My family is being strategically restructured. No one is getting laid-off (thank goodness), but the organizational chart is definitely changing. You see, my wife, who has been a stay-at-home-mom for the past five years, will be returning to work full-time as our youngest matriculate into elementary school. The shift is as dramatic for our family as it would be for a company experiencing a shake-up in management. We’re all facing new and unfamiliar roles — the kids included. Interdepartmental disagreements are inevitable.
Having lived through a restructuring or two in corporate America, I know how rocky things can get when expectations shift and I’m hoping to keep ahead of conflicts and bad feelings. To do that we need a plan. What kind of plan? I’m not sure. But I do know one thing: good marriages are predicated on top-notch communication and a fair distribution of labor. Anything else leads to resentment, pain, and nights spent sleeping on the couch. Families, like businesses, fall into disarray unless someone is doing the hard work of management. Fights are a product of procrastination.
The good news for my wife and I is that we can get ahead of the situation and start out on the right foot. Like any good business, we could use someone to help with team-building, conflict resolution, and morale. But I’d rather not press my family into trust falls off the playroom couch (the kids aren’t nearly strong enough to catch me). Instead, I decided to outsource my family human resources to a therapist. That’s why I called up licensed psychotherapist and relationship specialist Terry Klee, who told me the biggest boon to family morale is not to avoid the inevitable conflict, but to boost recognition.
“You both agreed on a scenario and it’s going to bring up difficult feelings in each of you and that’s the definition of conflict,” Klee tells me, before reassuring me that conflict avoidance is a pretty universal trait. “Each of us as people are not comfortable with conflict. That is human nature. Our brains are wired to avoid difficult situations otherwise we’d be extinct. Approaching a saber-toothed tiger is a conflict.”
But my wife is not a saber-toothed tiger. Her feelings are not an actual danger to me despite how her eyes darken when she is feeling pissed. I’m not a tiger either, but that doesn’t keep my wife from avoiding conflict with me too. In other words, this evolutionary prerogative, while helpful in making us feel normal, does little to help in actual circumstances in conflict, which are imminent. So what’s to be done?
“What we have to do is learn to tolerate when our partner has a bad day,” Klee explains. Because when a partner expresses feelings of being overburdened it can trigger feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy. That can lead to retorts, quibbling, and fights.
“The shift is when someone wants the space to say they really dislike something, the other partner has to try really hard not to be defensive,” Klee says. “They have to agree and accept and validate: ‘Yes, I can see how hard this is, thank you.’”
Avoiding a defensive attitude is key to solving conflicts in the business too. Because the fact is there will be times where the problem we face requires more than validation. It will require action. In those cases, I can look for guidance on how problems are solved in the boardroom. In those circumstances, active listening is key. It’s part of focusing on the problem — “What I hear you saying is …” There is also a huge premium for respect and calm, and very little room for accusation and blame. The problem at hand is the focus and nobody can tackle a problem when they’re angry. But most importantly, the best business people understand conflict as a potential for growth. That mindset allows for a crucial reframing of the issue. If my wife and I see conflicts as an opportunity to shake something loose and keep growing? So much the better.
Of course, that won’t stop me from thanking her for her hard work. That’s super important too. Any manager knows that. It’s not so different than businesses that lean into “employee of the month” or offer shout-outs during a staff meeting. And while I can’t give my wife the best parking spot, or a plaque, I can let her know that I appreciate what she’s doing to increase the families earning potential.
This is particularly important as my wife heads back to work. I am acutely aware that working mothers are regularly saddled with more household duties than men. In fact, according to a 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center, working moms in two-income households are twice as likely to report being responsible for more household chores than fathers. It’s not just a perception either. Studies routinely show that when mothers are employed demands at home do not decrease proportionately with the increase in paid labor outside the home. Moms routinely take on more than dads. That’s just fact.
They say that knowing is half the battle and that might be true, but I’m not naive enough to think my family will be the exception to the statistical rule. So it’s my job to think of this like a good coworker and try to shoulder some of the burdens while giving appropriate credit where due.
“People want to be appreciated,” says Klee. “Half the time people don’t need the regret to be fixed. But they do want space to be witnessed.”
