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Fun Dad and Business Mom

Here’s a common story I hear from mothers in my practice. They knock themselves out in their quest to rear healthy, smart, emotionally well-balanced children. They spend quality time with their children—reading stories, playing games, supervising homework. In their spare time they set up play dates, plan healthy meals and organize school fundraisers.

The specter of being a bad mother hangs over them. They feel this way when they see their children struggling and observe other children who appear to be struggling less. They rarely, however, give themselves credit for the things they excel at as a mother, assuming that “everyone can do that” so it’s no big deal.

On the rare occasions that a hardworking mom allows herself a “mental health” morning and Dad stays home with the kids—sometimes humorously referred to as “babysitting”—Mom returns to find a horrifying scene. The kids are ensconced on the floor of the den, drinking soda, eating out of a bag of chips, and watching a golf game with Dad. Even worse, Dad may actually be “resting his eyes” while the game (aka Kill Bill, Vol. 2) traumatizes their innocent tykes.

Mom is naturally enraged, or guilt-ridden or both. Conflict ensues via piercing glares, as she tries to shelter innocent young ears from the added trauma of witnessing a parental fight.

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Dad, meanwhile, has no idea why Mom is so upset. He feels controlled and infantilized. Or he develops a chronic case of deafness limited only to his wife's voice. Note, however, that he rarely feels like a “bad dad.” He does not hasten to find an article in one of his favorite parenting websites on “How to Be a Better Father in 10 Easy Steps”—if such articles even exist. He does not become preoccupied with his failings. He may even feel pretty good about his parenting, as he's spending way more time with his children compared with how much his dad spent with him.

Why is this such a common situation, and how can you get out of this mindset if you are stuck in it?

First, remember that men and women are wired differently, and societal expectations reinforce those differences. Women are naturally more gifted at relationships. Even though men are considered more aggressive, they often have difficulty naming their emotions; they may turn away from discussing relationship problems because they feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to do.

They commonly offer advice when their wife wants to discuss such issues, in a well-intentioned attempt to "fix" the problem, i.e., calm their wife down. They have difficulty understanding that their wife would much rather hear a simple statement acknowledging her distress, such as, "I'm sorry you feel that way. I can see why that's hard for you."

Psychiatrists inadvertently intensified the responsibility on mothers, with now-outmoded concepts such as the “schizophrenogenic mother.” The theory was that the mother's toxic parenting somehow created her child's chronic psychosis. Similarly the “refrigerator mother” had such an aloof style of parenting that her child became autistic. We now know that both of these conditions are due to biologic deficits, either inherited or environmental.

The result of these well-intentioned theories was that mothers in the heyday of psychoanalysis, the dominant psychiatric theory of the '40s through '70s, were not only traumatized by having a handicapped child with a chronic devastating chronic illness, but were blamed for it as well. Note that the father was considered much less liable for his offspring's emotional health.

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Then roles started changing. Many mothers then needed to work outside the home, while fathers were expected to spend more time with their children. That’s all for the good, but both mothers and fathers are overtaxed. When there is not enough time and energy in a household for everyone to get their needs met, the hierarchy is usually children first, men second (because they naturally seek it out) and women last.

How to solve this problem? Keep your relationship tuned up!

When Dad is in charge, try not to undercut his decisions. He may be more responsible than you imagine. If not, he’s more likely to learn from his own mistakes than by your “corrections.” Don’t assume you have the market cornered on knowing what is right for your kids.

Also don’t assume that your husband knows what you expect him to do with the children. Be sure to ask for what you need, and don’t be afraid to stand up for it. It's important not to wait until you feel so abused that you want to throttle him or run away from home.

Finally, spend regular one-on-one time with your partner so you can talk about conflicts in parenting at a time when you are relaxed and more open to negotiating. If you can’t afford a sitter, try trading off babysitting with a friend.

Keep yourself tuned up! Just as men are expanding their nurturing sides, women need to work at developing our masculine sides. Let’s throw out the phrase “Bad Mother” for good and substitute “Working Hard to Make Everyone Happy Mom.” At the same time, get rid of "Lazy Dad" and substitute "Well-Meaning But Benignly Clueless in Need of Further Education Dad."

It might make you anxious at first because change can feel uncomfortable. Try to breathe and keep going. You’re not being selfish, your’re being self-preserving. And that will end up being much better for your partner and children in the long run.

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