#1265: Guest Post: Lockdown Co-Parenting: Can I Please Get Some Alone Time? #COVID-19

Hey Captain!

I (she/her) really appreciated your response to Miserable In Quarantine. My partner (he/him) and I are fortunately getting along better than ever. It’s nice to remember that we are friends first with all this extra time. Even with (especially with) all this extra closeness, my partner and I totally agree with the importance of alone time. Here’s the rub: we have young kids. Five years old and two years old. They are delightful but they are also small yet loud bundles of need. So for one of us to get that coveted alone time, the other has to be on kid time.

Here’s an example: let’s say partner has six hours of meetings in a row. I’m with the kids, keeping everyone alive. He comes downstairs after work is done, genuinely says thank you and acknowledges my labor of caring for our kids. Then he asks if he can go for a run. I look at him like he asked me to walk on lava. I need some alone time! I’ve had a little monster attached to my boob most of the day! But I also realize, work calls are not alone time. Phone meetings are the worstttttt. He also needs time to recharge and be a human. There’s so little time in the day to give each other what we need, and we are floundering a bit. We are both committed to making sure we each get work time and self-care time, but sometimes commitment doesn’t make up for the logistical challenges to quarantining with young kids.

We recognize we are super fortunate and privileged to have this be our big issue during COVID-19. But I also believe that in order to sustain the mutual aid we’ve been doing, we have to make sure that we take care of ourselves as well. You’re so good at hacks and systems for dividing housework fairly and compassionately. Any tips for those of us stuck at home with sweet little bundles of need?

Thanks,

Please stop touching mommy for two minutes

Hello, (Please Stop Touching) Mommy!

I asked two of my favorite moms to weigh in on your question, and before I post their suggestions I will offer several observations about co-habitation & co-parenting conversations that the pandemic has made clearer and more urgent.

People often write to me looking for the one big meta-conversation they can have that sets up the parameters for How The Relationship Should Work From Now On so they can skip over the annoying day-to-day conflicts. Surely, we can both Outline Our Needs and Agree To A System for How This Should All Go, and once we do that, Nobody Will Have To Be Hurt Or Feel Weird Again! It’s so efficient!

Please know that I love everyone who thinks like this, I see you, I get you, I AM YOU. There are some people and some relationships where this kind of thing works – “Let’s agree to the big picture so the small picture will be easier!” – and when it does it’s so very lovely! Agreeing to ground rules and setting clear expectations is a useful skill, it gives everybody a starting point and a chance to be heard, it’s a useful project for figuring out how compatible people are, and trying it probably won’t worsen anything that’s already bad.

And yet!!!!!!!! (There’s always a yet) I also know without a doubt that there are people and relationships and topics where this approach 100% doesn’t work and might never work. You can have the big picture conversation, everybody can nod and agree, and you’ll still have to sweat some or a lot of the small stuff some of the time. The guy setting fire to his toilet paper in the office bathroom was never going to notice or respond to a general review of policies or guidelines, passive-aggressive notes (“Can we all remember not to create fire hazards in the office bathroom, thanks so much! 🙂 🙂 Cheers!!”), or the horrified and shocked faces in the neighboring cubefarm every time he needed to move some product. It was always going to take someone saying, “Hey you – SPECIFICALLY YOU – Do! Not! Light! Things! On! Fire! In! The! Bathroom!” every single time he does it until it stops or it happens enough times that he’s fired.

It’s easy to laugh at ol’ T. P. Burns in the office loo or think of all the ways that we are not like One Single Pancake Guy, but truly, stress doesn’t generally make people better at noticing things, and it’s even harder to extrapolate and apply knowledge to future behaviors, especially if – theoretically – all one’s extrapolation energy has been temporarily re-routed to catastrophizing worst case scenarios in an endless anxiety loop.

By which I mean, if you’re waiting for your partner to notice that you need respite from kids or waiting for a housemate to notice that a household task is piling up, you might wait a long time, and you’re probably going to have to ask, poke, gently remind, etc. even if you think you already had a good system going, even if you thought the other person got it, even if you think it should be obvious, even if in the other person’s shoes you would definitely notice and step up in that moment. If you’ve been stewing for a while about an ongoing thing, that’s valid, I believe you that there’s a reason for it and I recognize and honor your frustration. But it’s possible the other person doesn’t know about the psychic debt they accrued during the lengthy brining process and stewing-time for full grievance marination, and that their clock starts (and restarts) whenever you tell them it’s a problem.

