A while back I was chatting with my mother over the phone. I was folding laundry and we were discussing our recent visit to her retirement celebration, when out of the blue, she said, “I wish you’d stand up to your wife more.” I couldn’t help but think that I didn’t get married to be the boss.
I was taken back by the comment, but to be honest, I always am. This isn’t the first time she’s mentioned that I need to stand up to my wife.
And each time, she ends up bringing up examples like how our house isn’t as clean as it should be, or how I really shouldn’t have to get up in the night with the kids, that sort of thing. My mother is in her late 60s, and she has some strong opinions on how marriage ought to be. And to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that.
She raised a family at a very different time with different expectations.
But I suppose the most ironic part about all of this is that I’ve been writing about marriage and parenting for a long time now, and I often get messages (mostly from women) trying to figure out how to make it all work when their husband is, for the most part, isn’t acting like a partner. I almost always tell them that they need to be open and honest with their expectations for their husbands.
And let me be honest here, if anyone is open and honest about her expectations, it’s my wife.
This is not a bad thing. Earlier in our marriage, I hated the way she asked me to share the load. She was blunt about it. She didn’t shy away from shaking me in the night, hair a mess, a squirmy baby in her arms, to tell me it was my turn.
I remember when she first became a stay at home mother. This was about 5 years and two children into our marriage, and I started to complain to her about our messy house. Some of you might remember me writing about this in the Washington Post. Mel and I got into an argument about it, and I told her it was embarrassing. I asked her what she did all day. “It really can’t be that hard to keep the house clean,” I said.
The fight escalated, and finally Mel told me that I needed to realize what she was up against.
And then she told me something that really hit home. She said,
“Sometimes it comes down between cleaning the house, and taking Tristan and Norah to the park. Or spending time having fun with them, or teaching them to read or write. Sometimes I can either do the dishes, or teach our son how to ride a bike, or our daughter how to walk. I’d rather do those things, frankly. I’d rather not be that mom who ignores our kids, and myself, because I’m so busy worrying about what the neighbors might think of our messy house.”
I stopped looking at the dirty dishes, assuming that they were evidence of Mel sitting around all day.
Instead, I got up myself and started washing the dishes. I realized that this was not her mess, but our mess, and I started pitching in more. I stopped worrying about the house, and started paying attention to the development of our children. I started to pay attention to how happy they were, and the kind of relationship they shared with their mother, and I noticed that we have a messy house, and really happy, bright kids.
Frankly, that argument made me a better husband and father.
But it doesn’t stop there. Mel suggested that I go to college, then she worked full time so I could finish my degree. She edited my papers, and helped me with my graduate school applications. Then she helped me prepare for job interviews, all of it to help us get to a place where we could live comfortably. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
Neither one of us got married to be the boss.
There have been countless moments where Mel expected me to be more than what I was.
And ultimately, what happened is, I hemmed and hawed a little bit, I complained some, but eventually I came out as a more supportive and overall better husband once it was all over.
But honestly, isn’t that what marriage is all about? Isn’t it about finding someone who is willing to love you regardless of your faults, and help you become a better person? If anyone has done that for me, it’s my wife. And I know I’ve done the same for her in everything from supporting her return to college, to helping her better herself as a mother and wife. We have grown together. There’s no doubt about it, and honestly, I’m grateful that we have this sort of relationship.
In fact, I often see comments on my post informing me how lucky Mel and I are to have each other. Listen, Mel isn’t so lucky to have me and I’m not lucky to have her.
She helped me become the father and husband that I am, and I helped her become the mother and wife she is, by setting expectations high. Not by being the boss in the relationship.
So every time my mother says that I need to stand up to my wife, I’m usually at a loss for words, and initially, this time was no different. I thought for a moment, both of us quiet, as she waited for me to say something. I thought about the past 15 years, and how much I’d grown as a father and husband, and how I didn’t get there through dominance. Then I let out a breath, and said, “Do you think I’m a better person than I was before I got married?”
“Yes,” she said, “Absolutely.”
“Good,” I said, “Because I didn’t get into this marriage to be the boss. I got into it because I knew Mel loved me enough to help me be a better person. And that’s exactly what she’s done.”
It was then that my mother changed the subject.