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.
ANSWER: 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
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
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
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