If you’re usually the non-noticer in your household for whatever reason, no judgment, no shame, this is a great time to work harder on specifically that skill. At very least, if somebody you live with asks you to handle something, a) Probably…do…the thing? b) Do it between “now” and “soon” so they don’t have to keep reminding you? c) See what happens if you mentally add “from now on” to the request even if they didn’t say that, and act accordingly, by which I mean, do that thing/make that your task from now on unless you hear otherwise? d) Consider thanking them for telling you instead of resenting them for “nagging” you? e) Just, like, own the fact you’re not always on the ball about x and that reminders are necessary sometimes? f) If hairs are to be split, split them in the direction where you pick up more of the slack? Cool? Cool.

If you’re the designated noticer, I think that both the kindest, and the most productive way to handle this with people you like and love is to 1) be very direct about what you need to happen right now 2) without attaching the baggage of the past and what should definitely have happened there, to the extent you can manage that, and 3) experiment with not assuming that each request will automatically carry over to the future, like when you cancel the weekly exercise class you optimistically put in your online calendar back in January and the app helpfully asks if you want to cancel all future events and you pretend that you don’t, every week, literally forever. If you want a thing to happen from now on? Say “from now on.”

When I said “the most productive way” I meant: The way that has a chance of getting the person to do the thing you want them to do with the least friction or delay.

If you feel that Exasperated Parent Voice coming on in reference to another adult, like “An adult should know by now that ____” or “We’ve talked about this already, they should have learned by now!” you might not be wrong about what should be happening (toilet paper + fire = a general no-no even before it was legal tender for all debts public and private) and it’s okay to have a feeling about that, but – and I cannot emphasize this enough – when whatever should be happening isn’t happening, sometimes it’s a hierarchy:

  1. I need X to happen
  2. I need Y to realize that X should happen
  3. I need Y to realize that X should happen without me telling them or having to remind them
  4. I need Y to realize that X should happen without me reminding them, do X on their own, and also I need to express my feelings about Z
  5. I need Y to realize that X should happen, process Z feelings, and also repeat this reliably in the future without conflict or work from me.

What we generally want  – both practically and deep in our souls – is #5, all the time, always #5, the best number on this list is #5.

I am not a parent but I have 12+ years teaching adults to do complicated things with a steep learning curve and expensive, breakable equipment, and it is from that experience that I say: With the best of intentions on every side and every skill you possess, you can tell a person something that they deeply want to know, show them what to do and how to do it, give them many resources, references, and examples about how and what and why it’s important, remind them how and what and why and when, and then send them off to execute all of it on their own and it can still not quite take.

When that happens, shame, blame, exasperated reminders of what should have happened, “But how could you not knowwwwwwwwww,” “Come on, it was on the syllabussssssssss!” actually do literally nothing to change it. What sometimes changes the dynamic is going back to #1, breaking it down to the smallest next step, keeping expectations VERY small and VERY gentle, and trying to build up again from that.

Is it wise to build a permanent committed interdependent life with somebody where, you need #5, would be cool with #2-4 a lot of the time because nobody’s perfect or a mind reader, but with this person you feel like you always have to go back to #1, downgrade your expectations, and start negotiating again from scratch, especially when applied to the daily tasks of domestic life? No! Abort! Nobody is that sexy! (Letter Writer, fortunately this is not you, but it is definitely for some people in the Inbox.)

Does that mean you always have to be chill and never express frustrated feelings? Also no! Sometimes the answer to “do you want this to get done or do you want to be mad” is emphatically BOTH, and maybe exactly how pissed off you are is important information.

But when “please just get it done, preferably now (and from now on)” is the priority for survival or well-being, the gentle parent-voice, the one that uses lots of encouragement for good stuff and avoids shame, is the one you want, not the one that makes you secretly worry that you’re turning into your [most critical parent].

My inbox, my experience, and every single instinct I possess are all speaking with one voice about this kind of thing these days, and that voice says:

1) Yes, a global pandemic requires resetting lots of things, and the perceived value and gendered division of household labor and caregiving has got to be one of them.

