During the question and answer time at the Femina Conference, I received a question which I very incompletely answered. The question goes something like this, “How do I get my husband to help around the house and with the kids?”
This is far and away the most-asked question for me. What I realized when I answered it quickly is that I often rush past these questions because I can tell a long way away that this is complicated and tricky and nuanced. Because how do I know that the woman asking this is a reasonable person? I don’t want to simply assume that the wife is the one being hurt and that the husband is an incompetent slacker. For this reason I often just answer it flatly from one side. It isn’t the husband asking, and I am not going to turn a women’s talk into an exposition of the ways our husbands might be doing less than they could be. So I usually reply with a simple, “When you need, give.” This is great so far as it goes, but it doesn’t always go all the way out to the people who are asking.
So I decided to write a more thorough response, which will probably still be woefully insufficient. But I’ll give it a try.
1) Many times wives wish that their husbands could experience the work that they do. They feel like he doesn’t know or understand all of the stresses that we experience – you laugh to yourself when you think of him in your place at home. But the truth is that this often goes both ways. When was the last time you considered the kinds of stresses that your husband is experiencing? What are the things that make his work days feel impossibly long and difficult? Do you treat his cares in a way that would make you angry were you talking about yours?
The answer here is prayer. Turn your heart toward your husband in prayer. Lift up his needs, his worries, his heaviness. Think about how you can minister to him and be his helpmeet in these things. Be thankful for him and his work. For his presence in your home. For his tiredness and distractedness. Your husband needs you. Realize that your husband comes home for refuge, for rest, for you. When he comes, do not greet him with a pile of things that he hasn’t done. If he needs encouragement, don’t meet him with complaints.
If you catch yourself milling over things that you wish he would do, turn your thoughts instead towards prayer for him.
2) Communicate. Look for times when you can talk with your husband and express the things that you need. It is unfair to hold him to a standard which he does not know about. To effectively communicate is a different thing. Do not think that you won’t bother until the whole thing gets so freaked-out intense that you just unload six months of petty grievances on your husband. At this point it would be really difficult for him to tell what actually mattered to you and what was just random ugly fluff that you used in the heat of the moment to build your case. Try to talk about it at times when it can be a completely calm and friendly “state of the union” discussion.
Just as it is important to communicate the things that you need your husband to be doing – tell him what the things he is doing mean to you. Tell him how much you love it when you see him playing with your kids. Tell him what it means to you that he always comes home for dinner. Thank him for the coffee even though he always makes it.
But also realize that your heart needs to be in a good place. If you want to be able to calmly discuss things that you wish your husband would do – are you willing to hear what he wishes you would do? Do unto others in this respect. Respond to his input like you are hoping he would respond to yours.
3) Mom guilt. This is a hot topic in the world, and it really can be a big problem for women. It is not such a problem for the men folk. When was the last time you heard a dad say to another dad, “Whaaat?! You don’t bathe all of your children every single night?! Oh my word, I could never live like that.”
The reason that it is relevant here is that often times women set a standard, freak out about not achieving it, yell in panic to their husbands to help them, and then their husband says, “Let’s not do this!’” and then the wife gets angry that her husband isn’t helping her with this all-important task. Well, surprise, surprise! Your husband did not feel that making your own soap was the first step in the basic care of your children. He did not think that you ought to stay up into the night making homemade granola. He said, “Let’s get a cake from the bakery for the birthday,” and you said, “NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”
If you need his help with something, it is very likely that you also need his input. Maybe he would like to not have his wife feeling super guilty and crazy about the things that she is stressing out about. Take his counsel – listen to his ideas. Do not fire off like a bottle rocket of panic when he suggests that you are overdoing things. Maybe you are. Ask him what he thinks you should not worry about. This can be hugely relieving for all of you.
4) As much as you want him to be taking responsibility, let him. Often when your husband steps in to do something, we step in to say “no-can-do.” One of the funniest examples in our marriage would be my dealings with public toilets. My approach to public toilets before marriage was no approach at all. Go home, or find a decent one – Nordstrom’s is fine. Port-a -potties did not factor into my life at all. I am proficient in the use of elbows to open doors and feet to flush toilets and so forth. And then we have children. And I alert my husband to “Time to go! Right now! To the car! Someone has to go!” And he just says, “No- I’ll take her to the port-a potty.” All I can say is that God gives grace. My husband told me clearly that he was not interested in having children who were crippled by a fear of public bathrooms. So I had to get on board with that. It is true that they are not exactly the near-death experiences I had once felt.
I could have taken this as a reason that my husband didn’t care about our children, or how he was not responsible. But the truth is that he cares about our children – and to him it matters that they be flexible people with hand washing skills. I needed to follow his lead here and let him lead the family. That is right. I just gave a testimony about my husband leading our family to public bathrooms.
5) Be friends. If your husband is not engaging in your home life, it is quite possible that it is not fun or friendly to engage in. Try to laugh, try to establish contact with him in the midst of the craziness. Not a clingy, desperate contact, but a joyful, laughing one. He is the person you fell in love with. Treat him like that even when there are lots of children between you. Make eye contact. Smile. Kiss your husband when he gets home. Don’t hold back all affection until he earns it like he is a dog looking for a treat. He is coming to you – welcome him. You know, we all know, what it is like to shrug off your husband’s affection because, “Everything is really crazy right now, how can you not hear the children yelling, do you not see the baby’s messy face, did you not hear the child hollering for toilet paper, I have a headache, don’t you see I am peeling a carrot WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?”
Your husband may not be jumping into all the busyness with you because that busyness is the barrier that you have put up between you. Do not put yourself on one side of your life, and him on the other side, where you can only meet if everything in between has been done. And then you will be too tired to be fun anyway. You are companions. Be next to him, even in craziness. The tasks to be done should never be between you. The children should not be between you emotionally, although their physical presence is often between you. Fellowship together in the middle of things, because the middle of things is what you have.
6) If there are enough bad patterns, real sin, distance, and hard times between you to be causing a problem on a regular basis, then you need to seek specific counsel. Go to your pastor. Get help. The truth is that no good pastor ever was bummed out to have people come to him and have it turn out to not be a huge problem. Deal with things that are being difficult as they come up. Don’t muddle along in bad patterns making things worse. Deal with it as soon as possible.