Many couples who see me for counseling are struggling with the demands of parenting small children. Frequently, the husband works outside the home, in a classic financial provider role, and the wife stays at home with kids under 5. There can be a great deal of conflict when the men criticize their wives, which then often leads to the wives retreating in hurt and anger (and then, of course, not wanting to have sex, among other issues).
In this article, I'm discussing a specific subset of SAHM's: the ones that enjoy being home with the kids, but aren't great at housekeeping or sticking to a routine. The criticism usually doesn't start until the man thinks the wife is "supposed to" be dealing better with things and have her life more under control, so basically anytime after about 3 months post-partum. The older the kids get, the more angry men get when their wives don't seem to "have it together," and then they say things like this:
"If she's home all day, why is the house a mess?"
"Why is she always running late or cancelling things? She's home all day."
"Why can't she make dinner if she's home all day?"
"Why doesn't she get out more and do more activities with the kids?"
"All she does is go on Facebook."
"She doesn't care about her looks."
"My mom kept the house spotless, kept all us kids in line, and had dinner ready every night."
For the sake of argument, let's assume that all of these things are true. They often are. But, there are a few important truths about stay at home moms that could help husbands understand what's going on.
1. Being a good housekeeper and organizer is often incompatible with being a good SAHM, by today's definition.
Today's SAHM's are supposed to play with their kids, a lot. They are also supposed to feed their kids healthy food and limit screen time. Furthermore, small kids aren't allowed to play alone outside anymore, and toddler and babies never were. Independent time for babies used to be an hour in a playpen and now it's 15 minutes while mom is nearby. If your wife is a devoted SAHM, she is playing pretend, making crafts, and preparing veggies for your kid's snack. She therefore doesn't have the time that your own mom had to make three wonderful meals per day for a family of five, vacuum the house top to bottom daily, and get the laundry done. Relatedly...
2. SAHM's are isolated
It is very recent that women with small kids were left completely alone during the day. People used to live near extended family, or with them. Your wife is lonely and overwhelmed because it's unnatural for one adult and one or two or three kids to be together for ten hours a day. Your wife has nobody to help make lunch, or watch a kid for a second, or anything. This, when you think about it, is a bizarre way to raise kids, but it's what she's working with here. If she doesn't go on Facebook, she doesn't have any social life at all. Yeah, she could go to a Mom's group. But that's about an hour twice a week or something. People also used to have many more kids, so a preteen could help with the baby. Now, that's a rare situation. Incidentally, many women have undiagnosed post-partum depression or anxiety, and this is not helped by feeling alone.
3. SAHM's are often Type B, to counterbalance their Type A husbands
Two Type A people don't often work well together. In a lot of couples I see with the critical-husband/hurt-SAHM-wife dynamic, the husband is high-powered and Type A, and very motivated but also kind of self-absorbed. The reason he was drawn to his wife is that she was calm, caring, and listened to him talk about himself a lot. She was also probably flexible, and built her schedule around his. All this flexibility and go-with-the-flow nature doesn't lend itself to remembering to defrost something for dinner every day. But it does make you calm and patient with kids.
4. SAHM's are very tired
Often, the husband who asks, "Why can't she go to the gym?" holds himself up as an example of a busy guy who makes time for physical fitness. But if you ask when he goes to the gym, it's before work. So who's getting up with the kids even earlier and is even more tired? His wife. When you're tired, you don't want to work out. You don't want to deal with dropping the kids at gym daycare, where they may throw a fit. All you want to do is get through the day as best you can, hopefully without losing your mind. On my maternity leaves and my days home with my kids, I am far more tired than during my days at work. Work is intellectually challenging and not physical. SAHMing is the reverse, and is exhausting as a result.
5. SAHMing works best for people who go with the flow
Laid back people are great with kids, for the long haul, day in and day out, and in stressful situations. People like these Type A husbands, and myself, and many women who say that they would go nuts if they didn't work, are good with kids IN TIME LIMITED AMOUNTS WHEN THERE IS LIMITED EXTERNAL STRESS. So, Type A people can have an awesome adventure or do a cool project with their kids, but get itchy when a whole day stretches before them, with all of the snack-making, refereeing sibling fights, wiping up spills, taking kids potty that an entire day entails. Type A people often cannot be home with kids unless they can take them from activity to activity (this is how I schedule my days with the kids). Type B people, like the wives I'm talking about in this article, provide a calm, warm, flexible environment for kids to engage in unstructured play, which is important for their developing brains.
So before you criticize your SAHM wife for not keeping a tight ship, think about these factors. It is more likely that your kids will remember cuddle time and laughter with mom than whether she had dinner on the table at 6 every night or there was dust on the shelves. And remember, at work, people likely smile at you, or at the very least, they don't scream at you. People say "thank you" or "good work" to you sometimes. You may even get a promotion now and again. Your wife gets none of this. She also doesn't get any financial rewards for her work. So why not thank her for giving your children a loving, present parent, and cut her a break.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Dr. Psych Mom. It has been republished here with permission.