On any given Sunday, you can find my family packing for a trip to the beach. Well, that’s not entirely accurate: my kids and husband are getting dressed, and I am running around in my pajamas, throwing towels and hats into our beach bags, packing snacks, and bottles of water, making sure everyone has extra underwear. Recently, on one such Sunday morning, I was getting increasingly upset as I ran frantically around the house. Why was I the only one packing? The kids were sluggish, and I couldn’t find their flip-flops. Why wasn’t dad helping? When dad did appear, he announced that he and the kids would get in the car and wait for me “to finish getting ready.” I was left to put all the bags together, grab the sand toys from the garage, and I’m pretty sure I forgot to brush my teeth. When I got in the car, everyone was excited for the beach, and I was fuming. And then, dad had a seemingly innocent question:
“Honey, did you remember to bring the sunscreen?”
Well, that’s all it took for me to unleash my fury on his poor unsuspecting soul. In hushed tones, (lest the kids hear their mother lose her marbles) I laid into him, and think I could actually see his heart sink in his chest. However, somewhere in between “I am not everyone’s servant!” and “You don’t appreciate anything I do!” it occurred to me that I never once asked him for help, or told him what I needed. He’s a wonderful, capable partner: I should have been clear about what needed to be done instead of taking it all on and then being Martyr Mom. In short, I broke every rule in Dad Management.
Poor dad. He’s such an easy target. But a lot of times it’s mom’s inadequate communication and planning skills that cause the problems for which he takes the blame. This father’s day (another beach day), I’m going to skip the necktie and give dad what he deserves: a partner who communicates with him clearly and effectively, and who shows him consideration and kindness. No more Martyr Mom: follow the tips below and you’ll be five steps closer to a promotion in Dad Management.
Dads each do their thing in their own unique way. They have their own strengths, weaknesses, and unique core values that inform who they are as parents—just like someone else you know. (Hint: you!) It’s easy to find fault with the one who resides in your house by comparing him to other dads, real or imaginary. (Even fictional movie dads can make us knock the real, live ones.) It’s easy, because it’s what we moms do to ourselves. (I should make my kids eat more veggies like that mom … I shouldn’t let my kids watch television like that mom … Why can’t I lose my baby fat like that mom?) Yet all these comparisons do is set dad up for failure, which disenfranchises him and disappoints you. What would your relationship be like if you could just accept him exactly as he is, valuing the Whole Dad? If you release all your expectations of dad and really honor what he brings to your family, he will be encouraged to bring more of himself. That means more involvement, more attentiveness, more of everything you love about him.
Give It Up
You never offer to take out the trash? Guess I’ll toss all your Fantasy Football ledgers in the recycling bin! You want to watch sports when I’m feeling frisky? Good luck getting any action later! Such is the wrath of a mom who feels undervalued or taken for granted by dad. Of course, “Operation Retribution” doesn’t ever have the desired effect: Dad just ends up feeling undervalued himself (and even less likely to take out the trash). Instead of withholding, why not give what you wish to receive? In A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle offers, “Whatever you think the world is withholding from you, you are withholding from the world,” and I think he’s on to something. Treat dad with the love, compassion, and consideration that you crave, and watch how his behavior transforms. I see an empty trash can in your future.
Moms get pretty indignant about what dad is “supposed to do” because “he’s just supposed to know.” We expend a lot of energy setting up expectations, not communicating them clearly, and then being disappointed and angry when things don’t get done the way we imagined them. The fix? No more mind-reading. Communicate your needs clearly, specifically, and in a non-confrontational manner. Any energy wasted on berating him about what “he’s supposed to know without you having to tell him” is just wasted energy, and just contributes to a feeling of hopelessness. (How can I do it well if I don’t know what “it” is?!) Mind-reading is not a necessary skill for parent partnership. Tell dad what you need without attacking him, and he’ll dive in willingly to help.
Mom needs help with kid. Dad is available, qualified, and loves aforementioned kid. Only one problem: he does things completely differently, and sometimes (gasp!) not as well as her. Wait, is that a problem? Dads have a unique role to play in your children’s lives; they’re not out to win the “I do it just like mom” award. So as hard as it might be, it’s critical to really surrender control. And it doesn’t count if you ask him to do something and then later report on the seventeen ways he did it wrong! Even if you’re certain that you’re the master diaper-changer, dinner-maker, or bedtime-storyteller, depriving dad of his own experience means depriving your children of all dad has to offer. So, if the diapers get put on backwards? Surrender. Dinner is take-out? Surrender. Bedtime is an hour late so that they can “camp” under a makeshift tent with flashlights. Surren—wait, that’s just adorable! (See?)
Best Laid Plans
“People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going.” Good for a motivational poster, and good for your relationship. The more you can plan, set goals, strategize, map out, anticipate … anything to make life a little more predictable and a little less chaotic. Planning means that dad’s your co-conspirator. You work together, and the day builds from your initial joint intention. He’s involved, you’re supported, and do I smell some bonding? An it’s nonsense that planning squelches spontaneity, it’s just the opposite: Once you have a plan, you have the freedom to relax into it (help each other pay the bills) or to deviate (post-bedtime game of naked Twister). Planning never looked so good.