2) Deep, involved, meta-conversations about How Should Our Relationship Work From Now On? and What Is The Platonic Ideal of Co-Parenting? can drain more energy than they save in the long run, or more accurately, drain more energy than everybody currently has budgeted in the short-run, and also become a magnet for all the upset and anxious feelings swirling around. With that in mind, a conversation you want (specifically you, Letter Writer) in your toolkit can be as simple as interrupting your husband’s runward trajectory, saying “Actually, can you pause your run until after dinner, I have got to hand you this baby for at least 30 minutes or I’m gonna freak out, thank you.” 

If you do that, probably what will happen is you will hand your partner the baby, and he will run later. And you may have a great bigger-picture conversation using the guide our guest posters outlined below about, hey, let’s figure out how to rebalance this load.

But also, you might have to renegotiate some of it every single day even if the big conversation goes great, if that makes sense, like some days he will definitely remember that it goes Work, Give Partner A Kid-Break, THEN Run and some days he might go on autopilot, some days you may schedule it all out and then his work will be extra sucky and he’ll be like “Please, please hang in for 1 more hour and then hurl the baby in my direction as you go to the room with the door that shuts, I got u, but I MUST run this off” and it’s not ’cause he doesn’t care or he secretly hates you or deep down he thinks it’s not really his job or because you didn’t Make It Clear Enough. Yep, it’s a deeply gendered issue, and yep, one can be both a Tool Of The Wretched Patriarchy and A Pretty Good Dude, and yep, until The Revolution comes sometimes you gotta take it one day – and one specific thing that needs to happen right now – at a time.

I will now turn you over to Actual Moms.™ First up is Mikki Kendall, code name @Karnythia, author of Hood Feminism and Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight For Their Rights, gorgeously illustrated by A. D’Amico.

Mikki says:

It’s great that your partner thanks you, but your partner also needs to recognize that he doesn’t get to extend your workday in order for him to decompress immediately after work. If he wants to get off work and take a run? This is why jogging strollers were invented. Or taking turns on who gets to take a run first at the end of the workday. Because frankly caring for kids is work too, and your alone time should not be sacrificed because of 6 hours of meetings. He got to talk to adults (however ridiculous because honestly most meetings should be emails) while you dealt with breastfeeding and whining and neediness. He can spend an hour with at least two parts of that, and then take a run after you have a chance to take a break.

5 & 2 are super challenging ages, but only if you don’t start making them do some things without you! Five is a great age to be expected to play with your two year old sibling long enough for either parent to go to the bathroom or make a call. 5 & 2 are old enough to be assigned some chores too. Like sorting laundry or picking up toys. Bigger chores can be done together to keep them busy and engaged when they are awake (I actually cannot stress this part enough because so much of what you’re describing sounds like the kids aren’t doing as much for themselves as they could be) and kids will not fall apart if they are expected to contribute and then entertain themselves quietly in a room.

And yes, they get restless being inside all day. So, a dance party to tire them out mid-afternoon so that they will nap. My favorite trick, when our kids were little and January was a deep freeze that meant no time outside, was to get those glowsticks that you snap, turn off the lights and throw a baby rave in their bedroom with all of their favorite songs on a loop. I would cheat and put snacks & drinks in unspillable containers to minimize the need to leave the party. Finish up with a trip to the potty and wind down with softer music (and those lavender scented candles/sprays if that’s your bag) and you buy yourself an hour or two of afternoon nap. Do not spend nap time on chores. Spend nap time on yourself, whether that is eating a meal in peace or a shower or just staring into space, treat that break as sacrosanct.

Also, honestly now is a wonderful time to consider weaning your toddler. It sounds like you are consistently touched out and there is no reason to sacrifice your own emotional health in this way when you can start taking back your body. Yes, even from your child who loves to nurse but doesn’t actually need to do it to access good nutrition. You need to be kinder to yourself in general and gift your family the wonderful experience of doing more to take care of themselves without relying on you for literally everything. Also, though I don’t know your partner’s work environment, he’s going to need to step up and push back on this back to back meeting expectation whenever he can, because honestly no one should be subjected to 6 hours of phone calls during a pandemic.

Thank you Mikki! Your books are great and everyone should read them.

