‘Why Do New Mothers Hate Their Husbands?’

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Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

Why do new mothers hate their husbands? I am the working mother of a 15-month-old. I love being a mother, and I never thought I could love anything as much as I love my son. I find my work interesting and fulfilling. I also have a delightful rascal of a dog. The foundation for all these wonderful things is my husband: I’m married to the love of my life (let’s call him Jim). The problem is that right now Jim drives me absolutely fucking batshit CRAZY.

I hate feeling this way, because I know he shouldn’t irritate me so much.

We both have well-paying jobs at great companies. Jim works hard, enthusiastically cooks dinner, gives the baby a bath (if he’s home in time to do so), and on weekends will do whatever I tell him to. Jim also was happy to take his full paternity leave (did I mention we work for great companies?) where he went above and beyond as the full-time parent for three months (after I went back to work), even making organic baby food from scratch. See? I have a wonderful, willing partner in parenthood. So why does he drive me so crazy?

My issue is that I have to ask for help with OUR child and OUR house. It irritates me that child care and housework fall to me by default. So I get home from work at 5 p.m. and have a brilliant, boring, joyful, exhausting couple hours with our son. I’ve always been the guardian of baby bedtime (probably going back to breastfeeding). I then run downstairs, feed the dog, and scurry around with laundry and general tidying-up. Jim cooks dinner, but then I do the dishes, a task that usually makes me resent the dinner in the first place (ever clean up after homemade pasta?). Then Jim would love to play a board game together or do something else interactive, but I’m either busy with work, or too tired (which makes me feel guilty and resentful of Jim). I’m also tired of doing all that invisible work no one cares about (paying bills, remembering birthdays, doing our taxes, organizing doctors appointments, getting the car serviced, researching preschools, etc.).

It makes me feel selfish AND guilty, but I would love an evening where Jim does bath- AND bedtime. I’d love to come downstairs on a Saturday morning and be the one to plop on the couch with my coffee (instead of keeping the 15-month-old from killing himself). I’d love for Jim to worry about milestones or whether the baby needs a hat or not. I guess I’m tired of always asking and feeling like I’m managing an enthusiastic employee who fails to take initiative.

I grew up in a traditional family where my mom stayed home and looked after three kids, did all the housework, and managed our entire family life while my dad worked full time (my mom deserves all the medals), so I know I have it pretty great. I also love Jim. He’s my person.

How do I convince myself Jim isn’t a pain the ass? Is this just life? Am I THAT entitled millennial woman with too-high expectations?

Ingrate New Mom

Dear Ingrate New Mom,

Egalitarian parenting means two people share all of the responsibilities of parenting equally. That means there is no default parent. That also means that one parent is not assumed to be the correct parent for certain tasks based on their gender. Unexpected sickness or school activities don’t fall on one parent’s shoulders more than the other’s. If there are scheduling/career reasons that this must happen, there are adjustments made in other areas that rebalance the workload between the two.

Egalitarian parenting is, in my very arrogant opinion, the best option for most human beings. I believe this because most human beings take more satisfaction in their lives when the schedule and structure of their days is freely chosen by them and reflects their values, what matters to them, and what they love the most. Admittedly, when you’re a parent, your daily schedule might include a few tasks that you don’t love at all but that you perhaps hate a little bit less than the other parent does. Deciding who does what, when, requires a lot of very open conversations. You have to talk calmly, at great length, without blaming each other for feeling what you feel.

Why? Because both new parents will always feel overburdened. Both will feel overly busy and overly taxed. Both will occasionally feel resentful and exhausted. Both will feel exasperated, and certain that the other parent will never, ever, be satisfied. That doesn’t mean that parents are miserable people in general. A couple can be incredibly thrilled with their lives and in love with their kids and very certain that they’re with the right person (even if they’re not necessarily IN LOVE WITH THIS PERSON at this particular juncture), and still feel annoyed and chafed and pissy a lot of the time.

So step one for you, moving forward, is to say this out loud, to yourself and to your husband: We will both OFTEN feel like we’re each doing more of the work, or doing the more important work, or doing the hardest work. We will feel this way not because we’re assholes, or because we don’t love each other, but because we are working much, much harder than we ever have before, and we have to share this hard job with someone we also see constantly and fuck occasionally (at this particular moment, maybe much less occasionally than usual).

Step two: Have a long, very explicit, very honest discussion about what isn’t working right now for each of you, and what might work better. This includes a very wide-angle, global look at your ecosystem, but it also includes a very specific look at each of your irrational desires, fears, dreams, etc. To be crystal clear, you do not have to split every task down the middle and do half of it for your partnership to be egalitarian. Tasks can be assigned and separated based on skill and affinity, but this requires a clear discussion in which both parties assert their needs and desires IN ADDITION TO their wildest fantasies, longings, unjustified resentments, deeply held beliefs, sexist impulses, and avoidant tendencies. Everything — the good, the bad, the ugly — must be unearthed!

WHY? Why do you have to dredge up all of that shit? Because it affects your happiness. When you do the dishes every fucking night, Ingrate New Mom, it pounds you into the ground. You don’t want to do the dishes every night. Do you hear me? You are extremely tired. You are the one who comes home early and starts watching the boy, and doesn’t stop until he’s asleep. FOR FUCK’S SAKE! That is a marathon. I get that your husband helps when he walks in the door. But you cannot live in this bizarre world where his cheerful ability to leap into the mix is still called HELPING. Saying “He helps out a lot” is admitting that you’re the one with the job of PRIMARY PARENT, and he’s just a guy who wanders in and out, getting gold stars for every goddamn thing he does.