Still, I understand that we can’t just go into this new phase of our family life without some sort of structure. While grateful to Klee for acting as a top-notch family human resources person, I was still unsure about the actual day to day structure of our family? How would we navigate this change?
“What corporations are doing is making unspoken expectation spoken and clarified,” says Klee. She notes that making expectations clear will be tantamount to our success. Still, Klee explains, we’ll need to be a bit more forgiving than hard-nosed a-type bosses.
“Married couples have unspoken expectations about how well things are done,” Klee explains before making a suggestion. “There could be a house rule that you don’t challenge each other on how things are done. Because that’s how you start to micromanage each other. Time is limited as it is. You cannot get into how things are done, unless it’s really obvious. If you’re feeding your kid Schlitz beer for breakfast, that needs to be talked about.”
Besides the fact that my go-to dad beer is Coors, I’m taking Klee’s point to heart. And I hope my wife does too. But there’s still the pesky issue of what the new organizational flow will look like. That’s why after speaking with Klee, my next call is to Certified Professional Organizer and Productivity Consultant Amy Tokos, owner of Freshly Organized.
“You need to treat the family like a team,” Tokos explains. “To help with communication, you need to have family meetings.”
This is a familiar task in my house. Or was, at least, for a few weeks back in April when my wife and I tried to tackle some chaos via a regular meeting. It didn’t last long. In fact, I feel continually shamed by a sign I made and hung next to the dinner table. It reads “Family Meetings Monday 6:30 p.m.” The shame is particularly sharp on Monday evenings when we specifically avoid our family meeting because we’re feeling overwhelmed and would rather engage in some screen-based self-care.
Tokos helps me understand where things might have gone wrong. “It doesn’t have to be formal,” she explains. “If you asked my kids if we had a weekly family meeting they would wonder what you were talking about. They don’t even know we’re having a family meeting. It’s just a conversation.”
Tokos frames the meeting more as a conversation that slots into the natural rhythm of the family’s life. It might happen during a walk, over brunch, or over dinner. The point is that the event is an unrushed natural moment where everyone gets on the same page about everything from sports games and practices, travel, obligation, transportation, and even needs from the grocery store.
“Because when everyone’s working and has school and activities, there has to be a lot of coordination,” Tokos says. “It’s a cohesive, strategic conversation about the week. Because when we become reactive is when we get angry.”
That said, Tokos notes that there has to be someone making sure the conversation happens. “Someone has to be the keeper,” she says. “It can’t be everybody’s responsibility or no one will do it.”
Which brings me to the pesky point of division of labor. My first thought is creating an organizational structure like a chore chart. Tokos tells me that she’s never seen one that really works. “They’re hard to maintain,” she says. “There’s a lot on the parent to make sure they’re putting them together and thinking through it each week.”
Instead, Tokos suggests routine and habit. Her tactic is more akin to giving a person a job description that guides their behavior every day. Even better? Those job descriptions play into a families core values.
“This whole thing is a family project,” Tokos explains “This is not mom and dad managing this for everyone. If we’re going to have company, rooms need to be clean or we’re not having company. There’s no arguing that’s just the way it is.”
To most important part, Tokos says, is that whatever we decide to do, it needs to be easy to maintain. She says that this is the same advice that works for her corporate clients. “If you’re creating elaborate systems for grocery lists, or elaborate systems of communication, or elaborate chore charts, someone needs to expend energy to maintain that,” she explains. “You need to make this lean and efficient, or else it’s not going to happen.”
Tokos notes that any good system of management is one based on asking and answering questions. The only real systemic structure she recommends is a list so things aren’t forgotten.
For my part, I’m excited about the idea of giving the family new job descriptions. I love the idea of creating core values that we internalize. More than that I’m reminded that our kids must be part of the team too. They are not our clients; they are part of what makes the family successful as we move into this new phase of life. So as hard as I will work to ensure that I take on important responsibilities she once oversaw, it’s just as important to have my kids involved too. And that’s really a revolution in the way our family will be run.
But as we move forward, Terry Klee does have one word of caution. “You guys are living organisms,” she says. “The plan will change as you guys grow and change, and as the children grow and change. You might not even have the plan right from the beginning where neither of you changes.”
I am prepared for that. But I’m also certain, thanks to my HR person and my organizational consultant, that my family will see strong returns in the coming months and nobody will quit.