Next up is my dear Commander Logic:

CommanderLogic (she/her) reporting for duty. My kids are 5 and 7, MrLogic has a job that a) he can work from home and b) earns enough to support the family, and I am currently unemployed and therefore fully responsible for remote teaching the kids. We are lucky as HECK.

Letter Writer, you don’t say if you are also trying to work; it sounds like you have a similar situation to me. Lucky as it is, it’s still FRIKKIN’ HARD. There is a reason I did not choose teaching as my profession. There’s a reason that, even when I’m seasonally unemployed, we still pony up for childcare and camp and stuff. I love my children, but I am a better mom when I have some time entirely to myself. Right now, as I’m writing this, my 5yo is asking me “What should I doooooo?” while shooting down every option I give him, and my 7yo is trying to wheedle me into making a snack for her that she has known how to make herself for 2 years. They’re the best, but they are a lot.

When my first kid was first born, I had three months of paid maternity leave, and MrLogic and I had a biiig discussion about this:

  • Kids are a FULL-TIME job (and then some)
  • Keeping house is ALSO a FULL-TIME job
  • One (1) job is also a FULL-TIME job
  • And I could handle about 1.5 jobs.

In talking it over, we planned for when we were both employed (sooo much daycare money, y’all), and we planned for when one or the other of us was out of a job. It looks the same no matter who is the stay-at-home parent.

When your partner asked if he could go for a run, it’s the SAME as if, after his marathon of calls his boss had said “Oh, and I’m sure you wouldn’t mind one extra 2 hour presentation?” You are working. It is a job that we HIRE and PAY (not enough) for: teachers and nannies and babysitters and housekeepers and therapists and cooks (through the magic of takeout) and and and.

I suspect that it wouldn’t have been so bad if at the beginning of the day, your partner had said he wanted to go for a run after work. You could have planned! You wouldn’t have been expecting the sweet release of Not Being In Charge at that time! You could have said “Yes, that’s fine if you’ll watch the kids right now while I go [do what you want].”

Your time is equally valuable to his. You have a workday. You need to not be at work sometimes, too, and it’s even harder for you because right now your work IS your home.

You and your partner sound like a good team, so this isn’t necessarily an argument, so much as a series of questions you need to talk through:

  • Do we agree that childcare and house management are two full jobs? (I MEAN OBVIOUSLY, but asking the question makes it a discussion instead of a lecture)
  • How do we schedule those jobs to give us both some downtime?
  • What would each of you want if your roles were reversed?
  • Is there a way to create a kid-free zone in your home? That either of you can use?
  • How do we create time for just the two of us together?
  • What are the rules of downtime?

If you’re both trying to work, there’s additional issues:

  • How do we schedule so one of us is the on-call parent for half each day?
  • What do we do if we both have a critical meeting at the same time?
  • What are the rules that your kids (may) understand about “I’m working”?

Early on in the lockdown, I was making lunch for everyone, and MrLogic watched me for a minute and said, “I feel really guilty that you’re making me lunch and doing all the kitchen stuff on top of teaching the kids.” And I said, “Well, this is my job right now, and I do it so you can do your job, so it’s ok. But DO PLEASE keep feeling guilty, and make dinner this weekend.” And he did. He’s really good at it.

Thank you Logic and LogicHaus!

Fun fact, MrLogic is the Dungeon Master for our weekly D&D game (now remote) and the NPCs all sound like he’s reading us a storybook and doing All The Voices, Dad-Style, and it’s just the best. My character doesn’t really like killing things, especially intelligent beings (D&D is so goblinist!), so I keep asking everyone and everything we meet its name both because I think it helps with persuasion and because once you Have A Name maybe we don’t have to have Teh Violence, and it’s very fun to make him have to brainstorm names on the fly, which is how you get an entire squad of bugbears named Steve, Other Steve, and Steves III-V (who we did NOT kill, though there was some unfortunate wounding). ❤

Letter Writer, I hope somewhere in there is a framework to hang these conversations on and get yourself some respite. You sound like a great mom and partner and I’m glad things are going mostly okay. You also get ❤ emoji.

There is literally no way I  – a non-parent – am moderating a parenting discussion on these internets in the year 2020 even without heightened pandemic anxieties, so, Awkward out, and ❤ emojis for all.

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