No wonder he has a good attitude! He gets to do the stuff he loves already (cooking, playing, hanging out on weekends), and he gets congratulatory bonus points for those things. You, on the other hand, are doing all of the mandatory shit, you feel cornered into it, and you feel like you’re a complete dick for not loving it like crazy. Like so many women, you feel, consciously or subconsciously, that asking for a life that takes into account your truest desires and resentments makes you an ingrate.

Noooo, noo, no. An ocean of NO. Write this on your wall, across your face: ASKING FOR WHAT YOU WANT DOES NOT MAKE YOU UNGRATEFUL. It makes you sane. It makes you happy. It makes you more generous. It makes both of you much more relaxed. ASKING FOR WHAT YOU WANT INCREASES YOUR GRATITUDE.

Believe me, your current separation of tasks is making you both unhappy. Your husband might look relaxed now, but he’s not. He knows that you hate his guts. He is wary of this. He feels worried that you will hate him forever. It doesn’t feel good for him, either. Your unequal, unbalanced life might feel reasonably okay to him now. He probably thinks he’s doing a lot, and sure, he does things! He does lots of stuff really well! But your balance of tasks is not good, and that doesn’t benefit him in the long haul. In the big picture, he will wind up with a crabby, silently resentful wife who blames him for breathing oxygen and would rather eat a plate of live maggots than have sex with him.

The good news is, he doesn’t have to worry about that, because you’re going to talk this out. You’re going to tell each other your sexist fantasies of what a husband and a wife should be. That part is important. You need to wriggle free from the idiotic cultural assumptions that guide your feelings about yourselves and each other. You have to shake off the feeling that, if you don’t put the kid to bed, you’re a shitty mother. He needs to shake off the sense that, if he cooks AND does the dishes one night, or does bathtime and bedtime most nights, or vacuums and cleans bathrooms on weekends, he’s some kind of an emasculated loser who’s afraid of his wife. I know these sound like cartoonish exaggerations, but our very dumb, sexist culture seeps into our brains whether we want it to or not.

That said, it’s also very, very important to recognize those areas that you love that are maybe just a tiny bit attached to your personal values and desires and beliefs. For example, I do believe, personally, that if you had to choose between me and my husband, I am the best parent for a kid to talk to when she’s emotionally distraught. I can make some space for a kid to feel what they feel at this point in my life. I wasn’t the best parent for that when my kids were younger, mind you. I was much less patient and understanding back then. Crying kicked up a visceral memory of my sometimes-very-sad childhood. It took my husband and me some time and many honest talks to realize that we both had that reaction and we were going to raise kids that hated their own emotions if we didn’t change our course.

I also had to realize that I needed to back off on house repairs. I was much handier than my husband when we met. But he took a lot of satisfaction in learning how to fix things, and when I swooped in and told him he was doing it wrong (ahem, even when he was) I took that satisfaction away from him.

The goal here is to figure out how you can both feel satisfied and useful. But this conversation is a rough one because it MUST include admitting what your ideal would be, even when your ideal is not attainable. For example, you need to say out loud, “Even though it makes me feel like a shitty mother, I would rather not watch our son every single afternoon of my life while you stay later at work. It wears me out a lot. I would like for you to step in and do that part more, or I’d like for you to handle bedtime every night instead.”

Your husband also needs to understand and notice when he plops down on the couch while you rush around. This, unfortunately, will take years to get right. I just want to warn you. There are those tasks you try to balance out, over and over, and it just never works. It doesn’t take. I actually had to accept, a few years ago, that even though I would prefer not to be the person who straightens up constantly, I AM THE ONE. My husband cannot be trained to do it or to notice shit piling up everywhere. I’m not even that neat, mind you, but he CANNOT NOTICE. It is not physically possible.

Finding a way to let go of some of your battles is important, particularly when you can see that you’re making yourself miserable over something that is unlikely to change. My solution was to ask my husband to do more dishes at night instead. Because I hate dishes, and I really needed to stop making myself miserable over his lack of straightening.

The point is, you keep talking and rebalancing. You check in: Is this working? How do you feel? Should we try a new plan? Personally, I know that I might do more dishes next year. I know that our partnership is a work-in-progress, even now.

Which brings us to step three: Both partners make a lasting commitment to each other’s happiness. It helps to say it out loud. So after step one (acknowledge that you will both OFTEN feel like you’re doing more of the work) and step two (tell each other all of your desires, needs, sexist fantasies, resentments, passive longings, and idiotic pointless urges), it’s time to (step three!) reassert how important it is to you that the other person is happy. A thing that I’ve said to my husband many, many times over the years is this: “If you want something, we will find a way to make it happen.” We might share kids and a life and dogs and a house, but we are both adults, freely choosing our paths in life. When we feel trapped, that’s terrible for us individually, and it’s terrible for our kids and dogs, and it’s terrible for our marriage. We have to honor and respect each other’s needs and desires, even when they’re a little bit irrational or stupid.

The importance of honoring and respecting each other’s stupidity should probably be written into the standard wedding vows, as a matter of fact. Because human animals often want idiotic fucking things. We love things in ourselves that are prideful, and we impulsively wish for things that are strange and embarrassing. It’s great to have a partner who can support your most freakish desires.

And when you make space for a complex, ever-changing, slightly unpredictable partner, you also make space for the chaotic, emotional, bizarre beings in your house known as children. Nothing pays off more viscerally than giving your kids the freedom to be who they are. You have to honor yourself enough, first, to give your kid that gift. You have to have compassion for your own desires and needs first, in order to have compassion for your husband’s.

So treat yourself with compassion. Actually, that’s “step zero,” and I skipped it by accident. Allow yourself the luxury of wanting exactly what you want, no matter how it reflects on you as a mother. Nothing will make you a better mother (or wife, or friend, or human being) than that.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘Why Do New Mothers Hate Their Husbands?’