Recently, in front of our son and daughter, I argued with my husband about some decision he made (obviously benign, because I can’t remember what it was). Afterwards, when we both had some clarity, he illuminated the fact that going against him in front of the kids undermines both our parenting efforts. He had a point. Our kids are 9 and 6, and all we want is to be the best examples of functional adults to them. That means calibrating our words. I do have to watch what I say to my husband in front of my kids if I want to demonstrate what a healthy marriage means, and how love and respect need to flow both ways between partners.
No matter how great a place you think your relationship is, the dynamic you share with your partner changes when you have kids. I didn’t really expect things to be different after my husband and I welcomed our first baby, because we seemed to be in sync about what kind of parents we wanted to be. However, just having another person living with us (tiny and totally dependent on us for survival) affected our relationship. Any small communication issues we may have had were totally amplified with a new baby in the house. It became easy — too easy — to just take out all my new parent frustrations on my husband. By the time we had our second child, we hadn’t worked on improving any of these minor struggles in our partnership. Like many new parents, we pushed the health of our relationship to the back burner because our kids were our priorities. As a result, it our relationship started to suffer. We weren’t being that nice to each other, or nearly often enough, and I was afraid of what our kids might notice. We still loved each other, but we were getting lazy about nurturing that love. So I knew I had to make some changes, in my actions and my words.
Just as important to me as showing my kids that their dad and I still have mutual love for each other, was to demonstrate that we respected one another. I didn’t want to be seen as subservient in any way to my husband, just as my husband didn’t want to appear aloof about anything concerning our kids (outside of earning an income to provide for them). We both contributed to our household, and that was a vital part of raising our kids to be respectful respectful of their own potential, future partners. Do I need to rely on my husband’s physical strength at times? Of course. Does he call on me to stay on top of all the school stuff? Absolutely. Equal isn’t the same, it’s just dividing all the tasks of parenthood as they pertain to our unique strengths.
So here are some things I feel it’s important to say to my husband, particularly in front of my son, because I’m trying to raise my boy to be feminist AF:
“I’ll Wash & You Dry”
Demonstrating teamwork, especially among household chores, is important to me. Both my parents worked, but I watched my mother shoulder the lion's share of the domestic responsibilities and, though there must have been a sort of balance that wasn’t apparent to me as a child, I knew I wasn’t going to stand to repeat that scenario.
My husband and I both work full-time, so there is no reason why one of us should be burdened with more housework than the other. While it’s key that my son sees both his mother and father as contributing to the family in their own ways (whether we work outside the home or not), it’s hard to show him that unless we are both physically performing household tasks.
“Don’t Interrupt Me”
My husband occasionally interrupts me. It happens because, you know, few people have flawless track records when it comes to communicating with other human beings. However, that doesn’t mean I won’t call him out on it.
My son has to grow up knowing it is wrong to talk over someone, anyone, and that the women in his house will not tolerate. In fact, his 9-year-old sister has started defiantly announcing, “Let me finish!” when someone (OK, me) cuts her off. I say, good for her.
“Put The Toilet Seat Down”
The rule in our house is simple: everyone, male or female, needs to lower the lid on the toilet when they’re not using it. This avoids the guys in our family being targeted for their forgetfulness when leaving the seat up. If we all do it, they don’t need to be singled out.
(Except, they often do need to be singled out, because my husband and son and daughter always forget.)
“This Chicken Is Delicious”
My husband does most of the cooking in our family, and I’m grateful because I really hate being on kitchen duty. My domestic skills lean more towards the laundry category. So, even though I don’t actually love everything he makes, I am truly relieved that the burden of meal prep is not on me, which makes everything taste wonderful. I want my son to see that cooking is something everyone can and should do, so he doesn’t get any ridiculous ideas about women being the go-to cook in the family just because she identifies as female.
“Dad & I Agree”
Presenting a unified front to our kids is something my partner and I try to accomplish every single day. We don’t always actually agree on details (I’m fine with our kid abandoning all but one bite of a vegetable, but my partner is not), but we work hard to show our kids that we are in sync on big picture stuff (no screen time on school nights).
However, in expressing our solidarity, it’s important, to me, what words I choose. I do not say, “Dad is right," or, “Dad agrees with me.” To me, those phrases indicate that one person in the partnership is leading and the other is following. My relationship goal is to show my kids that healthy partnerships are ones where both participants are equal.
“Look How Beautiful Our Son’s Handwriting Is”
Praising my son in front of my husband is effortless and yields sweet results. As long as I’m being sincere, this move is a no-brainer. I want my kid to hear me express my pride in him to someone else. My 6-year-old is wising up to the idea that maybe, sometimes, people praise others for ulterior motives. However, in praising my son indirectly and to his father, I’m proving that I really believe that our kid’s handwriting is vastly improved, and that maybe we don’t have to torture him by forcing giant pencils on him to improve his grip.
My husband is the default driver in our family, just because he likes it more (and because he realizes the other adult passenger will have to be the one bearing the brunt of the kids’ incessant request for snacks in the car). So when I do get behind the wheel, my son almost can’t believe it. He actually asked if I was capable of driving a vehicle.
I know I grew up in New York City, where it’s pretty typical for people to never get their driver's licenses, but I can handle the car. I get a kick out of appearing like a hero for taking the wheel with my son ogling me from the backseat, cheering me on. I don’t get a lot of praise from my kids, so hearing my son tell me he’s glad to see me driving is a nice boost to my ego.
Dad humor is the worst. Whether I laughed or not, I’ll give my man credit for trying to make a funny. Appreciating his effort is the lesson here, not the quality of the joke. Of course, this has backfired, as my son now feels he has license to babble the lamest knock-knock jokes ever. “Orange you glad I’m knocking,” is not a punchline, but I commend his proclivity to finding humor in things.
“I Love You”
Admittedly, I don’t say these three little words much. It’s not because I don’t love my partner, but only because our love has become standard issue after 11 years of marriage. We’ve sunk into the bad habit of implying our emotions instead of expressing them, as most people who have been together long after the honeymoon phase has ended can attest to.
Still, it’s important that my son hear that his father is loved, and see that his father is a willing recipient of that love. Society likes men to act like “men,” which means suppressing emotions. W're human and we need to feel things and let others know those feelings exist. I’m not a robot and I don’t want my son to grow up to expect that he should be one.