how to be a good partner to a stay-at-home spouse

You may not realize it, but being a good spouse to a stay-at-home parent is a hard job in and of itself. There are few key actions you can concentrate on to try and help each other. I am terrible at almost every single one of these tips, so for once this is not a list where I’m preaching; I’m trying to inspire myself as much as anyone else! Also please note that I did my best to stick with the ‘spouse’ wording, because I’m always very concerned to avoid any hint of sexism in implying that women should automatically be viewed as the caregiver. If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that I have goals to become a stay-at-home dad one day!
Herewith, then, my ten tips:

1. Don’t ‘decompress’ for an hour after you get home. After a long hard day at the office, your first temptation may be to fling yourself down on the couch, or jump in the shower, or go check your emails or any one of a number of ‘decompression’ activities. This behavior is understandable, but it does not help. Your spouse is still ‘on the clock’ while you are decompressing, and waiting for their own chance to relax.

Solution: Take a maximum of 15-30 minutes after you arrive home to change, wash up, and shake off your day – and then plunge into chores, child care, playtime and bedtime activities. You may think it is more relaxing to watch ‘Deal or No Deal’ but in reality you’ll be happier if you have a clean house, relaxed spouse and happy kid(s).

2. Take care of chores without ‘dividing them up.’ Sometimes deals work out well. My wife and I divide bedtime and clean up chores: if one of us puts Little Buddy to sleep, the other one cleans up toys and washes bottles. However, you can’t think of this as a zero-sum game. There will come times when you may come home later than usual and your spouse has to do everything – so don’t begrudge times when your spouse just can’t manage to summon the energy to pick up Elmo.

Solution: Don’t keep score. Don’t say “I did everything yesterday, so YOU do it all today.” Consider each day a clean slate, with no balance sheet of dids and didn’ts. Do everything you can, and do critical tasks first. If you don’t wash all of the dishes, let it go for a day if you’re too tired – but if the last baby bottle is dirty, you have to summon some energy.

3. Give the gift of break time. Probably the single greatest gift you can give a stay-at-home parent is the gift of half an hour to do nothing. Having a child at home, particularly a young one, requires near-constant vigilance and activity. Even during nap times a monitor is usually hissing in your spouse’s ears.

Solution: Let your spouse go take a shower or read a book or whatever relaxes them, and pretend to yourself that they’ve left the house. Don’t go get them when Junior poops, or asks for milk, or breaks a lamp. Give them 30 minutes of uninterrupted solitude.

4. Don’t be selfish with your own ‘me time.’ As someone who is out ‘in the world’ you have quite a bit of freedom. If one night you decide to go for a while with coworkers, remember that your spouse, in effect, is trapped. They can’t do the same thing – their ability to pop out for a drink or whatnot is limited by you and the babysitter.

Solution: Generally, you should never go out on the town without a day’s warning. Don’t call your spouse at 6 PM and tell them you won’t be home until 11. It’s simply not a nice thing to do. “But these things just come up spur of the moment sometimes!” you might say. Too bad. You’re a parent, not a 23-year-old. Go home.

5. Remember you are less expert in your child’s moods and needs. You may think you have a good understanding of your kid(s), but the simple fact is that you don’t. You may see them for 2-3 hours during weekdays and 2 days on the weekend. You probably only spend time alone with them for a few hours a month, total. Your stay-at-home spouse sees a lot more of your kid(s) than you do, and knows better that when they ask for “raygun” they mean raisin, or that they don’t really NEED another glass of juice.

Solution: Don’t override your spouse’s decisions on food, clothing, behavior, sleeptime, playtime and so on. You have to become a good soldier in this case. If your judgment is called for, or if you’re giving your spouse 30 minutes off, do what you want – but don’t get into an argument because you think you know best. You don’t.

6. Back off. Sometimes the sad truth is that you may just be interfering while thinking you are helpful. If you are crashing around during bedtime getting in the way, keep in mind that you may be making things worse, not better. Two heads are not always better than one.

Solution: If your spouse doesn’t say anything, assume you’re helping. If they tell you to leave, leave. Don’t feel bad about not helping. Your spouse should be comfortable asking for help, and you should be comfortable when you’re asked NOT to help.

7. Don’t bring work home. As immersed as you are in your work life, you should leave it behind. Your spouse will not care for stories of workplace stupidity or evilness, because it’s painful to hear when you’re tired. Your spouse will have even less desire to hear about workplace fun and shenanigans, because it may make them regret being ‘stuck at home.’ Remember that you are not defined by your work.

Solution: Talk about your children, your goals or other subjects that interest you. Leave gripes about Homer from Quality Control at the plant. Incidentally, leaving work at work will make you happier, too.

8. Try not to undermine ‘wind-down’ time. If your kid(s) go to sleep at a reasonable hour – and hopefully they do – don’t come home and start playing ‘swing from the monkey bars’ or ‘jump on the couch’ with them. You can ruin a whole evening by making your kid(s) hyper right before bedtime.

Solution: Keep it quiet. No matter how tempted you are to play, keep things low-key. Read, sing, play imagination games or whatever you can do to stay quiet. Reading is the perfect activity in the evenings.

9. Turn it off. If you have a cell phone, or a blackberry or access to corporate email, turn it off the second you walk in the door. There is no excuse for spending any time on work while your kid(s) are still up and your spouse is home. Turn it all off. Unless you are negotiating the solution to the subprime crisis, chances are good that the email can wait until after the kid(s) are asleep.

Solution: Easy. Turn it off.

10. Remember that this is a team effort. If you are the primary breadwinner and your spouse is the primary caregiver, it’s easy to forget that one couldn’t be successful without the other. Even though the money is ‘yours’ and the parenting is ‘theirs,’ both of you effectively are responsible for 50% of earning and parenting – you just turn around and outsource it to each other. However, starting to think that you are the only one who should spend or make money decisions because you work is asinine. If your spouse starts to think that parenting is too hard and you’re off having a ball at work, that’s not fair.

Solution: Take a look at your kids while they sleep… and that will remind you of what your ‘team’ is all about.

So many things in life are tough. Being a good partner isn’t one of them, if you approach it in the right way!

(photos by powerbooktrance and by M.ADA)

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Recommended reading:

  • Secrets of the Baby Whisperer I can’t recommend this book enough, particularly if you have any trouble putting your children to sleep!
  • Happiest Baby on the Block The name says it all – if you have a baby, learn swaddling and rocking!
  • What to Expect the First Year I found this book tremendously helpful as a reference, and it made me a better husband to my stay-at-home wife simply because I had something to refer to when I had questions and didn’t want to bother her!