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The real reason working moms are unhappy: Insights from couples therapy

As a couples therapist. I see TONS of working moms who are deeply unhappy - and I’ve been one myself. In order to eventually get happier and start to feel more like ourselves, we must first understand the dynamics that are working against our happiness and learn how to change them. I’m going to share the dynamic I see happening between couples with young kids, aged 10 and under, when both parents work. Not all couples will fit this bill, but this dynamic is more common than you might realize.

As a general overview - WORKING MOMS ARE UNHAPPY.

Dads don’t seem to understand WHY working moms are unhappy, but do think their wife complains an awful lot. Nothing he does seems to be enough or good enough. Meanwhile, for moms, nothing she does IS enough - because there’s always more to do.

The following are some TRENDS I've noticed, some PATTERNS I’ve seen through my own experiences of being privy to the innermost workings of couples. Not every aspect will fit in with your situation, but some might.

This info is important. It’s important to know it’s not just you. It’s important to know that the "perfect" working mom you're seeing, who's juggling all the balls but seems to have it all figured out? She likely also struggles with this. And maybe by talking more about this, we can start to come up with some SOLUTIONS to support her - and you.

Let’s start right at the beginning - when a woman becomes a mom and her partner becomes a dad.

Here’s the pattern I’ve noticed: The woman has spent an enormous amount of time researching while pregnant. She feels responsible for this child and she wants to make sure she’s doing everything right. Other people also feel she’s (solely) responsible for this child and would like to share their opinions, whether she’s asked for those opinions or not, especially once baby arrives. Everything from formula vs. breastmilk, to hold or not to hold, tummy time, baby-led weaning vs. baby food, all of it seems to be fair game for family, friends, and strangers alike.

This is usually at a time when she’s already feeling down because of postpartum depression, anxiety or blues.

Meanwhile, the father of her baby is trying his best to take care of her while she’s pregnant. He’s not doing the research, unless she sends him articles asking him to read them, but he is trying to be the best partner he can because he knows his wife is going through a tough time.

Once baby arrives, he feels worried about her, he feels worried about himself and how he’s going to be as a dad, and he suddenly finds his own freedom restricted as well - and his wife has a lot less time and energy to spend on him. He feels lonely and like he's been thrown into the deep end with all these new things happening at home. His need for touch, to be loved, often goes unmet.

During pregnancy and delivery, her body goes through an enormous change. Afterwards, she’s not sure if or how she’s going to lose the baby weight, she has zero time for herself to put on makeup and do the self-care activities she used to do to feel like somewhat of a normal person.

Mentally, her anxiety has gotten 4 times worse simply through brain changes in pregnancy, which shows up in a variety of ways - either she's terrified of leaving the baby or she wants to avoid being with the baby alone because the anxiety is so uncomfortable. 

Her husband, meanwhile, sees his wife being calm and nurturing around baby (despite the crippling anxiety) and thinks - she's a natural at this! I'll definitely fail if I try to do this my own way. So he follows his wife’s lead but still he usually he does things wrong (not the way she would do them). He doesn’t think to sanitize the bottles the way she would, he may be a bit more relaxed when it comes to feeding times or WHATEVER, and she seems upset by this. He starts to think: what’s the point i’m just messing everything up anyways so why try. Resentment begins to build in him. "Nothing I do is good enough. She wants me to do things exactly HER way."

Her husband, therefore, largely follows her lead when it comes to anything baby-related. He'll do things, but only after it's been mom-approved. She is suddenly THE PERSON IN CHARGE of this new life - whether she’s ready for it or not. It’s a TON of responsibility.

Her need to be supported, to have a partner who just does things around the house and for baby without being asked, often goes unmet. Resentment that she's the only one doing the research and she seems to be in charge of dictating what goes on with everything baby-related, even though it's overwhelming for her, is also building in her.

Let’s fast forward 6-12 months.

Mom has finally gotten the hang of this baby thing but still isn’t sleeping through the night because she’s usually the one in charge of waking up with the baby EVEN IF she’s back to work. Why? She hears the baby - her husband doesn’t. She could try to wake him and ask him to go take care of the baby but that’s extra work for her and she’s up regardless so she might as well do it herself so “at least one of us can sleep.” Also, baby largely prefers their mom at this stage of life. Dad and mom both see that baby prefers mom, so she continues to be the chosen one in charge of all things baby-related. This is a huge MENTAL LOAD.

