My liquefied brain is leaking out my nipples. This is the only reasonable explanation for how I feel postpartum. I’m breastfeeding the newborn on the couch as my 3-year-old rips through the living room screaming “Chaos! Chaos! Chaos!” — a war cry she refashioned from my protestations. She shreds magazines and scatters the detritus as my husband, father to these two tiny humans, unloads the dishwasher.
“Hey love,” he calls out. “Where does this go?”
“What is ‘this’?” I inquire forcefully. “I can’t even see what you’re talking about.”
He pops out from around the doorway wearing the Steven Universe T-shirt I gave him for our anniversary — I find him winning even when I feel like I’m losing — holding a spatula.
“Where do you keep it?” he asks.
“Where do I keep it? Where do you think it should go?”
While my outside appearance is demure, I’m tempted to tell him where he can actually put it. It drives me insane that he thinks it’s my job to know, but what bothers me even more is my own role in fostering this frustrating cycle of dependency. I worry that while I’m trying to raise decisive, independent kids, I’m inadvertently encouraging my partner’s infuriating tendency to cast me as household CEO. And I resent myself just as much for continuing to play into it.
Other than this, our relationship is pretty egalitarian — we have careers, we co-parent, we share responsibilities as much as possible — but when it comes to household management and scheduling, my husband, a considerate special-ed teacher, seems forgetful and even lazy, as if he’s the lackadaisical intern to my executive.
This leads to what I will call “The Cycle”: He asks me where stuff goes, I get frustrated at being assumed boss of domestic territory — and frustration builds. Like many mothers, I get tired of carrying the “mental load.” I resent the notion that it’s my job to not only know where the spatula goes but also to decide it goes in the drawer to the left of the stove.
My husband says he’s just trying to be respectful. He says he asks not because he thinks I should be in charge of everything around the house, but because he is particular about where he wants the things he uses frequently to go, that if our roles were reversed, he would simply say, “It goes on the top shelf of the pantry.”
It casts the issue in a different light, but shadows remain: His belief that asking me what goes where about cookware and baby clothes is unrelated to traditional gender roles buttresses his argument that I’m seeing something that isn’t there. My husband, who also owns and proudly wears a t-shirt reading, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like,” seems to overlook the fact that he still treats details as “women’s work.” He doesn’t have the nanny’s phone number. He’s coordinated a play date exactly once (I was out of town). He’ll ask me if we are out of milk as he’s staring into the refrigerator, checking for milk. (Do you see milk in there?! DO YOU? SEE? MILK?)
He should know when the pediatrician’s appointments are, which days the kid is in preschool, and where to find the Pyrex baking dish, even if he has to open his notes app to recall. He doesn’t. I love him, but this strikes me as the strongest argument against my affections.
It reminds me of the reason he says he doesn’t plan surprise date nights: He’d rather discuss potential plans and settle on something I will definitely like. But here’s the thing: What I’d like is to know that he’s competent enough to make a plausible plan. Or, barring that, to try.
What’s the answer? Unload the mental load on robots, maybe one of those high-tech refrigerators that will text us when we’re out of milk?
A few weeks ago, a friend and mother of three came over. As she fed her four-month-old, her husband wordlessly handed her a glass of water. He always does, she mentioned, because he knows that breastfeeding makes her parched. “They can be trained,” she said.
It wasn’t lost on me that she was talking about her husband as though he was a terrier. But I also understood why. It felt like he’d learned a trick. Specifically, it felt like he’d learned a trick that my husband had not. He had learned to take initiative. I wondered, in that moment, if I might have trained my husband not to do that — if, in providing answers readily, I had relieved him of the impulse to solve problems on his own.
But I don’t think that’s what happened. What I think happened is that my husband began to equate diffidence and respect and continued to do so because it was convenient for him. I’m sure it didn’t happen consciously. He’s not a Machiavellian man and I know he loves me. But he’s also not helping me shoulder the load.
So the next time my husband asks me where to put the spatula, I won’t tell him. He’ll put it where he puts it and if I have to dig around in some drawers before I can fry an egg, I’ll know it’s a small inconvenience in service of him climbing our household corporate ladder. Eventually, we’ll have a home without interns or CEOs, one we truly run together —in organization and in chaos.
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