Tag Archives: childcare

Check out my premier post on ParentMap!

I’m very excited to now be a contributing writer to ParentMap.com, an online resource for every stage of the parenting journey. Some of you might remember that I appeared on a panel exactly a year ago for ParentMap’s day-long event for expecting couples: BabyMap. I love celebrating my first anniversary as a ParentMap partner with a=this post. Click here to read it.   

The Shame of Childcare & Housework: How Parents Can Shift Household Conflict

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I read an I-can’t-put-it-down-book last week entitled, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It’s Not): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power. The title notwithstanding, Brené Brown’s book is, primarily, about shame.

If you just had a visceral response—and not a good one—while reading the word “shame,” you’re not alone. Most of us have an aversion to shame: our own, someone else’s, just the word “shame” itself.

Brown defines shame as:
“The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”

“Guilt” refers to feeling bad about or regretting something, which can propel us to change. Guilt can, then, be a transformative force in our lives.

Not so with shame, which is all about the deficiencies and faults we believe define us. Shame makes us believe we can never change.

While most of us were raised in a family or society (or both) that fostered shame—and taught us, overtly or subtly, to shame others—we lack a cultural, personal, and relationship vocabulary to manage shame’s destructive effect.

Why address shame in a post about parents‘ relationships? For starters, a lot of women experience motherhood as a shame trigger (whether or not we have kids). Parenting, too, is among the top shame categories, according to Brown.

The remaining categories are: Appearance & Body Image; Family; Money and Work; Mental and Physical Health; Addiction; Sex; Aging; Religion; Being Stereotyped and Labeled; Speaking Out; and Surviving Trauma. (FYI, we don’t necessarily experience shame in every category, but I’d wager we could all point to at least one that triggers our shame and our judgment/shaming of others.)

These categories apply to men, too. But, Brown notes, women’s shame is layered and often contradictory e.g., be sexy yet not too sexy. Men’s shame, instead, is often about threats to masculinity, e.g., weakness, fear, failure. While not specifically tied to marriage or fatherhood, how men define what it means to be “a man” impacts their approach to being a husband and a dad. In other words:

Failing to meet gender expectations can trigger shame in both men and women.

The role of shame in our lives is pervasive and complex. Many relationship issues can be addressed through the lens of shame. So much so that I encourage all of us to spend some time assessing how our shame (in the categories cited above) might be impacting our relationships and parenting.

Yet, as I was reading Brown’s book, I kept circling back to an issue that’s always near the top of heterosexual* parents’ conflict list: Childcare and Housework. (BTW, while I focus on straight relationships in much of this post, these–and related–issues apply to some gay and lesbian parents, too.)

Why focus on that stress-point? My hunch is that—despite strides in women’s rights, despite the prevalence of dual-income families, and men’s increased parenting and household roles—if masculinity is at issue for many men, and motherhood is at stake for a lot of women, then it’s probable many couples play out shame dynamics around childcare and housework.

The thing is: (1) We’re not always (or often) aware of our shame triggers; and (2) What we consciously think—e.g., I’m a man who’s cool with housework or I’m a woman who likes my hubby to clean—and what we feel might not match.

I’m not only thinking of some men’s conscious or unconscious resistance to childcare or housework, I’m also thinking of some women’s mixed messages and judgmental responses to their spouses when they do try to help.

Many moms feel the pressure of “doing it all”—working in or outside the home, caring for children, taking care of a household, supporting and remaining attractive to spouses—and that pressure can easily morph into shame when the reality hits that we can’t do it all, or at least not for long.

Some men’s shame might, then, be triggered by doing certain types or amounts of childcare/housework that challenge notions of masculinity, or by being asked by wives to help more, which might feel emasculating. Plus, just as women hold themselves to unattainable standards, so too might their spouses, who sometimes judge them for not handling everything child- and house-related.

Likewise, some women’s shame might be triggered by having to ask for help—by admitting they can’t do it all—and by their spouses’ assistance, which those same women might judge harshly if they’re already judging themselves or are concerned about the judgment of others.

I genuinely believe that the men and women who say they want more equitable relationships really do want them. I also believe that what we want and what we act out in daily life don’t always sync up, especially when shame is triggered.