Let's now talk about the real problem: mental load. All of these things mom is responsible for = MENTAL LOAD. These things take up SO much space in her brain that there's not much time or energy to focus on the things that once made her her - hobbies, passions, career, fitness, her relationship. The things that used to take up space in her mind are now relegated to the back. The part that builds resentment in her is that there IS another capable adult here - but he's not carrying the mental burden that she is. 

As an example, mental load regarding the kid's health and wellbeing: She's likely back to work by then and baby may be in daycare or staying with family while both parents work. The couple may take turns dropping baby off or may not, but USUALLY the mom is in charge of making sure the caregiver has all the info on baby, knows what to feed them, knows about their quirks, and she’s usually the one the caregiver will call when baby needs something or if there’s a special circumstance like sickness. She’s also usually the one who has to take off work if baby needs anything, unless she’s the sole breadwinner of the family - but even then, she’s usually the one who knows about what to feed baby, what milestones they’re looking for in baby at that particular time, and basically anything health-related that needed to be looked up. Why? because she’s the one who does the research. Why? I’m not totally sure. Countless couples I've seen have confirmed that men don’t tend to research things about their kids of their own accord. I'm not sure why.

Mental load regarding cooking and cleaning: Let’s talk about what’s happening in the house when the whole family is home. Here’s the pattern I see: Dad will cook or help clean, but usually mom is telling him what to make or what to clean. The mental load of keeping the house is the mom’s responsibility. If dad cleans, it's at mom's request. If dad grocery shops, moms the one making the list.

Let's recognize that this is a person who ALSO works a part- or full-time job outside of the house, which she likely also pours 100% of herself into.

Dad thinks nothing he does is good enough because no matter how much MORE he does than “other dads”, his wife still has requests that feel to him like complaints or criticisms. She also wants things done when SHE wants them done and not when he’s ready to do them. Oftentimes this is because mom has to do things she does’t feel quite ready to do but she does because those things need to get done and if she doesn’t do them, her kids won’t get bathed, read to, eat dinner, poop, or whatever else they need her for. So she’s doing those things even when she’s not quite ready, even when there are 10 other things she’d RATHER be doing. 

We used to raise babies in tribes - other women would be helping us, they would be understanding of our needs, we would split the burden. Now that our tribe is 2 adults and some kids, we NEED our male partners to step up... and they seem completely clueless as to how to do this. Are they actually clueless or just not willing? Many moms are faced with this distressing thought: Is my husband clueless or simply not willing to lighten my load? Does he not SEE what needs to be done or worse... not care, or even worse... think all this is supposed to just be MY responsibility? 

Mental load regarding extracurriculars: As the kids grow up, mom is usually the one looking into extracurriculars. Whether dad takes them or mom takes them depends on the couple but mom is usually the one looking them up and signing them up for those activities. She’s the one who keeps track of their nutrition, their clothes (if they need new ones), organizing their rooms, getting rid of old toys, and generally making sure they are healthy and well adjusted. Dads will do the work the mom tells him to do. The mental load is completely on the mom. If she decided she was too tired to do this work, it would go un done. 

Dad often thinks why are you so worried about everything? Maybe you just need to relax and not try to do everything. Whats the big deal if our kid doesn’t go to kinder gym or whatever it is you’re worried about? His wife interprets that as him saying - you’re bringing this on yourself and I'm NOT going to step up so don’t try to give me this responsibility. It’s not important anyway. You can’t make someone put effort into something they don’t find important, so mom will continue to carry the mental load of these types of activities because she now knows without a doubt - her husband doesn’t think it’s important so he won’t be taking over this load. 

Now let’s take step back and just imagine why working moms of young children are so UNHAPPY. With all this extra load, with so many balls in the air, there is often ZERO time for their own hopes and dreams, their relationship, their OWN self-care, their OWN IDENTITIES until their kids are old enough to more or less fend for themselves. That’s a good 10-15-20 years of prioritizing other people OVER yourself. And here’s the thing - in 2-parent families, there IS another capable adult who could take over some of this load. I should mention that even in families where the wife is making more or is working more than the husband, these trends still largely exist.

The mom you’re seeing planning play dates and cleaning the house after work? She also has an identity outside of that. My generation of women have grown up being HIGHLY ambitious, taking great pride in things they create, and EXPECTING equality in the marriage - and men usually say they want equality too. But for some reason, as soon as that baby is born, gender roles become more traditional DESPITE the fact that so many women are also now working. The financial burden gets shared but the household burden does not get shared fairly.

