Pandemic Relationships Real Talk
- Written By
- Lauren Smith Brody
- Maria-Ines Gul
Last night, my husband told me that he was very excited for what he and the kids had planned for me for Mother’s Day. Isn’t that the best? Then, five minutes later, he picked up three pairs of clean socks off the dining table and asked, annoyed, “why are these here?” and, reader, I will not use a violent verb in a sentence about my beloved partner in life, but suffice it to say that I wanted to...express...my...anger.
I will never know if the righteousness I’ve felt this year is because of Covid, or my age, or because my kids are old enough that I know that it’s okay for them to see that their parents can be individuals and a couple and get through it all with love. But I know I’m not the only one. The mothers I coach have experienced all kinds of inequities in their careers and their share of the household labor this year, and I’ll be damned if we aren’t going to make some long-overdue corrections as we expose the systems that left us scrambling...and throwing balled up socks at people. So, here is my best attempt at answering your questions about the pandemic and co-parenting relationships right now:
My husband and I have been in survival mode for so long that I don’t know how to be in a relationship anymore. Help, please.
Here’s what I know about survival mode: It’s very hard to feel like you’re living when you’re perpetually in a protective crouch. It’s also very hard to crouch as a couple. Picture someone literally wrapping their arms around their own body to protect their vulnerable middle. It’s a solo activity.
The research I’m doing these days for corporate clients very often includes the terms “resource guarding” and “scarcity mode.” Usually, I’m talking about these phenomena in a work context: In order to get through a crisis, many of us became more financially conservative, making do with what we had, not asking for more. We hunkered down. That’s reasonable for a finite time of emergency, but it’s super important to shake off the habit. Advancing in your career requires a degree of deliberate risk, raising your hand, thinking out of the box, trying new things.
I tell you this because I think the same thing is true, perhaps even more so, in our partnerships at home. Especially in a long-term relationship, little fun risks like trying a new food together, or traveling somewhere you’ve never been before, or making a bigger financial decision together (renovating your kitchen, say) are exciting and bonding. And most of us have been in our siloed protective crouches not doing any of that stuff for so long. So, my advice to you is twofold: 1) Try something new together, even if it’s just watching a new show that neither of you might have chosen on your own. Make plans for something bigger (a trip, a party) in the future so you can look forward to that too. 2) Talk together about the things that *did* work when you were in survival mode, so you can see your victory as a team. If a daily walk outside helped your mental health, or if ordering in more takeout than ever gave you a break, these are shortcuts that you now have in your repertoire, either to incorporate in your new normal for good, or to file away for the next time you have a family crisis. Because now you know how to do that. Together.
I’m angry. I’m the main breadwinner, so I can’t be a SAHM, but I still have to nurse the baby, etc. It’s all falling on me.
Almost every main breadwinning mom I talk to has an enormous triple burden: 1) making that bread, 2) still being thought of (and judged!) as the primary parent by society, and 3) feeling alone in the rarity of her situation.
Let’s start with #3: It’s not actually rare! You may be the only one of your friends in this position (or the only one talking about it) but a whopping 41% of mothers are the primary or sole breadwinners for their families. I tell you that not to diminish your frustration, but because there’s so much solidarity out there for you, and it really, truly helps. Do you know any single moms at your workplace? Make friends with them! Any dads who are at drop-off every day? Go find their wives/partners and be their friend. They are missing the connection, trust me, and you’ll both benefit.
As for #1, the pressure of making the money: Do not hide that feeling if you feel it because that’s just a waste of energy. But also try to offset the sting of the pressure with the thrill of pride. Yes, I’m telling you to be prideful of the money you make and to push hard to be paid fairly. Modesty is lame when it comes to women’s earnings because all of the research shows that women spend money for the greater good. I was the primary breadwinner for about 10 years of our marriage when my husband was in his medical training, so I speak from experience here. Every negotiation was powered by the fact that I wasn’t just asking for me...I was providing for my family.
And lastly, the #2 point about social pressure. You cannot control the social norms around you. You can only choose which ones you and your partner are going to buy into or push back against as a team. This is not you against him, or your paycheck against his. This is the two of you together proving that the sum of your working and parenting can and should count.
I have so much resentment since having a baby. Will the disappointment ever go away?
Yes, it can, but only if you do something about that voice in your head that is so pissed off and unsupported. It’s a horrible, common cycle: You do more, you are exhausted, you get disappointed in your partner, and then -- worse! -- you get disappointed in yourself for choosing said partner and, oof, this is not good!
Resentment is toxic. It’s as simple as that. And in my experience, the only way through it is to feel like you have “won” and taken something back for yourself. That is going to mean asking for what you need. (Practice, seriously practice. You can start small by asking your partner to get you a glass of water -- I cannot tell you how many women I work with who don’t even do that!) And it’s going to mean granting yourself some wins in the form of gifts to self. I have one former colleague who bought herself jewelry any time she was mad at her partner. That’s not the kind of gift I mean (but, hey, it worked for her!). I mean gifts of time. Time with friends. Time to sleep in sometimes. Time by yourself. Time is so conveniently measurable. I recommend figuring out how much you need and then talking yourself into taking it. Think of it as an investment not just in your own wellness but in your whole family.
How do I ensure that my partner and I have the same goals and motivation for our future?
Respectfully, you shouldn’t necessarily have all the same goals. Some goals are shared (buying a house, for instance); others propel us as individuals and let us bring that pride in self back to our partnerships. It’s okay to have separate goals. What you want to have, I think, is shared values. I actually tried this on the spot in a live Q&A I did recently. A webinar attendee wanted to know the best way to divide “pastoral labor” in her partnership (that’s things like helping your kids with their friendships, meeting with their teachers, etc). And when I thought about it, the answer I gave her was this: It comes down to shared values. If you and your partner can decide on three or four main family values, all of the decisions you make both individually and as a team—big and small, and with whichever parent is around—will be guided by those values. So that’s what I’d recommend to you: Instead of focusing on having the same goals, make sure you have the same values that will guide and satisfy you.
Lauren Smith Brody is the author and founder of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity and Big Success After Baby. You can follow her on instagram @thefifthtrimester.