How can we decrease shame’s impact on us as individuals and on our relationships?

A great place to start is to increase awareness of how shame feels and what triggers it, especially around issues that most affect our relationships with spouses and kids.

Most of us experience shame physically. In my case, my throat clenches, I feel nauseous, and I simultaneously feel paralyzed and defensive.

To explore your experience of shame, click to download Brown’s “shame worksheet.” In addition to increasing our shame awareness, Brown suggests 3 tools to reduce shame’s impact, all of which can be explored with spouses (and our older kids):

(1) Contextualize: Shame is often taught or reinforced by social, religious, educational, media, government or other influencers. Recognizing the degree to which our shame is reinforced by larger cultural forces helps us…

(2) Normalize: Shame is a lonely experience, yet we all feel it. Whatever shame categories trigger us, there are many women and men who, also, feel shame in these areas. We’re not alone, which is why it’s important to…

(3) Demystify: Speaking out about shame with those we trust to respect our vulnerability can be supportive, if scary. Plus, it reduces shame’s sting.

Feeling ambivalent about looking at shame? I get it. I do. But we’ll all benefit from considering shame’s impact on us…and our kids. As Brown writes:

“Parenting is a shame minefield. Not only do we hang our self-worth on how we are perceived as parents, but we hang a big part of it on how our children are perceived.”

Unless we decrease shame’s effect on us, we’re poised to pass it on to our kids. Since they’ll get a good dose of it elsewhere (e.g., in school, sports, at a dance), it’s up to us to lessen its impact on our lives. Doing so will benefit everyone, including our spouses and kids.

There’s no shame in that.

* Interestingly, research shows that lesbian and gay couples don’t battle about housework to the degree that straight couples do. Research among lesbian parents indicates that while gay moms argue about childcare, it’s usually about wanting more time with their kids, not more assistance caring for them. See my article on gay and lesbian parenting at http://bit.ly/h3jERV.

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Saying What We Feel: Sincerity & Trust in Marriage & Parenting

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Last week, my wife and I hosted a birthday celebration for my mom. Before our guests arrived, I tried to wrangle my 3 yo out of her PJs and into a party dress. Tried is the operative word.

I smiled brightly as I told S that wearing a dress would be fun. I did my best to make a game out of changing. I promised her she could revert to PJs when guests departed.

As each of my efforts failed, I felt the tug of disappointing my mother who, I knew, would relish seeing S in a party dress. Yet, my wife and I had agreed months ago that it wasn’t worth taking a stand over clothes when S insisted on wearing pajamas to preschool. This was a variation on that theme.

So I sat down on the floor and told S it was fine that she wear her PJs. If you’d asked me at the time, I would have claimed that my words to her were gentle and genuine.

My perceptive daughter promptly sat on the floor next to me and said:
“Don’t be disappointed, Mommy.”

Yikes! While S might not have heard my inner dialogue about disappointing my mother, she sensed that her not wearing a dress = disappointing me. S had pegged my insincerity.

I took a moment to remove my mother from the equation and realized I was fine with S’s PJs. So I thanked her for helping me understand there was no reason to feel disappointed and I apologized for my earlier response. Now, I said, I really did feel fine about her not wearing a dress. I said it like I meant it. S’s smile and hug told me she believed me.

It wasn’t lost on me that I could have easily—perhaps, more easily—resisted S’s comment and claimed that I wasn’t disappointed. But the cost of my denial would have been high.

There have been times in the past when I’ve been on emotional autopilot and told S that everything was fine when that’s not how I felt. Or I’ve contradicted her perception of my mood because it seemed easier to do so, or I didn’t know how I was feeling.

When I’ve negated what S’s finely tuned intuition tells her, not only have I lied to my daughter, I’ve eroded her trust in me. Also, by denying my emotional truth—even if that truth is not being aware of my feelings—I’ve reduced my ability to trust myself.

The more I thought about the dress-interaction with S, the more I realized I’d lapsed into 2 modes that often go hand in hand: insincerity and objectification. My insincerity was obvious: What I said and felt didn’t match.