Most women even say - I don’t mind doing MORE of the work, I just want him to contribute. Why, my dear? Why don’t you mind doing most of the work? Because you’re socialized to feel responsible for the house and the kids - we all are. We see the look on our husband’s face when we ask him to do chores and we feel GUILTY. And then to avoid that feeling, we stop asking.

What happens to the relationship? Resentment, a true relationship killer, is built in all these moments. Not just in mom, who feels overworked, but in dad, who feels untouched, unloved by this woman who used to adore him, and underappreciated for the countless things HE is also doing for the family. The couple finds it harder to connect, harder to even have friendly conversations sometimes. They certainly don't feel like lovers. One or the other may reach out, but usually it's not well-received because of the hurt and anger built up in the other.

When they try to "fix it": Here’s what I see happening with the couples who come into my office. The wife will tell the husband she’s got too much on her plate. The husband says he helps out more than all his friends do. The wife says what does it matter what other guys are doing? Then they argue about this or that and it stops being about her initial request. OR the wife will say “I have too much on my plate." The husband says “Okay, just tell me what i can do to help you.” The wife says… “look around and do what needs to be done. If I tell you what to do, it’s still me having to figure out what needs to be done.” The husband says “sure” but nothing changes for longer than a week. The wife gets more and more frustrated and hopeless because nothing she says or does makes the husband seem to get it. The husband may or may not tell her she’s “nagging” him, which the wife then internalizes and stops saying anything at all. She finds it’s just easier to do it all herself. 

The real PROBLEM here is that the person “IN CHARGE” of everyone has some core needs that aren’t getting met. And when our needs aren’t getting met BY our partner, we often stop wanting to meet our partner’s needs. So physical affection and intimacy may stop entirely because this woman, who has not had time for herself to even FEEL like a woman, doesn’t want to have yet another thing on her to-do list - even if she usually enjoys sex. Sex isn’t something you can relax into when you’re EXHAUSTED and feeling resentful that you have to take on so much simply because your partner won't.

Or she may stop talking to him kindly entirely because she’s so frustrated and resentful of this dynamic and feels so helpless as to how to fix it. She believes if she wants it to be fixed, she is the one who is going to have to fix it. 

Husbands will respond to their wife asking for her needs to be met by saying - I give my wife so much time to do the things she wants to do! but she just ends up scrolling on her phone or cutting her time short. That’s on her, not me. They often say this not understanding that the whole reason she feels guilty and overwhelmed is because the entire burden of everyone’s health and happiness lies ON HER - and a few free minutes of time per day won't exactly fix that.

Let's be clear - this woman DOES want a good relationship with her partner. But she also feels COMPLETELY hopeless that SHE will be considered, that HER NEEDS will be met. So if she’s going to work on this “relationship” she’s likely going to be the one meeting her husband's needs more or taking on MORE of a mental burden trying to help her husband figure out how to meet HER needs. It’s extra work either way that she doesn’t have the capacity for.

What can we do about this dynamic?

There’s work both partners can do. The first step is to decide you WANT each other to be happy in this relationship and you’re willing to do what it takes. Men, you need to realize your wife ISN'T happy and that there actually IS something you can do about it - and when she IS getting her needs met, she’s much more likely to resemble the woman you married because she’ll start to feel like an actual person again! 

Step 2 is to divide the MENTAL LOAD more fairly. You can use the book "fair play" to help with this.

Step 3 is to identify your core unmet need. Think something like “30 minutes per day of exercise” or “2 date nights per month” or “10 minutes of cuddle time per day” or “one morning per week to just do whatever the hell I want to do”. Then tell each other “Hey, this is what I need” and go through ways to actually meet each other’s needs.

This common dynamic in working parents doesn’t serve women and doesn’t serve men. Most men want their wives to be happy and want to feel like good husbands and good fathers. They feel absolutely helpless as to what might make their wife feel better - after all, they’ve offered to help! Sometimes she won't even LET them!

I work with me all the time on their part of this dynamic. They are often well-intentioned and truly don't understand how to make their wives happy. I think part of the reason this dynamic persists is that we are so empathetic of our society’s dads. We know they’re doing more around the house than generations before, that they're more involved with the kids than generations before. We so appreciate that. But our society's moms and their struggles go largely unseen. They are the invisible labourers. The struggle they’re going through needs to be seen and actively worked on. It's a societal problem and we MUST come up with some better solutions that address both partner's needs.

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