Like all new parents, my husband and I experienced profound shifts in our relationship after the birth of our first child. For the first few months we were trapped in a haze of sleepless nights and exhausting days and simply struggled to survive. After we finally emerged from the newborn phase and established a new routine, however, I felt a deep dissatisfaction roll in. When searching for a solution to my newfound irritation, my husband and I mistakenly began by focusing on my resentment towards the new chores in our life. However, I finally realized that my anger instead stemmed from the new mental load I had to carry. I simply didn’t want to accept that my new normal involved a complicated tangle of logistics and a long list of things to keep on my constant mental radar.
I had already known that adulthood was composed of a long list of areas of responsibility: finances, food, house maintenance, laundry, and so on. However, what I had failed to fully appreciate was that each of these areas of responsibility required planning, scheduling, management, maintenance, and occasional troubleshooting. When we became parents some of these areas simply increased in intensity (laundry, groceries, cleaning), while some entirely new areas appeared (our daughter’s childcare, health, feeding, etc.). This quickly maxed out my available brain space because I was not just dealing with an increase in specific chores. Instead, each area involved performing multiple tasks and juggling many pieces of information. For example, managing my daughter’s health meant scheduling regular pediatrician visits, recording her vaccinations, locating the nearest hospitals and emergency rooms, keeping lists of questions to ask her doctor, and knowing the days and times of the walk-in health clinic.
Finally recognizing this fact helped my husband and me chart our way back to a more satisfying life together. As we explicitly acknowledged and discussed the division of our various areas of responsibility I began to appreciate all of the things my husband had on his own radar. The cognitive burdens he had been shouldering had been largely invisible to me, and the same had been true for him. For example, he noticed when a bill needed to be paid, a car’s oil should be changed, hail damage to the roof needed to be repaired, the lawn had to be mowed, or the computer needed new anti-virus software. What’s more, he took the initiative after noticing these things. Like me, he did the research, scheduled the appointments, and completed the tasks in his areas seamlessly. Once we discovered the existence of these areas in our partner’s life, we realized some important things about how they function best:
1 | Areas of responsibility don’t need to be equally distributed, but they need to feel equal to both parties
Keeping score is never healthy in a marriage, and the number of areas will never completely match up on both sides. We found that it’s more important that both partners feel satisfied with how things are divided. For example, I take on more areas because I work half-time and my husband works full-time. If that were to change, we would need a renegotiation and more outsourcing and delegation of tasks.
2 | You should both play to your strengths
My husband is an engineer who grew up in the country. He is excellent at calculating, building, repairing, and making things grow. This is why he takes on the maintenance of the cars, house, yard, and garden. I’m an organized planner who likes to cook so I take on the management of our family’s health, the planning of meals, and the juggling of our social calendar. As a feminist and a product of a woman’s college, I’m not thrilled with how our areas of responsibility line up neatly with traditional gender roles. Unfortunately, I don’t currently have the time or energy to hone new skills and change this. (I hope to later.) For now, my husband and I plan to teach both our skills sets to our children.
3 | It’s okay to delegate
Just because you manage a particular area of responsibility doesn’t mean that you can’t hand off related tasks now and then. My husband is more than happy to pick up groceries for us if I give him a list. I can take the car in for a repair if he tells me what I need to relay to the mechanic.
4 | Divide the areas of responsibility if you need to
Occasionally, we are unable or unwilling to take on an area fully. If it’s possible, it can work well to simply divide it. I quickly became overwhelmed by the increase in laundry (baby clothes, burp rags, cloth diapers, etc.) so I told my husband to do his own. I now only manage my own and my daughter’s laundry.
5 | Have explicit conversations about your areas of responsibility
These need to be made visible and to be discussed. It can be tough for the other partner to understand the heavy mental burden created by an area of responsibility or even to realize that one exists. Open discussions about these areas and their related tasks can help reveal sources of resentment and the need for understanding and gratitude.
6 | Set up a system that works for you
If it’s your area of responsibility, you get to decide how you manage it. I work well with paper lists set out on the kitchen countertop. My husband prefers his customized, color-coded Excel spreadsheets. Both systems function efficiently. We just make sure the other has access to the system and understands how it works.
7 | Don’t get too distracted by simplifying, streamlining, or dividing the tasks themselves
Focusing exclusively on individual chores can make it easy to lose sight of the fact that it is almost always one partner who is ultimately responsible for an entire area of responsibility. It’s great to use a crockpot to shorten meal prep, but someone is still in charge of food in the household. That person must research crockpots, buy one, find recipes, make lists of ingredients, and chop the ingredients the night before. Still exhausting, right?
8 | Take the time to appreciate your partner’s areas and say thank you often
It’s a heavy burden to be in charge of an entire area of responsibility, and this burden is even more oppressive if it goes unnoticed and unappreciated. It might sound silly, but I thank my husband every time he checks the weather and mows the lawn before it rains because I am genuinely relieved I don’t even have to think about this. He does the same for me when I manage other areas of our life. I like both receiving gratitude for the burdens I shoulder and giving thanks for the ones I dodge.
It’s important to realize that the areas of responsibilities we experience as parents are far from static. They constantly alter as our families’ lives change and our children grow. For example, the areas in our own household are about to undergo another profound shift as our second daughter arrives in the spring. I know a bit more now about what we’re in for: a heavy newborn fog and then an intense period of adjustment to the new arrangement of responsibilities. Very possibly there will be resentments and tensions for a while as we settle in.
However, I’m hopeful that, as before, my husband and I will come out the other side stronger and wiser for the experience. We need to keep in mind what we’ve already learned about our areas of responsibility and how to manage them. If we can do this, we have a shot at both shouldering our new burdens side by side and at sharing the new joys of our expanding family together.