Objectification happens when we try to get others to do things with little regard for them. I didn’t really care that S preferred PJs; I was intent on getting her into a party dress, on having her play the part of compliant daughter and granddaughter to serve my needs.

I’d turned my child into an object.

Objectification is often combined with insincerity. When we’re treating others in a mechanical way—meaning, when we focus on what we want from them—we often resort to disingenuous tactics, like false compliments or other forms of manipulation.

I’ve learned a lot about the dangers of insincerity and objectification from Leadership and Self-Deception, a business book. Unlikely as it seems, given its corporate focus, this is an excellent book on individual and relationship change. Seriously. Here are 2 quotes:

“No matter what we’re doing on the outside, people respond primarily to how we’re feeling about them on the inside.” 

“Whatever I might be ‘doing’ on the surface….either I’m seeing others straightforwardly as they are—as people like me who have needs and desires as legitimate as my own—or I’m not….One way, I experience myself as a person among people. The other way, I experience myself as the person among objects.”

In other words, when we force a smile to cover anger as we try to make spouses help more with housework and childcare, when we utter compliments to inspire sexual intimacy, when we do or say anything that doesn’t match how we’re feeling, or with the unspoken purpose of having others do our bidding, we’re being insincere and objectifying.

Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t get what we want, or when we do that we suspect we’ve sacrificed something important in our relationship to get it?

There are a host of reasons we resort to insincerity and objectification with spouses and kids (and colleagues and everyone else) and, thus, sacrifice trust in the process.

Most commonly:
(1)  We’re unaware that what we say and feel are out of sync;
(2)  We believe masking feelings &/or treating others functionally are how to best get what we want;
(3)  We don’t know how to get what we want without these tactics.

If we’re not aware of what we’re feeling, how can we limit the impact of lying to others and ourselves? 

One approach is an after-the-fact remedy: If spouses or kids challenge what we say we’re feeling, or suggest we might be feeling something we’re not admitting, instead of resisting their perception, take a moment and consider their claims. Literally, pause and do an internal check-in.

If we notice defensiveness or resistance, it’s likely they’ve struck a cord. Consider copping to our internal response. If we’re not sure of our feelings, say so. If we still believe we’re not feeling what others sense, genuinely tell them so.

If insincerity and objectification are the only, or the best, ways we believe we can get others to do our bidding, what’s the alternative? 

This is, of course, a bigger challenge than lack of emotional awareness. One way to shift this dynamic is to admit it to our spouses (and kids, if they’re old enough to discuss it).

In addition to copping to the tactics we sometimes use to get what we want, we can ask them for suggestions on how to better get our needs met, or better navigate differences in what we need and what they need.

Why bother discussing this? Because our family’s trust in us, and our trust in ourselves, is far too precious and central to relationship and individual fulfillment to sacrifice to the convenience of insincerity and objectification.

We deserve our family’s trust. They deserve our trustworthiness.

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In Good Times & Bad, But Mostly Good: The Importance of Celebrating Life’s Wins

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Within the first year of our relationship, at a time when most couples are basking in the glow of a new romance, my wife and I had the unusual experience of falling in love while navigating a major challenge.

To J’s everlasting credit, she didn’t bat an eye when I told her, just a few dates into our courtship, that I wanted a family…now! What we had no way of knowing was that my immediate efforts to get pregnant would lead us on a 2-year infertility journey (at which point I passed my baby baton to J).

Now, almost 7 years later, with a magnificent 3 year-old daughter and a baby boy on the way, we refer to our struggles to create a family as a testament to our love:

“If we made it through that, we can make it through anything.”

I don’t think we’re alone in assuming that weathering challenges bodes well for relationship longevity. Given the range of life’s stresses, which seem to increase exponentially after we have kids, having a partner with whom we can tackle obstacles and survive them intact, if not more strongly bonded, is noteworthy.

Yet a 2006 UCLA study suggests that the greatest boon to relationships might not be how we handle bad times, but how we respond to good ones. Specifically, what we say and do when dealing with positive events are better predictors of relationship wellbeing than how we manage negative events. Bottom line:

How well or poorly we respond to each others’ triumphs, and positive life experiences, is a pivotal factor in strengthening or undermining our bond as a couple.

