The married "single parent"

Dear Toni-

I'm a 37 year old, married woman with three very young children and a full time job outside the home. My spouse is building his own business and works long hours as well, so we are both stretched to our limits. We employ a nanny to take care of our children and do light housework in our absence--but since parenting is a 24 hour job, the day starts before our help arrives and ends long after she leaves each evening. Weekends are challenging too, but easier for me because I'm only working one job on those days.

My problem is that I function as a single parent during the week. My spouse has sleep issues and this results in him being largely unavailable in the mornings because he simply can't wake up. The evenings are a problem because that is the time he often meets with clients and has to handle last minute requests. If he is unavailable, he will lose business as deals will fall through. While I understand what he is up against, I have tried to work with him on carving out 2 hours every evening to have dinner with us and help with the bedtime routine. We have discussed some specifics of how this might work and he always agrees to try. Then, he will either not arrive home at the time we agreed or will get caught up in a call he deems urgent and/or slip away to check and return messages while I handle the kids alone while periodically yelling downstairs for him to finish up and give me a hand. Over time I have transformed into an exhausted, stressed out, and complaining wife who my spouse sees as "no fun anymore." He also frequently tells me I try to do much and should lower my standards and lighten up.

Our relationship now revolves around the kids and household demands. On the rare occasions we do sit down together and talk, we often end up having a disagreement that never gets resolved. Essentially we are leading different lives and it seems the only thing left between us is anger and resentment. I have tried to be supportive, I have proposed compromises and asked for his ideas, but he always comes back saying he can't win because no matter how hard he tries I am always finding him deficient in something.

I don't know what to do anymore and I'm concerned that this marriage will be doomed if we don't find some way to turn this around. I would love to get your input along with some actionable steps for addressing this. --Working Mom in Need of a Wife

Dear Dear Working Mom in Need of a Wife,

Let me begin by saying that it's hard to be "fun" when you are working 16 hour days with little down time and are being told that the only real problems here are your high expectations and negative attitude. You are essentially working two jobs and will be for some time as young children have many needs that place a huge demand on their parents, at least for a few years. Their needs will eventually become less time and energy consuming--however if you wait for that time to address the increasing distance between you, there is a strong likelihood it will be too late.

To begin with, you and your spouse need to be working together as a team, which you are not doing. This does not mean that all work and responsibility will be divided equally; instead it's about coming up with a division of labor that leaves both of you feeling that your partner has your back and that you are truly in this together. Right now it's as though you are on opposing teams, waging a daily battle over who will win and who will be the loser. Instead you need to work towards achieving a win-win--otherwise there will only be losses for you, your spouse, your relationship and your family.

The actionable steps you would take to turn this dynamic around should be small, like the ones that brought you here. Ideally they should start with addressing your negative couple dynamic. Some ways to do this would be to begin each day with a positive word, a supportive gesture, or a small action designed to make the morning just a little nicer for your spouse (and yourself). This will help melt the ice and bring out a more positive and supportive side of your husband, which in turn will offer you the incentive to do this consistently. It will also be very important for you to have couples time, alone and away from your daily responsibilities and stresses. Because it's hard to find time in the evenings or on weekends, consider leaving work a little early and going to a matinee or exhibit at a museum together. You could also do happy hour at a favorite watering hole or grab an early dinner before going home to your second job. By using a little time from your "paid job" you will not have the stress of trying to find additional coverage for the kids and will be less tired if your dates are earlier in the day. It's amazing how some time away like this can help you to feel not only refreshed, but like your old self- the fun one that you and your spouse both miss.

If resources allow, you could explore getting some help in the form of a mother's helper- many teens are happy to work a few hours during weekday evenings. This way the nighttime routine will go more smoothly, give you some real quality time with your kids and give your spouse some uninterrupted time to build his business.

Planning together will be key and looking for ways to tweak the schedule in order to decrease the stresses while not adding any additional burdens should be your goal. Come up with a realistic plan and regularly check in with one another on how it is going. When communication is open and supportive, both of you will feel freer to share your frustrations with one another without assigning blame.

Consider counseling if you anticipate difficulty having those first hard talks. Sometimes just a few sessions can get things moving and give you some good tools for moving forward in the right direction. Many couples have been where you are and have found constructive ways to work through the challenges of these early child-centered years without losing sight of the reasons they chose one another and the importance of their relationship is to this new family they have created together.

(from July 2014)

Want to read other columns on this subject?

"Now that we are married he doesn't want kids"
List of more
"Relationship Challenges"

"Second Wife and playing Second Fiddle"


Toni Coleman, LCSW
Phone: 703-847-1768


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