In recent columns, I have explored what it means to “have it all,” and how integrating the four domains of life — self, family, community, and work — can bring us closer to feeling fulfilled.
In this column, I’d like to discuss the domain of family, and the effect of our mindsets, attitudes, and expectations of our roles and our partners’ roles at home.
I am the mother of triplets. My work has always involved travel, and people often ask, “Who is taking care of your kids? Your husband must be very understanding.” It’s doubtful that a man would be asked the same question and hear, “Your wife must be very understanding.” These kinds of comments may sound harmless, but they reinforce bias about professional women.
And they have another impact: In my case, the comments used to make me feel guilty. When I was working, I’d feel bad that I wasn’t spending time with the kids. When I was with my kids, I’d feel bad about not working. I wasn’t present and enjoying the moment.
I looked to my mentor for advice. He said, “Maya, make the best choice you can and make peace with it. If things don’t work out, you can always make another choice. You always have choices.”
This means: Drop the guilt trip. For women, guilt management can be just as important as time management. We need to treat ourselves kindly and learn to make peace with our choices, realizing it is up to us to decide what is best given our choices in a given moment.
Rethink the drama triangle
The drama triangle, as defined by Dr. Stephen Karpman, describes the unhealthy relationships that develop when we think of ourselves as victims and others as persecutors or rescuers. Persecutors can be anyone — from society as a whole to your spouse — while rescuers are those who come to your aid, like a best friend who tells you it’s all going to be OK. The triangle can create a cycle of dependency, where the rescuer makes a habit of rescuing and the victim is always helpless and hopeless.
When you make peace with your choices and drop the guilt trip, you turn this dynamic around.
Instead of being a victim, you become a creator. You create your own options and your own future. Those in the persecutor roles become challengers, their actions becoming opportunities to think, reflect, and become stronger. Your rescuers become coaches — instead of doing things for you, they empower you to make the right choices.
Empower men at home
When my kids were smaller, I would spend hours before a work trip cooking, so that my family would have ready-made meals while I was away. As my trips became more frequent, it became impractical for me to do this consistently. A friend asked me, “What do you think would happen if you didn’t cook for them? What would your husband do?” I thought, “Well, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I should find out.”
I asked my wonderful husband, Wayne, if he could manage without the pre-made meals, and he assured me he could. So I embarked on a trip without the usual several hours of cooking.
When I called home, my son, Tyler (who was about 7 or 8 at the time), gave me a detailed report. He whispered, “Mama, Baba ordered pizza yesterday. Mama, the house is very messy!” To make matters worse, I received a call from my son’s teacher, who informed me he had been wearing the same T-shirt for five days … a white T-shirt that was quickly becoming a grey T-shirt.
After a difficult conversation with my husband, I thought about my options. I could go back to the old way, cooking all the food myself, or I could consider that maybe I was the problem. I expected my husband to do everything my way. He was trying his best, and I should give him a chance, keep my mouth shut, and see what happens.
Over time, my husband mastered a few quick, easy, and nutritious dishes he rotated throughout the week — even Tyler’s spy reports were more positive.
If we want to do less at home, and for our partners to do more, we have to let go and empower them to do things their own way. A study found that wives who engage in “gatekeeping” behaviors do five more hours of family work per week than wives who take a more collaborative approach. It’s not an equal division of labor if you spend your time and energy directing him on how to do his part.
Men don’t often ponder the issue of “having it all” because they don’t share the same expectations and pressures that women face — they are not asked who is taking care of their children when they travel. But if we make peace with our choices, rethink the drama triangle, drop the guilt trip, and empower our spouses at home, we get closer to the day when self, family, work, and community are integrated — the definition of “having it all.”