Granted, the couples studied were dating (for at least 6 months) versus being married. Still, I believe the UCLA data are important for long-term relationships and, especially, our connection as parents. Why?

For starters, once we have kids our alone time with spouses is reduced by about 66%. What’s left has to accommodate new stressors, like conflicts about children and childcare duties (2 of the 3 most common topics parents argue about; money is the 3rd).

Meaning, the more time we devote to exchanges with spouses that are negative in tone or topic, whether related to parenting or other spousal challenges (e.g., illness or work issues), the less time we have to appreciate their wins (e.g., job promotion or their ability to get our infant on a nap schedule).

This is especially true if we believe challenges are worthier of our limited time and energy than successes. In which case, we might not only miss key opportunities to nurture each other when something good happens, but we might inadvertently have the opposite effect.

The research shows that downplaying or demeaning our partner’s good fortune can have lasting negative impact (it was a factor in break-ups among the dating couples). This seems especially pertinent for those among us who feel we’re constantly putting out fires, whether it’s because we wrangle kids or a demanding job all day.

If we feel put-upon most of the time, it’s easy to lapse into the perspective of: “What’s the big deal if something goes well for my spouse? I’ve got a fire to put out!”

The big deal is that by missing the chance to fan the flames of appreciation when something good happens to spouses, or by minimizing their positive experiences, our relationships might well get burned.

How do we shift perspective from tackling the negative to cheerleading the positive?

We don’t, insofar as our individual and relationship challenges don’t disappear, decrease in importance, or benefit from being ignored if something good occurs. So, in the absence of magically adding more hours to the day, it’s worth inventing quick ways to celebrate our spouses’ wins and vice-versa.

Quick Congrats: No time for a congratulatory conversation? Go for a quickie: Look your spouse in the eye and genuinely say how happy (and if appropriate proud) you are about their good news. Say you wish you could celebrate now, and promise to devote more time soon.

How can you make good on that promise? Here are some suggestions:

(1) CELEBRATION PAGE: Post a sheet of paper, with your spouse’s triumph on top, in a visible place on your bedroom wall. Whenever you have a minute to spare, record words or phrases of praise on it. Present the page to your beloved at the end of the week and, if you have time to do so, elaborate on what you were able to record.

(2) FAMILY POSTER: Tape a family poster to your fridge or kitchen wall. Record everyone’s “wins” on a weekly or monthly basis (no matter how young—e.g., baby slept 10 hours straight—or old they are). Together, review the list at a family dinner.

(2) DINNER TOAST: Do a celebration toast at dinner on a daily or weekly basis to acknowledge any successes during that time period.

(2) CELEBRATION DATE: Book a celebration date with your spouse on a monthly (or more frequent) basis. Spend at least 10 minutes congratulating and praising your spouse’s accomplishment/s, and vice-versa.

(3) NOTABLE NOTES: Jot a brief congratulatory note—seriously, brevity works—and slip it into your spouse’s wallet.

(4) CONGRATULATE OVER TIME: Many of us consider relishing a success over time to be self-indulgent and we short-change our accomplishments in the process. As spouses we can ensure the celebration lasts by, for example, putting pop-up reminders on calendars to send our spouse a quick text to acknowledge their efforts.

Go ahead: Create quick acknowledgements to suit your spouse’s personality (and your own). Whatever you devise, rest assured that celebrating the good times will not only please your beloved, it will enhance your relationship, and teach your kids the importance of acknowledging their own and others’ positive experiences.

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Parent Peer Pressure: What Is It and How Do We Deal With It?

Over the last year, I’ve collected clippings that detail research on diverse topics, like weight gain and physical fitness, with a common theme: the effect of our social networks–actual friends, not just Facebook ones–on our experiences.

For many of us, the influence of peers is most intense (or most obviously so) when we’re in school, especially as teens. But the truth is that during adulthood, our friends’ behaviors and attitudes can remain powerful.

