Empathy.

Life is exhausting. Life as a parent is next level. It doesn’t matter which version of the parenting role you play. Arriving home after a long day at work, you just want to sit down and switch off, but instead you’re faced with the kids during witching hour. That’s exhausting. Educating, playing with, and caring for your children all day, void of adult interaction, is exhausting. When your partner gets home you want to relinquish all responsibility to them, and just sit down. What a recipe for conflict! I’ve been working all day, is it too much to ask to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee? Are you saying what I do isn’t work? I’ve dealt with these kids all day. Is it too much to ask for a bit of help? This conversation can play out any number of ways. Sometimes it’s not even a conversation, just thoughts that we speak in our minds as the evening tension rises. Throw in an extra complication or two, such as study, shift work, self-employment, sickness, extra-curricular activities, and it’s difficult to have empathy for anyone but yourself.

 

I’m bored and lonely and just want to talk to someone other than the kids.

 

This is a text message received from a mate one morning. I’m sure the words typed have been thought, spoken or typed by listless Stay At Home Parents (SAHP). Alex was waiting for our household to be ready so their three young children could come and run amuck with our four. Their household is one of those crazy houses that is up at 5am, and not by the choice of the parents. Our house on the other hand, rolls out of bed at least an hour later. By the time we were ready for them to drop in, they’d been up for hours and Alex’s stamina and patience was exhausted! It was clear on this day, that Alex was well and truly over SAHP life. This family challenges some SAHP assumptions. Alex works full time business hours, and Jules, well Jules is hard to keep up with. 30 hours a week night shift, studying 3 subjects at university, and is at home with the kids two days a week. They have one child in Prep and soon to be three-year-old twins. Both Alex and Jules are SAHP, just not at the same time. It’s clear that they are both feeling as Alex’s text suggests. What I admire about Alex and Jules, is that they both communicate feeling like this pretty openly. They love their kids, and being parents, and they recognise both the privilege and responsibility in that. They also both acknowledge how taxing it is to work; both within and external to the home.

 

My husband and I have also challenged these assumptions on occasion. We have four children. With the first I was a full time SAHP who started part-time work from home when he was 4 months old, at 9 months he went to day care and I began a university degree. I stayed at home for less than six months with the second and third. With the second, I returned to a full time, demanding and stressful job, while my husband was a SAHP who studied online full-time while recovering from spinal surgery. When our third son was born, I returned to the same job full time, my husband had now finished his degree and was also working full time, so this time we hired a nanny – Great decision! After our fourth son was born and we had three not yet at school, and I decided to have a year off work to stay at home with the three little ones and help make our eldest son’s first year of high school as seamless as possible. During this time I also worked on launching my own business. Each scenario birthed different challenges and conflicts; not to mention two exhausted parents.

 

In discussions with my friends, both female and male, it is clear that most relationship conflict arises from a lack of understanding, or empathy for the other parent and the role they fill. It seems that each parent believes their role in the family is the more difficult one, the more exhausting one; regardless of what that role is. The most common misunderstanding I observe is that between the SAHP and the parent working for financial benefit. I also observe that this misunderstanding and inability to empathise is exacerbated when the parental roles have never been reversed.

 

Watching Alex and Jules has been interesting. From an outsider’s point of view their relationship dynamic has changed now that they are both SAHP in different capacities. They both understand the stress of working and arriving home to an exhausted partner and demanding children. They both understand how busy a mind can be. They both carry the invisible mental load of the house and family. And to an outsider, while they may be more exhausted, they seem happier with each other, they seem proud of each other, they seem grateful for each other, and inspired by each other. In my own house we have both been SAHP and we have both been the bread winner. It is clear that this breeds empathy, not to mention respect. Having experienced being a SAHP with one child, as well as having the responsibility of school drop off and pick up for another, my husband was incredibly understanding, and even in awe I think, of when I was the SAHP with three at home and one at school. He was considerably perplexed when I volunteered to welcome a fourth into our home three days a week to help out my friend. Never did he underestimate the exhaustion of my day. Likewise, I had experienced being the bread winner and that feeling of wanting nothing more than to melt into the couch when you arrive home, only to be jumped on by a herd of little humans. I’d like to think that I never underestimated the exhaustion of his day.

 

If you don’t have the opportunity to literally walk in the shoes your partner wears, it seems to me that an honest and realistic imagining would go a long way to finding empathy and understanding, and potentially an improved partnership.

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