Monday, September 9, 2013

Fathers and Domestic Chores - This article appeared in the May/June 2007 edition of Glow Magazine

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 A plan for peaceful negotiations with the enemy

As you take off your coat the acrid stench of burnt spaghetti stings your nostrils, lingering like toxic smog in the hallway.   Your living room is littered with toys, clothing, pizza boxes, juice boxes and beer cans.  A bacteriologist could find innumerable rare micro-organisms in the layers of greasy dishes and encrusted cutlery that conceal every flat surface of your kitchen.  Has a biker gang moved in?  No. You’ve left your partner in charge for a few days.  Now you want revenge. 

Time stops.  Your world is flash-frozen.  An violent eruption seethes inside you.  Your angry trance is broken by your firstborn, hurtling towards you, tiny arms outstretched for a hug, face unsullied by soap and water.  Hugging your smelly child, you default to an instant divorce.  Your partner smiles warmly from the couch, where he is sprawled in front of a hockey game.  You inhale to scream.

Wait.  Before you fire all your missiles at once, consider this:

  • Your kids are obviously happy
  • They have been well fed, as evidenced by the ketchup stains on their t-shirts and the disastrous condition of the kitchen
 This leads us to Rule #1 for getting more domestic labour out of your man:  No matter how bad it is, it can always be a lot worse. Whatever you do now should make it better.

Having avoided pre-emptive war, you are now ready for Rule #2:  Work from where he is, not from where you want him to be.  Where you want him to be, while a worthy destination, is of little use to you right now as a measurement criterion.   Dwelling on this gap between current performance and desired outcome will only damage your relationship.

Rule #3:  Strike while the iron is cool.  Now is not the time for a confrontation.  Believe it or not, he has done more domestic labour while you were gone than usual.   Acknowledge that fact, thank him for it, then ask him to do a small chore while you begin to undo the carnage.  Bring paper, pencils and a calculator to dinner.  Install the kids in front of a new DVD.  

Now you are ready for Rule #4. Appeal to his sense of rationality.   Ask him to list all the chores, including commuting and working for a living, that must happen on regular basis in order for your family to survive.  Get agreement on what should be on both your lists.  Leave gender aside for the moment.  Think team.  Compare lists.  Negotiate agreement. 

Rule #5: Let go of perfectionism.  Be ready to lower your standards for task performance and task frequency.  Your standards should not necessarily become his standards.  After my wife cleans up the kitchen, surgery could be performed on the counters.  Everything is in its place.  Spotless.  When I do the same job, I usually overlook something. Maybe a dirty pot lingers on the stove.  Maybe the floor doesn’t get swept.  It wouldn’t take a forensics expert to determine what we ate for dinner.  

Remember Rule #6:  Your partner is not a continuous improvement project. Your relationship is not a vocational-school class in life skills.   Use positive reinforcement.  Acknowledge effort and small improvements.  Above all, do not nag.  State your suggestion once, make sure it is heard, then drop it.  I will never clean up our kitchen with the same thoroughness my wife brings to this chore.  Perhaps I will only ever get 90% of the job done according to her standards.  Do I care about improving?  No.  But does the kitchen get cleaned up, at least to the point at which Children’s Aid will not take away our kids?  Yes.  Is it worth going to war for the last 10%?

 You have been looking after your two children plus holding down a full-time job for the last 4 years.  Your pre-school kids are either in day care or with you.  Your mate shows no signs of taking over any of child-care routines.  He’s an avid runner; this hobby takes up all his free time.  You can no longer work full-time, maintain the home, run the kitchen and raise the kids while he improves his marathon times.  You are burning out.   

His lack involvement may have nothing to do with you.  Or you may be an unwitting contributor to his avoidance behaviour?  This means you need Rule #7: Give up your sole control over child-care tasks as soon as possible.  Give him the basic training he needs then get out of the way.  . If you want him to become more involved with your kids, then let him develop those relationships without your mediation.  Except for breastfeeding, he can really do everything you can do.  As with Rule #5, all you need do is let go of your own performance standards. 

Assume he is capable of learning basic child-care skills --toileting, feeding, first-aid for choking, CPR, etc.  If he can maintain an open airway, feed and toilet, what is preventing you from leaving him alone with your kids?  The net result will be that the kids get to know him on his own terms, his child-care skills will rapidly improve and he will gain a new appreciation for what you do everyday.

All of which is not to say he will not stumble occasionally.  After 10 months of staying home with our daughter, my wife decided she needed a break.  Finally, I thought, it was my turn.  Though I had never looked after an infant on my own, I felt ready to take charge. As instructed, I carefully administered bottles on time.  She gurgled sweetly for me. Before long I had her tucked into her crib, with the baby monitor turned on. 

Then she started to whimper. I rushed upstairs, remembering she had a gluten allergy. This must be another bout of gas, I thought. So I held her. Talked to her.  Her crying only became more intense.  Desperate, I called a neighbour. No ideas. Next I called the hospital. A nurse suggested taking her temperature.  I had never taken a baby’s temperature before. She squirmed and wept uncontrollably. I couldn’t keep the thermometer in her armpit without pining her down in her crib like a Sumo wrestler grappling with an agitated hobbit.

Then I remember the Tempera. That’s it!  Why didn’t I think of that before? She’s teething!  Measuring the dosage into an eyedropper, I squirted it into her mouth but she sputtered it out—still screaming.  Relief washed over me as my wife walked in, scooped up our daughter and checked her pulse and temperature.  “When was the last time you changed her?”  Dumbfounded, I couldn’t remember.  Minutes later mom and baby emerged from the bathroom, baby gurgling happily once again.  Handing me a soiled diaper, my wife smirked. “Take this to the laundry.”

All of which leaves us at Rule #8: Many men do not realize that the relationships they establish with their children could become the most significant relationships they will ever have in their lives. Too many men grow up not understanding the richness that can be theirs within the role of being a dad.  You can help your man understand this.  Men cannot do this alone.

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