Schedules were managed to meet the interests of as many family members as possible. You have done all that leg work single-handedly and it is now time to start cooking for the main event.
Now imagine your husband walking into the kitchen and opening the fridge. Thank god, you think to yourself. He’s getting the turkey out to start basting. Except he’s not. He grabs a beer and says he’s about to watch the football.
That exact scene played out in US journalist Brigid Schulte’s home on Thanksgiving a few years ago.
“I just about died,” Schulte explains. “Are you kidding me? I was profoundly livid but on the other hand I was profoundly sad. How did we get from the point of being equal partners to here? I realised in that moment I wasn’t having it all, I was doing it all. I was doing everything as well as working fulltime.”
Realising that her and Tom had succumbed to the traditional roles they had once been adamant they would avoid was the lowest ebb of their marriage, but it wasn’t the end. It was the beginning of a process that has created a much more enjoyable marriage.
“I am much happier,” the author of Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time says. “The anger and resentment is gone.”
So how did they navigate from the brink of recognising their marriage wasn’t working, to a relationship that is working better than ever before? How have they created an equal marriage?
It’s something of a trillion dollar question for modern couples.
“We are in new territory,” Schulte says. “It’s understandable that it’s confusing because what we are living and what we want to be living is at odd with cultural assumptions and expectations and workplaces. It’s a tumultuous time because [dual-career] couples are pioneers who are figuring it out as we go. There aren’t a lot of role models for couples doing it this way.”
Here are four of Brigid’s top tips for building and sustaining an equal relationship.
Housework isn’t trivial
“We don’t talk about the division of labour much, we just roll our eyes,” Schulte says. “It’s still a taboo but that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about. Women instigate most divorces and one of the things women are most cross about is how unfair housework and childcare is. It’s not a small matter.”
Brigid was previously in charge of basically everything that went on in their home – despite the fact they both worked fulltime. “Tom did stuff when I asked him but that was exhausting because it required my mental energy.” If she raised it their conversations about who did what around the house inevitably descended into a tit-for-tat that, in hindsight, wasn’t productive. After that fateful Thanksgiving, Brigid and Tom went through a very forensic analysis of everything that needed to be done in their family and home and began dividing it up fairly. This subject matter isn’t trivial: marriages can be lost and found over this.
Set up a system
After you have recognised the entirety of what needs to be done at home, set up a system that covers the standard expected for each task and the repercussions for not completing it.
“It means you don’t have to have the conversation over and over,” Schulte says. For example, if the common standard is the floors being mopped and swept once a week, anything above that is a personal choice. If you want it a certain way, for example clean enough that heart surgery could take place on them, it’s on you.
“You can’t be mad that you don’t have time to read a book because that becomes a choice.” The same goes for what comprises an evening meal or a “made bed”. Agree on the standard and there is no need for constant negotiations.
If someone doesn’t do their job, don’t rescue them. “If you continually rescue your partner – they’ll never change. Build consequences into the system.”
Maternal gate-keeping be gone!
During some very long conversations, in which Brigid effectively interviewed her husband Tom, it became clear that their equal relationship started to go askew upon the arrival of their first baby.
“Things changed the minute we brought our son home. When it was just two of us we shared things more equally but when the baby came home, things changed,” Schulte explains.
“This is not at all uncommon: it’s a pivotal moment and the “good mother” image that is so deeply engrained in our collective psyche sets up certain expectations. Being a “good mother” is physically demanding, you’re the mom so you just do it.”
“In a sense one of the things I had to learn was to back off,” Schulte says. “I had the movies playing in my head that I should do everything and be everything. I put my husband at arm’s length. We set it up so that I would be the default and primary carer.”
A key revelation in writing her book was that there is no such thing as maternal instinct.
“It’s very interesting because countries that encourage men to take parental leave – and not just mowing the lawn but actually caring –are just as capable and wired for nurturing as women,” she says.
The determining factor is not being a certain gender, but rather spending time with a baby to develop the same competence and confidence.
As powerful as the stories in our heads might be, it’s critical that new mothers allow their partners to develop that competence and confidence.
Talk about this. Often
Brigid’s advice to young couples – particularly who are bringing a new baby home – is to talk about how they envisage their roles playing out.
“In an ideal world – what would you share? What do you want? It’s easy to assume we know what the other person wants. But be clear and then help each other. The old movies are powerful and pose easy traps to fall into it.”
Managing work, a family and a marriage isn’t always smooth sailing. Brigid says the closest thing you will find to a silver bullet is communicating often.
“It really requires constant checking in with each other which is hard to do because with work and kids you’re busy. Time studies show the first thing to go when you’re busy is finding time for yourself and the second thing is finding time for your spouse.” Both of those things very legitimately require the time regardless.
“It’s not selfish – it’s self-preservation! We call it cocktail minute because we don’t always have an hour. It’s finding corners of time to continually check in with one another.”