A friend (who shall remain anonymous) recently asked me, “Hey, have you written about how to get a lazy husband to change a diaper once in a while?” And then she went on an on about how she drowns herself in piles of Pampers and organic home-whipped yams while her baby daddy eats cheetos, scratches his crotch, and plays World of Warcraft. Or at least that’s what I imagined.
Anyway, diving into this issue both excites me AND makes me twitch post-traumatically. I enjoy helping partners navigate the journey into the depths of hell from coupledom to parenthood, but I have also been known to regress into the fetal position while doing so. (Which is as awkward as it is validating.)
(This is where I should add a paragraph about how it is not sexist against men that I am posing this issue as such, as this is simply the manner in which the question is is most often presented. Because of lots of reasons. Blablabla. But I’m going to skip over that paragraph because I’m in a hurry, because I’m the main caregiver in this house of three children and… twitch twitch twitch…) Moving on.
Anyway, here’s the answer you’ve all been waiting for:
Actually, much like your husband who stalls nervously when you ask him what he loves about you, I will begin my “answer” with a question:
Q) Which is the most-likely reason that your husband is less than hands-on with the baby?
A) Your man is a psychopathic, narcissistic douche bag. You indeed married a 180 lb, mouth-breathing, jack wagon. Each evening, when he turns out the light, your spouse stands alone in the corner and rubs his hands together Mister-Burns-style, only instead of muttering “Smithers,” he slowly whispers “mysoginistic domination” into the night air.
B) Your man is neurologically different. That part of his brain that registers “shit smell equals potential chemical burn on bum” is less primed than the part of his brain that says “focus on what is immediately in front of you. Mmmm chips.” The neural pathway that registers, “A cry equals an urgent -oh-god-make-it-stop-if-it-doesn’t-stop-I-am-a-worthless-mother-and-the-baby-is-going-to-die call to action” is maybe not primed at all. And also, that hyper-vigilant, control-seeking (read: anxious) part of the brain that attends to details such as “burp-her-fifteen-times-after-she-eats-or-her-intestines-will-explode,” “unsanitized-hands-cause-scarlet-fever,” “black-leggings-do-not-go-with-her-purple-dress-you-idiot” and “Television-before-nap-equals-brain-damage” may be 100% absent in your partner. The part of your man’s brain that whispers, “this sucks but you will survive, and avoidance is NOT an option” instead of being flooded with inadequacy and powerless might even need some dusting off. (NOT enabling.)
You guessed it. It’s likely that the root of the problem is captured better by “B” than “A.” (Or it might be mostly “A,” but usually only after a certain resentment about being criticized has been brewing under the surface for some years, resulting in the crappy, passive-aggressive defense mechanism of “f*ck you-I’m-not-lifting-a-finger-AND-I’m-enjoying-watching-you-suffer.” Read: In this case, go directly to couples therapy, Do not pass go; Do not collect $200.)
But, of course, there’s a lot more to the story than I could capture in a two-response question. Even if “B”were all true, your partner’s fatal flaw wouldn’t be the neurological difference. No, his laid-back style, hyper-focused, and sometimes tuned-out style might actually be a nifty survival mechanism during stress, one that when relied-upon typically does not in-and-of-itself result in catastrophe. The problem rather lies in his unwillingness or inability to learn a new behavioral strategy that is adaptive to the demanding, multi-tasking scenario at hand (and hence, prime a new neural pathway that is helpful to the parenting process and doesn’t make his wife want to strangle him.).
To this end, I will say one VERY IMPORTANT THING: The number one reason that men “shut down,” ignore, avoid, or passive-aggressively don’t even ATTEMPT learning new skills is that they feel their efforts would be deemed inadequate, and they lack the ego strength to withstand a perception of failure. I’m not saying it’s right. It just is. Blame evolution; blame culture; just don’t blame the messenger.
There is a reason why I went through all that effort to give you the multiple choice question and pose your man as possessing a “neurological difference” as opposed to being a psychopathic idiot: If your spouse is a psychopathic idiot, you will sigh, you will yell, you will criticize, you will blame, you will louuudly find fault with him in very public places. If your spouse is someone who simply needs to learn a new skill, you will explain, you will be patient, you will compliment, you will encourage, you will teach without rolling your eyes, you will pose direct requests in the least-snarky manner possible. And although your man is ultimately responsible for his behaviors, you hold the keys to making it more or less likely that things will change.
From, the therapist who says to also remember that sometimes people are terrible with screeching, poopy babies but awesome with argumentative, greedy teens, and if you get a spouse that complements your unique niche, you’re a lucky dawg.