Our family is ‘unusual’
I’m the lead on the full range of parenting activity. I do the school runs (both ends of the day), I do the shopping, the online shopping, the cooking, the after-school activities, the buying of birthday cards and presents. I’m in the school year group WhatsApp group. I make sure we don’t leave all the homework to Sunday afternoon.
Lead parent, but not only parent
Note though that I said I’m the lead. Not to the only one. We’re active joint parents. She’s in the WhatsApp group too. She accesses the homework page, so she knows what needs to be done. She gets the school email too, the swim class email. We decided back in 2009 that I would be the one who would always ‘be there’. But that decision didn’t abdicate my wife of responsibility.
Tell me what you want, what you really really want.
In my line of work – coaching working Dads, I talk a lot about communication. Both in terms of men communicating with themselves – being honest about what sort of life they actually want to live and then communicating effectively with their partners, together designing a life that works for the whole family.
My clients are usually men who are feeling torn between being a great dad AND having a great career. In many ways they are facing the challenges that women have become used to – How to “have it all.”
Coping by improving communication
The difference is that as a rule, men aren’t so good at communicating to themselves, let alone to others how they really feel about their circumstances. Plenty of men will tackle their challenges by being brave, stoic and ‘the rock’ - exhibiting traits associated with and admired in men.
It isn’t surprising that mental health issues can arise when new fathers face the twin pressures of being a breadwinner and wanting to be actively involved in young children’s lives but feel unable to express that pressure to anyone. Bottling up their emotions and delaying tackling difficult issues.
Honest with yourself
My coaching process begins with being honest with themselves. When I work with men in a coaching and mentoring capacity we start with a “Wheel of Life” before moving onto a thorough understanding of
· Who they want to Be,
· What they want to Do and
· What they want to Have.
Understanding these priorities gives them the start point to have honest conversations with their partners. When we listen to what men and especially working dads actually want, we find flexible working and family friendly work patterns are really important.
“Our study found that nearly two thirds (63%) of dads have requested a change in working pattern since becoming a father.”
What is mental load, why does it matter?
Men who work flexibly report a far greater understanding of the pressures and challenges that women have more typically faced – the “mental load”.
Mental Load is the activity of organising family life. Even in families where both couples work the load falls disproportionately onto women. The NY Times this a piece called “What ‘Good’ Dads Get Away With” and pointed out that it would be “another 75 years before men do half the work.”
Mental load matters because it takes time and energy and acts as a barrier to female participation in the workplace. But when Men understand it and experience it first-hand it makes a real difference to rebalancing family life.
Empathy by men for the scale of the unpaid caring role that women in ‘traditional’ relationships typically take on makes a huge difference in a society that considers Prince Harry to be a great dad because he changes nappies. The bar is set painfully low.
But it can be changed.
In the same way that I urge men to open up about the type of caring roles they want to take on, it’s equally important for their partners to tackle the inequalities that can easily build up in family life.
My top tips for effective family communications
1. Create a safe space for working parents to talk though pressures.
Open and honest communication and for men in particular - make it ok to express the desire to be a caring parent and have a great career. Letting go of the guilt. Creating or reaffirming family objectives.
2. Actively educate and share the mental load.
Learn more – real examples here:
If you are the keeper of the mental load, share your needs.
Make sure your partner is in the WhatsApp group, on the email list, takes on and owns part of the load. Because if you aren’t talking about the support you need it will cost you
3. Get organised – use a shared calendar and a to do list.
I use Google calendar and Wunderlist.
Communication in families is not just about who takes out the bins. It needs to be a more profound interaction about the needs of both parties, so that support for work life balance and help in the home can be both expressed and supported.
As the French novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote
“love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
This post was originally written for the Homeworker Magazine - to learn more and to subscribe www.thehomeworker.com/subscribe