It seems to happen out of nowhere... you become the primary caregiver in the family. You're the one who chooses ideas for meals, picks out clothes and dresses the kids and takes them out on errands. You become their go-to parent for questions, ouchies, and so much more. Before you know it, you feel exhausted and depleted, and you are wondering how this came to be. You wonder if biology had anything to do with your mental load or if this was society's influence on traditional masculine and feminine roles. You wonder how your egalitarian relationship with your partner took a turn once you had a child.
You're not alone, mama. The results of our 2021 State of Motherhood Survey are in, and we discovered 93% of mothers reported feeling burned out, at least occasionally. That's up 7 points from last year's survey. Not only do those surveyed not feel supported at home, but very few (4%) have a partner who takes the primary caregiver roles or even shares the responsibility equally (10%).
While the pandemic most certainly contributed to this increase, it doesn't have to stay like this. You can take some steps towards the life you pictured having. A life where you are working with your partner instead of feeling the weight of doing everything.
Consider all the suggestions below and reflect on what works for you and your family.
Review your expectations
Look back at your relationship with your partner—what was it that you first appreciated? Really consider what brought the two of you together and remember why you chose the person you did to create a life together. Feeling overwhelmed and depleted by the responsibilities of parenting, particularly when it seems so unequal can make us forget these qualities and even resent our partner.
What did you expect in a parenting relationship? And how were these established?
Before becoming a parent, we often envision the beauty in it. Although there is much beauty, there is a lot of hard work that we often overlook in discussing with our partner. Most of us do not discuss details of who is going to do what because we cannot account for all of it. But it is never too late to collaborate together on your parenting adventure. Just as our children are forever growing, we are, too.
What surprises came along the way when your child was actually brought into the relationship?
You might not have considered what it would be like to take care of a sick child while being sick too and your partner is across the country for work…who would have? But the reality is things like this happen and we need to find ways to work through them together. It is doable.
It is important to take the time to answer these questions so that we can shift away from simply blaming or resenting our partner and make steps towards feeling a desire to collaborate and work with our partner.
Explore new roles
Rather than assuming we know why our partner has taken a "backseat" in parenting, or even assuming that they have taken a backseat, to begin with, it is helpful to explore how they feel as a parent. This can easily be done by asking them what they view to be the difficulties of being a parent, what took them by surprise, what scares them, and what they enjoy most about being a parent.
Being curious about our partner's perspective can help us widen our lens from which we see the issues that we are having in working collaboratively with our partner. Sometimes couples find that there is a lot of worry within their partner and that this has been a barrier to them participating more in the parenting. Often times family history comes into play and this influences each parents' style and participation.
It is also beneficial to explore how your role as the primary caregiver has come to be. Sometimes one parent has had more experience caring for children and just takes the driver's seat without even realizing.
Considering how society teaches and reinforces traditional roles may also help explain why this issue is so commonplace among couples and how this has lasted for many generations. Much of what our environment shows us becomes automatic for us. It is only with awareness that we can create changes.
Share how you're feeling
Sharing your experience and your wishes through kindly communicating it to one another can help open doors. The moment we come from a place of resentment and anger, however, we are closing our doors (at least at that moment).
No one wants to feel blame for things and as mentioned before, the issues are across many households and many generations, so blaming would be counterproductive. Remember, this pattern where one parent takes the lead is not typically a conscious decision. So in sharing with our partner in a calm manner that we are shifting the decisions from being unconscious to conscious.
When discussing such an important issue, it is incredibly important to set the time aside to have the discussion. Trying to catch your partner when they have a second would not be fair to either one of you and can backfire. So make sure to let them know you have some things you would like to discuss to improve your parenting/relationship together and schedule it. Actually scheduling the time makes a difference because you are creating a space dedicated to having a full discussion. In making time, you can begin making positive changes together.
Take it one step at a time
Sometimes the "secondary parent" (for lack of a better word) might feel fearful of doing things wrong, so much so that it prevents them from being an active participant in parenting. Of course, primary caregivers often have to work through these fears too when first becoming a parent. But think of the months or years you have now been in the driver's seat, and how there are many aspects of parenting that have become easier to you. For the parent who has been less involved to start taking more of an initiative will take time. This is a process and patience is key.
Think of those simple things, like knowing which shoes your child should use for bike rides or which toothpaste your child prefers. Talk with your partner about what steps they are feeling comfortable to take towards being more involved and how comfortable they are with taking on some less comfortable aspects of parenting.
Baby steps could be being left home alone for the first time for one hour or it can be taking your child on a two-day trip.
Give your partner grace
Once our partner is taking more of an initiative, it can be tempting to want to help your partner in doing things "right" because you know from experience what works best. But intervening takes away from boosting your partner's confidence in parenting. And remember that with parenting there are very few things that are "right"—much of it becomes about preference and the key to parenting is really attuning to our child's needs.
Trust that they know how to parent (even if it's not how you would)
Remember that your child will communicate to the other parent, just as they have with you. Whether this is through crying or words, it is important to allow your partner to respond rather than stepping in right away. Sitting back and watching the process can actually help you trust your partner more, feel more at ease about being in the backseat as a parent at times, and can help your child experience a bit more of each of you.
No two households are identical, although we share many of the same experiences. Always remember that parenting is a journey for each one of you and if your paths have strayed from one another there can still be an opportunity for you to walk towards each other. Continue to be aware of yourself and communicate kindly with your partner. You will be amazed by where this path will lead.