Years ago there was a funny book called “What Dr. Spock Didn’t Tell Us”. In it, a new father describes and names behavior of children that the “experts” don’t tell you about. One he calls “Traitor’s Throat”; what a baby has when she cries just loud enough to wake her father up but not loud enough to wake her mother. He can lie there half the night waiting to see if she won’t wake up her mother – but she never does!
Of course there are many mothers who would agree with the name but question the description. They would say they are the ones who hear the baby’s cries while dad sleeps on. “Traitor’s Throat” at times seems to be a symbol of the division of labor that evolves between couples when they become parents.
What evolves may not be what couples planned ahead of time. In this day and age, when in so many families both parents work outside the home, sharing of responsibilities is a big issue. In fact, these days, more is expected of fathers even when mothers are home full time. Still, couples are usually unprepared for the way life is transformed by children, and the ways in which reality differs from expectations.
Much has been written and discussed about the pressures women face as mothers working outside the home. Despite the increased involvement of fathers, it often seems as though women have the ultimate responsibility for managing the home and childcare. Symbolically – and often realistically – it’s mom, not dad, who hears the child’s cries. Or as many mothers have said, “Who does the school call if the child is sick?”
There are, of course, many reality factors that impact on who does what. Work schedules, the nature of respective jobs, and the degree of work flexibility, among other things. But often there are other issues at play which are not always so clear cut, as parents try to address questions of responsibility.
A mother and father came to see me about some difficulties they were having with their son’s bedtime and other routines. The conflict between them had to do with expectations for the child’s compliance to their requests. Dad felt that mom was too impatient and that he got better results by giving the child more time. Mom disagreed and felt she allowed plenty of time before drawing the line.
When we explored the conflict between them further, it seemed clear that what was behind mom’s seeming lack of patience was the pressure she was feeling from work and family responsibilities. She had no time for herself or her own needs. Dad expressed his frustration at this because he always offered to take their son out on weekends and his offer was rejected. Dad saw this as a lack of Mom’s confidence in him as a father, and was angry at his wife’s feeling that he was not supportive. How could he be supportive if she rejected his concrete offers of help?
What was this really all about? As it turned out, Mom was not asking for concrete help. The problem for her was that she had so little time to spend with her child that she both wanted and felt she ought to give her son whatever time she herself was not away at work. She did not feel she had the right to give to herself something she needed. By supportive, she meant emotional support. She wanted her husband to understand the pressure she felt, so he would not be critical of her if she lost it at times with their son. Dad was completely amazed by this. He had been trying to solve what he saw as the problem in a way that made sense to him. Unfortunately, they were not on the same page.
In writing about conflicts with our children, what often comes up is the need to think about where a child is coming from – to see things from his or her point of view. To “hear” what he or she is saying, or asking. And the same is true of relationships between adults. We all come from different realities and, therefore, see things differently. We often think that the way we see things is the true reality – that we are right and the other person is wrong. This is what leads both children and adults to feel that they have not been heard. Perhaps many of us have difficulty with this because we did not have the experience of being heard in that way when we ourselves were children.
It is not always easy to understand what another person is really telling us. Children don’t yet have the words or the means to tell us what they want or feel, and so express themselves in behavior that is often unpleasant. We have to get over our dislike of their behavior in order to think about what they are really saying.
But this can be true of us as adults, too. Sometimes we ourselves are not clear about what we really mean but can be helped to express it more clearly when the other person is ready to listen. We can help our children in the same way.
Truly hearing each other not only enables us to be more effective in responding to our children, it provides an important model for them as they learn to deal with conflict.