A tricky element of being a stay-at-home parent is that sometimes I share my job with my husband. I’m on kid duty most of the time because he’s employed full time, but when he’s with us, he’s a fully participating parent. The problem with this arrangement is that it also entitles him to complain about our kids when they get annoying (which they do), and that actually kind of annoys me.
I read an article about Ring Theory (or the kvetching order) a while ago that stuck with me because I think there’s a way to apply the concept to everyday life, particularly the experience of being a stay-at-home parent. This could be the secret to reducing the feelings of resentment, jealousy, isolation, and under-appreciation that can so easily build between spouses when one is employed full time and the other bears the load of day-to-day child care duties.
Ring theory explained
Ring Theory is all about how to avoid saying the wrong thing to someone who is grieving, ill, or coping with a tragedy or crisis. The aggrieved person is illustrated as a dot in the center of concentric circles. The nearest circle represents the person closest to the aggrieved, like their spouse. The second circle contains the next closest group, like the person’s children or parents. The further out in the circle you go, the looser one’s connection to the aggrieved becomes.
The rules of the kvetching order are simple: “comfort in, dump out.” We offer support to people in circles closer to the center than us, and we vent to people in circles further away. The person at the center (the dot) earns the right to dump out to everyone else since they are suffering the most.
This makes intuitive sense when we’re dealing with sad situations. We know better than to say to a new widow, “I’m so distraught about the death of your husband. It makes me think about how hard it would be if I lost mine, and I’ve been losing sleep over it.” We’d never expect her to be concerned with our lack of sleep when she’s dealing with the loss of her husband. Instead, we offer our condolences and work through our personal emotions with someone more removed from the situation.
Applying ring theory to everyday life
When it comes to stay-at-home parents, I think of us as the dots in our personal kvetching orders. I’m certainly not comparing raising children to a tragic event. It’s the opposite experience, but it is a physically and emotionally demanding one. Stay-at-home parents get little respite, so the parallels I’m drawing between traditional Ring Theory and life at home with kids are related to the dynamics of support and communication people in the center of the circles need, not necessarily the experiences that put them there.
According to the theory, stay-at-home parents should get the chance to vent about the hard parts of being home with kids, and our friends and family have to listen, especially the person in our closest ring, like our spouses or partners.
Our partners also have their own kvetching orders for their jobs. When we ask, “How was your day, dear?” We’re signing up to hear about idiotic bosses, incompetent co-workers, grueling schedules, or boring meetings. The difference in our kvetching orders, though, is that I never get to hop into the center of my husband’s rings because I never do his job, but he jumps into mine pretty regularly, and there in lies the rub.
Keep your dot to yourself
After my husband has had a long day of his own and walks into chaos at home, he rightfully and occasionally gets frustrated with the kids’ loud, whiny, or unruly behavior. It does take a lot for him to get to this state because he’s a loving and calm man who is genuinely happy to come home to us, but he’s human and carries the burden of supporting our family. Our kids are non-stop curious little creatures, and that isn’t always a winning combination after he’s had a stressful day at work.
When I hear the impatience creeping into his voice, I think about how I’ve had to keep calm for the last eight hours that I’ve been alone with the kids, and how I’d really love to pass the baton to him, the man in my closest circle, so that I can be the one to lose my cool and let off some steam. But the rules of Good Cop – Bad Cop require one of us keeps it together. When he’s already reached his limit then I’m required to continue playing a comforting role, essentially erasing my dot and thus my shot at being supported.
Of course, this characterization isn’t necessarily fair to my husband. The stressors of his day don’t disappear when he opens the front door. He should feel at ease to express himself in his own home, and I’m the perfect person for him to talk to about the kids. Who better to understand the nuances of our family life than me? Yet I’m still miffed when my dot must move aside to make room for his when he re-enters the realm of active parenting (in which I’m perpetually immersed). After all, he already has his very own set of rings and I don’t want to share mine.
Stay-at-home parents already share everything with our kids, all day, every day. Our time is not our own. It’s devoted to the often mundane chores needed to keep the household running and to our children to keep them fed, clothed, bathed, safe, and stimulated. In return, our kids eat whatever food we’d prefer to enjoy, in peace, alone. They interrupt us no matter what task we’re trying to complete. They watch us use the bathroom. I’d at least like to have exclusive rights to vent about all of this and I want to be an ineligible receiver when it comes to complaints about the kids.
Imagine if the situation was reversed. Let’s say my husband is a dishwasher in a restaurant, and I join him at the end of his shift. He’s been steadily washing dishes for the last seven hours. I start doing it for twenty minutes and begin commenting on how the water is scalding my hands and that my back hurts from bending over. That would sound ridiculous, wouldn’t it?
It’s like venting to the widow. Sympathy is probably the last emotion he’d feel for me. Incredulity, frustration, and indignation would likely come first. This is how it feels as a stay-at-home parent when our partners walk in the door and make themselves at home in the center of our circles.
“I can’t take the kids’ high pitched screaming anymore. It’s getting on my nerves.”
“I give you credit for taking care of the kids all day. Their shrieks are really hard to handle.”
There’s a really simple work-around to this, though, and it’s all in the delivery.
If my husband says, “I can’t take the kids’ high pitched screaming anymore. It’s getting on my nerves,” my immediate reaction is one of defense. “Oh, please. Don’t whine to me about that. Try listening to it all day.”
On the other hand, if he says, “I give you credit for taking care of the kids all day. Their shrieks are really hard to handle,” I will be so much more receptive to the complaint he’s voicing. As if by magic, his “dumping” comment that fishes for a consoling response from me is transformed into a comforting comment that validates my experience – my job – and I’m more than willing to listen to him and commiserate. We both win, and he still has the opportunity to complain about the kids or (gasp) about me to other people in his personal set of rings.
I imagine this theory works for any couple dynamic, not just a single-income family, and I’d be curious to know how you see it playing out in different circumstances. After all, this isn’t about us competing for who has the harder job. It’s about recognizing our respective rings, honoring the role we play for each other within them, and acknowledging that everyone needs their turn in the center. I’m not a marriage counselor, but I’m quite certain that if every couple drew their own set of circles and remembered to “comfort in, dump out,” we’d all do a lot less kvetching, particularly about each other.