I take care of everything, but who takes care of me?
Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, FEB 28, 2005
I’m a woman living in a Franken-family of six: my partner, his two kids and my two kids. The kids are never here all at once but are here almost every day in some rotation.
I’ve just learned that in the relationship love pot, I continually make deposits and yet when I go to make a withdrawal, I get the old NSF message. No matter how much I put in, there’s nothing to take out when I need a chunk of help or energy.
My partner’s small children demand immense amounts of energy; they’re demanding and insistent, and they manifest most of the domineering-kid syndrome: whining, shrieking, stamping, kicking, even vomiting on cue if they don’t get what they want — including ceaseless attention. Outings with other adults and families are impossibly awkward. Outings in public are unpleasant enough that I avoid them.
And that’s not even the problem.
The problem is that I’ve managed to survive almost three years of this — giving as much sane advice and behavior management as I’m able — and yet if I have a very rare crisis with my young teen kids, my partner leaves me to manage it alone. (Even in an emergency in which the kids are standing across town waiting on the street in cold weather, for example: He can’t help. Take an $85 cab ride, instead, you silly single mom!)
I’m realizing that my “sacrifices” aren’t registering as even “contributions,” let alone rather large contributions. I’ve tried suspending my services and letting him manage on his own. This registers with both him and his children as being cold and punitive. (Usually, I’m full of creative ideas, anything to wean the little kids away from the TV and computer that they sit and mouth-breathe at for eight hours at a time.)
I’m in a bad cycle and desperately needing to restore myself and my integrity. The man himself is fine with me. But he doesn’t see what I give to the patched-together family. I feel unvalued, unappreciated. And I hate myself and he hates me when I’m depleted and finally begging in tears for some respect and acknowledgment.
Corollary: not enough sex. (Double-digit days between sex, which to me is starvation rations.) I’m chronically malnourished, emotionally and erotically.
I know I’m missing some big chunk of the picture here, but I can’t get the perspective to see what it is. It’s too close to me. Yes, there are pluses. The man has a fiery spirit; he is creative, intelligent, artistic, educated, articulate, broad in scope, multicultural; he loves home and hearth; he uses zero substances of any kind; he is lovely to look at and to hold. But I still feel like an appliance that never gets maintained properly. And when my engine starts making terrible noises, the solution is earplugs for the family!
The part that interests me is where you say you have tried suspending your services and that it registers with him and his children as cold and punitive. It’s not surprising that they take it that way. But then what? Do you, on that basis, immediately restore services? Why? Where does it say in the service agreement that the service provider may not under any circumstances suspend services if such action might be deemed cold and punitive? Of course there will be complaint if you suspend your services. You are providing services for free, and people get used to that. People like services for free. Who wouldn’t? It’s natural.
But suspension of services is the only leverage you have. You have to use it, even if it creates some uncomfortable moments, as undoubtedly it will.
My guess is that you are both overwhelmed. Like most people under great stress, you are dealing with each immediate crisis in whatever way minimizes the psychic harm to yourself. Since you are both so stressed, you probably don’t have the energy to converse rationally about this, to focus, to make positive, conscious changes in your arrangement. So, brutal as it may sound, I think you have to go on the offensive — for the benefit of everyone involved, not just yourself. Direct material pressure, rather than talking, is what it’s going to take to balance out the labor situation.
So let’s talk about the very real psychological barriers that might stand in your way. What are you most afraid of if you apply pressure? That he will leave you? That the daily tension around the house will be unbearable? That you will get even less of the physical affection that you crave? That the kids will hate you as only kids can? That you yourself will feel like a hardass bitch? All of these, to some degree, may result. Nevertheless, I think it is what you have to do.
Some of your fears may be exaggerated because of past experiences. For instance, if your father left your mother rather than shoulder more of the housework, you may fear that your mate would do the same. You may attach more significance to that possibility than the actual situation warrants. Likewise, if conflict over duties in your family led to explosive fights, you may fear conflict more than you need to. It has probably been easier for you, psychically, until now, to just do the work yourself rather than endure the conflict that would result from trying to negotiate a better deal. But you can only do that for so long. You have apparently reached the breaking point.
So first try to get a realistic assessment of how far you can push, what the dangers are, and what the imagined dangers are that are holding you back. It may help to get another’s view.
Then make a plan of attack. Stealth and timing are as important as force. You might want to wait for a moment of high dramatic import. Wait for a moment when he’s made a commitment and failed to deliver. Wait for the last straw.
Then go on strike. Whatever works for you. If you’re dramatic, you may want to sit down on the kitchen floor for six hours. I don’t know. You may want to take a spa day. Or take your kids to the zoo and leave his kids with him. Whatever works for you. All I’m saying is you need to take concrete action to force some redress.
You know, this situation illustrates (offbeat thought coming) how the love of alliteration and half-rhyme, allied with a distaste for the less sexy of two academic disciplines, can change the course of history.
Stay with me here: Your struggle is about a trade imbalance in an intimate relationship. A trade imbalance is an economic problem. It has political implications, but its mechanism is economic.
Now, the slogan of the 1970s that launched a thousand domestic arguments was not “The personal is economic!” but “The personal is political!” A slogan must sound good to work right. “The personal is economic!” doesn’t sound good; it trippeth not pleasingly on the tongue. Plus economics was not a sexy subject like politics. So you had men and women battling about the distribution of household labor in intimate relationships as though they were political adversaries rather than actors in a marketplace. If the battle cry had been “The personal is economic!” maybe there would have been less zero-sum political bluffing and calling of bluffing and more businesslike partnering toward mutual profit and “win-win” situations all around, including lunches at the Copper Penny and occasional gift certificates to Staples. Or maybe not. I’m just saying.
If it helps in the negotiation, cook up some kind of bogus reason why your cessation of services has occurred, and stick to it. I’m not saying lie. I’m just saying let the situation be what it is. Don’t blame their behavior. Don’t make it about them. Don’t make it a political thing. Let the labor shortage speak for itself. Just say that for whatever reason it will not be possible to do the laundry or cook the dinner or ferry the children to their all-important crosstown activities today. Just stop doing all this stuff until they can figure out a way to make it worth your while.
Yes, it will be scary. Let’s just have faith that they respond like rational actors.
There’s nothing wrong with negotiating. That’s what your mate and the children are doing, after all, perhaps without realizing it: They’re seizing advantages and then fighting to keep them, using whatever tools are at their disposal. You, I suggest, ought to do the same. I have a feeling that once you get started, you’ll find you’re better at it than they are.