Take weight gain, for example. In 2007, researchers from Harvard and UC-San Diego reported that obesity isn’t just spreading in the United States; it might actually be contagious. Specifically, being friends with someone who becomes obese—even if they live elsewhere—can increase our own chances of obesity by up to 171%, especially if they’re close pals. By the way, if our spouses or siblings become obese, our risk increases by far less, a “mere” 37-40%.

In case you think this phenomenon applies solely to weight (or fitness, as cited in a recent study by the US Air Force), it turns out that divorce is also infectious. According to research at Brown University, regardless of how far away they live, a close friend’s divorce increases our own risk by as much as 75%, while a sibling’s marital split bumps the risk of our getting divorced by 22%.

Why the higher impact of friends? According to Dr. James Fowler, one of the authors of the study on obesity:

We look to friends more than spouses or family to gauge acceptable social behavior.

So if our friends (and to a lesser degree family) can have a powerful effect on our weight, physical fitness, and likelihood of staying (or not staying) married, what impact might they have on our co-parenting? Specifically, how might friendships affect how we divide household and childcare responsibilities with our spouses?

I mention this topic because my coaching clients often cite housework and parenting duties as stressors on their relationships. In fact, division of labor is one of the Top 3 topics about which straight parents* argue most (the other 2 are kids and money).

The frequency of conflict over housework and childcare isn’t surprising, given that even in dual-income heterosexual households in the United States (and I suspect Canada, too),  moms tackle about twice as much of the household labor, and anywhere from 3 to 4 times the childcare as dads do on average.

These data are especially striking because it’s not unusual for expecting couples, in which both spouses plan to continue working outside the home after their babies arrive, to declare best intentions about sharing parenting duties equally or close to it. Yet, many end up lapsing into a mom-does-more-than-dad mode.

There are, no doubt, many factors that influence housework and childcare once we’re parents. They include employer attitudes that privilege the importance of men’s over women’s jobs, the fact that men still earn more on average than women (combined with the belief that earnings should determine who does or doesn’t do what at home), and enduring cultural ideals of motherhood that dictate mom-knows-best and dad-knows-least.

Plus, according to Mount Holyoke psychology professor, Francine M. Deutsch, who researches what she calls “equally shared parenting; the effort by some couples to equitably divide paid work, housework and parenting responsibilities:

The most predictive factor of how equal a couple will be is how equal their friends are. 

While I’m certain that peer-influence doesn’t operate in a vacuum, in the absence of quickly resolving the broader cultural factors noted earlier, how can our friendships better support our co-parenting efforts? Meaning, if we want a more equitable division of labor with spouses, how do we limit the impact on us of our friends’ inequities?

One option, of course, is to ditch our current friends. Not gonna happen, so here are some other options:

(1) Actively cultivate friendships with those who believe (and act on beliefs) that it’s not just important but doable for spouses to share more housework/childcare.

(2) Shift conversations with friends from complaining about spouses—e.g., wives sometimes kvetch about how little their husbands do; husbands sometimes bemoan their wives’ criticisms of what they do—to developing strategies to empower spouses to contribute more equitably, to feel good about what we both do, and to inspire a team attitude to housework &/or childcare.

(3) Chat with spouses about the possible influence of peers, and try to shift the lens from friends’ approaches to our own so that, together, we design a division of labor that’s true to our joint/compromised vision for our family and relationship.

Adopting any of these approaches requires a few ground-rules (feel free to come up with more, as you and your spouse see fit):

Both parents already know how, or are capable of learning on their own, to perform childcare and housework duties.

Our styles of parenting or doing housework might differ. 

There’s no one right way to parent or do housework. 

Unless our children’s safety or wellbeing is at stake, or our home is in ruins, support co-parents’ childcare and housework styles, without unsolicited advice, judgment or intervention.

While our friends’ behaviors and attitudes don’t always determine our own, it’s likely they are influential. Evaluating how our friends’ behaviors are in sync and out of sync with what we want for our marriages and families, not only increases our awareness of the external factors impacting us, it also empowers us to improve our relationships and co-parenting.

* Research suggests that, overall, the division of housework is more equitable among gay and lesbian couples, and that when lesbian moms argue about childcare, their focus is on wanting more time with their kids versus dissatisfaction with how little time their spouse devotes to childcare.