Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Cultural Loading of Motherhood /
Create a Parenting "Team"

QUESTION: It looks like most of your questions come from women, but in some ways (sensitivity, caring) it seems in our marriage that my wife and I are reversed from the stereotypical styles. She tends to be more brash, while I am more laid-back and sensitive. She is more concerned with how much has been accomplished in a day, while I strive most of all to keep life a positive and joyful experience, especially for our children.

As a stay-at-home mother of 3 (2nd-grader in school, 4- and 1-year old), she seems frustrated 80% of the time, ending up speaking in a "scolding" tone to the kids most of the time. I see this reflected in a whining response from the kids, compounded by her making threats without carrying through on warnings. Of course, this leads to some discipline challenges, which further irritate my wife, to the point where she's "had it" by the time I come home from work most days.

Whenever I try to talk about discipline, or trying to use a more-cheerful tone with the children, she becomes defensive, with the remark, "easy for you to say; you don't have to put up with it all day long". I've tried to get her to do things with women in our church (she goes to MOPS - Mothers of Preschoolers), but she was raised to not be selfish (to take time for herself).

Any clues on how I can help my wife relieve some stress? She's very resistant to change, unplanned events, or being "told" what to do.

Your wife has a point as do you. Her focus on "getting things done" and your contribution to sustaining "joy" in the family suggest that your marriage holds the makings for great collaboration! Perhaps you could create more teamwork which would allow her to reflect on her own contributions to "martyrdom" and you to experience more of the front-line parenting.

Let your wife know that you love and respect her, and that you want to take her complaint seriously. Consider relieving your wife of her responsibilities for a weekend. Let her know that you appreciate her and want to reward her by giving her time to be "selfish" and giving yourself an opportunity to experience at least a part of what she herself does for the family. Mothering, unlike your job outside the family is unpaid work with little recognition. This cultural reality sets a different tone for women than for men in our culture.

For example, if you are pushing a baby stroller down the street you will likely get a lot of smiles. If you are paying for groceries with a crying baby, you may find women and men offering you help. While if your wife was in an identical situation, others would be less likely to smile adoringly or suggest help. Reactions could range from silence to irritation and criticism if she is unable to quiet her young. (Believe me I speak from experience!)

It may be true that your wife is overly sensitive to your criticism. Still, you may be falling short in comprehending the cultural differences that are experienced by men and women when performing the same parental duties. Women are expected to nurture, while men are appreciated if they are sensitive and caring to their children. This difference in gender expectation can be experienced as an overall lack of appreciation by your wife, which can contribute to her defensiveness. Acknowledge the cultural loading for women that accompanies motherhood. Let your wife know that you are working hard to appreciate her experience and that your intentions are not to merely "criticize" but to offer your loving support and input as a parent.

It is also possible that the two of you may be reversed in nature from the roles you have agreed to play. As you suggest, perhaps you would enjoy caring for children 24 hours a day more than your wife does. However, you have agreed to organize your responsibilities along gender lines for now. Communicating your feelings about the worlds you live in can create a bridge for empathy. Mutual understanding can pave the road for accepting rather than rejecting feedback from one another.

It is the task of any healthy marriage to give feedback to your partner and be willing to consider your spouse's viewpoints. Invite positive suggestions from your wife rather than dismissal of your concerns. She does have an obligation to the marriage to be willing to listen and consider what you have offer.

Your feelings as a father are also important and need healthy dialogue if you are to experience inclusion rather than exclusion from the intimate workings of the family. Too often, fathers are relegated to the periphery of the emotional connections in the family due to specialized roles. You are right to insist on input into the intimate family atmosphere. It is your avenue for emotional involvement instead of remoteness as a father figure. Your wife chose a man capable of this relatedness. No doubt part of her reason for marrying you was because your heart is in the right place! Now it is her job to incorporate your involvement as a committed parent. Ask her to value rather than block your active participation as a parenting partner.

Be certain that you are also nourishing your couples' relationship. Take your wife out to dinner. Suggest a leisurely walk away from parenting responsibilities to create an open discussion about what kind of family you want to have together. Explore your different family backgrounds. How did each of your parents handle decision making together? How was work and play balanced in your respective families? Did parents offer their help to one another, or did they each "run" their own sphere of the family with little input from the other? Were there any "martyrs" in the family? If so, identify the role guilt played and the effects of running a family this way. What kind of role models do you want to be to your own children? What do you want to teach them about women's and men's roles in the family? And what does it mean to be "selfish"? Is there ever a time in which "selfishness" can be healthy?

This is your family and you have the right to create new and healthier improvements in the last generation. Yet, old patterns die hard. Be patient, understanding, but firm in your desire to create a shared vision of family.

Tell your wife that you want to help her reduce, not increase her stress. Strengthening your emotional connection is the best stress-buffer any marriage can have. Invite her to become a part of the change necessary to beat, rather than become victim to, the daily stress that is a natural part of family life in our society.

Return to Article Archive

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com