to meet them. It’s been fantastic for me as I’ve been able to take on other opportunities knowing that he’s able to take care of the house and kids if I’m out.

Creating solo time for your partner

My husband does work hard at his paid work and in helping with household chores. Just as I need time to myself to be able to pursue my interests, so does he. His predominant interests are sports-related: watching sport and taking on his own sporting endeavours. He’s a man who likes a challenge. During the past four years he’s trekked the Kokoda Track, run a marathon and ridden the 3 Peaks Challenge (a 230-kilometre cycling challenge). These challenges all require extensive training, so we’ve worked on ways of creating time during our busy weeks for him to prepare.

Use early mornings. He would often get up at 5 am on weekends so he could go on a four-hour bike ride and then be home in time to get to the kids’ football games.

Multitask. Riding to and from work meant he could get some additional kilometres in. On the way home he could take a detour onto some riding paths and still make it home in time to read the kids a story.

Have separate adult outings. As well as doing things together, sometimes we had to do things separately. He’d catch a football game with his mates, while I might go and see a band with friends.

For us to parent well, we need to make sure we’re looking after ourselves and doing things we love and that make us happy. By taking time to schedule individual time into our weeks, we’ve been able to keep some of our own identities, which can so easily be lost among the heavy time demands of a young family.

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