It’s an odd thing, as a wife and mother, to feel like your husband’s employee.
My family and I recently went on a three-week trip to Los Angeles that was, in my mind, meant to be a vacation. The reality that I was tragically reluctant to face is that my husband was there to work as much as possible. The kids and I were there to get a little break from winter and to hang out with him when he wasn’t working or going out (which he often qualifies as work).
The first few days were cool. My husband hadn’t lined up a bunch of meetings yet, so we spent time as a foursome going to the beach and visiting our favorite Japanese market for ramen and adorable Hello Kitty-esque candy. We even went out as a couple one night and I got to meet a bunch of people who had only existed in my life as names and job titles until that point. It was wonderful.
But my husband is essentially a freelancer – and a good one – so the pressure to set meetings and make coffee dates and get his hustle on quickly overpowered any desire he might have to languish in “pleasurably touristy” mode. In four short days, our vacation was over.
The mistake I made, the same one I’ve been making since the beginning of our relationship, was to take his exit personally. Every time he left for the day, for another series of meetings, for another dinner with so-and-so followed by a night of grown-up debauchery with whats-his-and-her-names, I swallowed another nugget of judgement and hurt feelings. When is it my turn to go out? I thought. When can I just flit off for some adult fun? And when are you going to hang out with ME?
Rather than continuing on in vacation mode without him, I let his preoccupations become my own. Very quickly, I began to feel as if caregiving was the only purpose I served in my family; like my life outside of caregiving had ceased to exist. Here we were in one of the most interesting cities in the world, and I was still just heating up fish sticks and washing dishes and folding laundry. I ignored the opportunities for adventure that were all around us and foolishly placed my husband’s immediate need for round-the-clock childcare at the top of my priority list. In doing so, I not only cheated my kids out of some super cool experiences, I also failed miserably at the task of self-care.
It’s pretty damn challenging to maintain or achieve a healthy opinion of yourself when the work you do – the stuff you spend most of your waking hours doing – has a low perceived value by society at large
The whole time, I was waiting for something. I wanted to hear my husband say, “Hey. You’re awesome.” And that’s not even the whole truth, because he did say, “Thanks.” A number of times. But I wanted him to say, “You know what? Screw it! All I want to do today is give you a day off, and then the next day I want to hang out with you and the kids because you are THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN MY LIFE. And furthermore, you’re the best mom there ever was.”
That’s what resentment told me I needed to hear. That’s what low self-esteem was hoping to be told.
It’s pretty damn challenging to maintain or achieve a healthy opinion of yourself when the work you do – the stuff you spend most of your waking hours doing – has a low perceived value by society at large. I was particularly susceptible to this trap while in LA, away from my routines, support system, and without the seven hours a day to myself that my kids would normally spend at school.
But one day, unfortunately quite late into the three weeks we were there, I woke up and decided I didn’t want to be angry anymore. I didn’t want to hold on to resentment towards my husband when, really, I was pissed at myself. Because I know better.
I am aware of what I need to do in order to feel like my non-financial contributions to our family really matter. I’ve been to hours and hours of therapy, I’ve read books, and I’ve talked to fellow primary parents (mostly women) enough times to know that looking anywhere other than within for the reassurance that I’m doing a kick-ass job, that I’m worth a whole hell of a lot even when I’m not earning money, is futile.
So I walked out to the living room and gave my husband a hug. Then I walked back into the bedroom and took out my journal. I wrote down all the things I wanted to do in LA before we left and made a promise to myself – not to anyone else – that I would do them. I stopped focusing on what my husband was doing every day and paid actual attention to what I was doing. I set aside small amounts of time each remaining “vacation” day to do a little bit of work that might earn me dollars. I even got a massage – and then, a few days later, I got another one.
I was reminded (for the 6,753rd time) that we miss so much goodness in our own lives when we focus on what someone else is or isn’t doing. In my case, the someone else is almost always my husband, who has a gloriously full and interesting life that’s completely separate from our family (namely, a work life). He has more opportunity or excuse to do this, depending on how you look at it, because he has to be out in the world earning a living. He must necessarily focus on himself for hours or days at a time, so he’s good at it.
I’m out of practice. And I know it hurts my kids almost as much as it hurts me. Before that morning when I decided to let this shit go, the day before, in fact, I yelled at my daughter. She was being annoying and cranky and didn’t want to do her school work. She slammed a door, and I erupted.
Two minutes later, I was crying in one corner while she cried in another and I thought, “I’ve hit a new parenting low.” I went over to my daughter and lay my body across hers. We cried together for a few seconds, and then I said, “I’m so sorry I yelled. I think you and I are feeling the same way, actually. Let’s be kinder to one another.”
Let’s be kinder to ourselves.