In order to have it all, mothers should actually “sweat over small things” — and this is based on neuroscience
So we are often told, “Don’t sweat over small things.” However, neuroscience would say otherwise. We just actually need to sweat over small things, in a good way, as these small things would actually accumulate to create big things which make our lives blossom altogether or couldn’t be helped by even a great family therapist.
These few weekends, we had a new ritual of visiting our new home in upstate New York as we would only officially move in till June after the kids finished their school. Like many other times, my husband was always ready first, then our son, and our daughter. I was always the last. Last week, when I was still upstairs checking the last few things before getting out of the house, my son was calling from the car, unhappy that it took me so long. The whole crew except mom had well settled.
When I went down, I was mad. In the car, I told him and my husband that I had a lot of things to prepare and if they had finished first, instead of waiting and complaining about me, they should have helped out.
This week, my husband fixed that. After he had been done with his parts, he asked if I needed any help. Anyway, we got out of the house nearly an hour later than the time he said we should. On the car, I had uneasy feelings. I felt guilty, but I did try. It was hard to get ready by 7.30am on the weekend. I was trying to talk about something else though, instead of talking about the fact that my husband could have arranged for a later departure time so we didn’t have to rush and feel bad about each other.
However, at one point, after two years of training my brain, I just plucked up my courage and acknowledged what he might be thinking, “Well, today, we got out of the house a bit late, didn’t we?”
“Way too late,” he said. He was the one who could be unhappy about something but often chose not to talk about it and let his resentment brewing inside. So now, it was out.
“I did try. I didn’t brush my teeth with toothpaste. No make-up. No breakfast yet. I didn’t know where time went!” I said, trying to justify.
“If you can’t be ready by that time, then don’t commit. But if you commit, then you have to honor it. You never. We always agree on some time and you never honor it. And that’s why I feel I am not respected and hurt.” I could feel the emotions crawl up into his throat and echo in his voice.
“You said the electrician would come at 9am, so I can’t propose another time. And I actually thought you could have arranged a later time with him knowing that getting out of the house at 7.30am on a Saturday was not practical. But you insisted,” I said.
“I’d but he had the other appointments and it’d take 6 hours for him to install everything. And also, today is different. But I am talking about the other times, without this appointment.”
“We can’t be so precise. We should have a range of time when we can get ready. And it’s just going out for some activities, not like going to a function, so why are you so precise and early?”
“If we want to have more time to spend together outside, then we should get there early. If we get there after the noon hours, we won’t have that much time to play.”
I tried to hit the pause button on my defensive thoughts that were ready to spring out at any signal, however mild it might be, breathed and thought that made sense. He was the punctual and early type, regardless of the nature of events, and I was the spontaneous and take-it-easy type when it came to non-work activities, and it’d better to balance the two.
“Okay, so let’s just have a range of time.”
“That’s fine as long as you agree with a certain time and don’t dishonor it.”
“And Minh, this morning, you were so slow. You should have helped out. You were just lazy!” I turned to our son and blamed him, who of course was not happy about it.
By the time we reached our home, our son didn’t want to get inside the house right away. “I will go in later,” he said, his face like a dried plant. I let him be, knowing he would go in when he felt better.
The electrician went to the basement and checked out a few things. It turned out that his work couldn’t be performed right away so the six hours that my husband said it’d take sounded like it was in fiction.
In the afternoon, we went to Traders’ Joe to do grocery shopping. I bought some dumplings which our son loved. On the way back, everyone was hungry and with the vision of a sumptuous dinner, we were all in a good mood, and at one point during our conversation, our son said, “Mom, this morning, you were not happy about dad but you scolded me. You didn’t want to blame him and since Tutti was too small, you chose to blame me.”
I laughed out loud. My husband chuckled too. This little boy did know what was going on in his mom’s head.
“You are so right, honey. Next time, I’d try to talk with dad further. But did you see? I tried to talk about the solution this morning, didn’t I?”
When we got back into our home and I cooked dinner, I realized I had forgotten to bring some salt and pepper and oil. And when it was time to shower, I realized I hadn’t brought along toothpaste, towels and shampoo. Yet the biggest realization for me by then was that it had to take me so much time to remember that invisible long list of things to put into our luggage, despite my husband and son putting in their own and our daughter’s clothes. When we looked at the things we were in charge of preparing, it seemed to be fair: mine are a few items like a bag of toiletry and food, while my husband got the car and his handy tools ready.
However, when we boiled down to it, handy tools were just so many but toiletry could mean so much more. In addition, I had to remember to close the bathroom door so the cleaning robot wouldn’t get stuck, remember to lock the door and bring the key, remember to water the plants, remember to bring the prepared little gift to the door man which I hadn’t managed to see after a few attempts due to different shift schedules, … That remembering and ensuring I’d remember and checking if I had ensured I remember already took lots of brain energy and time.
I was glad I forgot those few things this time, as my husband also learnt why it took me often that long to get ready each time we went somewhere. Just like when the pandemic hit and my husband had to work from home, he mentally negated what he used to say earlier, “Since you work from home, you can spend time checking in with our son’s study,” and realized that my plate was really full and that it was the job of both parents.
I had also learnt a few things. Next time, I wouldn’t agree on a time my husband propose right away out of the fear he’d be unhappy. I’d discuss a range of time with everyone, virtually everyone including the children in the house so they sign up and show up for it, and I’d ask the kids to be in charge of the plants for me and my husband to help out if I am still not ready by the time they all are. For the food, I can always plan for less time consuming yet still healthy options if needed. That way, nobody would feel hurt, disrespected, guilty, shame, resented, and useless. That way, everyone would have good laughs, not because I put the blame on the wrong person. That way, we would indeed have a truly good time when we are together.
So there’s no one magical and overnight formula for domestic equality, work life balance, thriving and happy relationship, and successful parenting. Neither there are always set times and dates to talk about what we should talk about. Even when we try to be proactive, things still fall through the cracks: this is life.
We just need to grab the opportunity and train our brain. We just need to embrace instead of avoiding those uneasy feelings and let them guide us, with a sprinkle of courage. We just need to handle one conversation like one dance at a time, keeping the vision of the dance that we will replay later, and of what we deeply want in mind. We just actually need to sweat over small things, in a good way, as these small things would actually accumulate to create big things which make our lives blossom altogether or are given up on by even a great couple therapist. Each time we do, we actually strengthen the neural pathways associated with empathy, mutual understanding, collaboration, and happiness in our brain, instead of making those related to resentment, lack of trust and everything in between stronger. Each time we do, we will get better at it and make the brains in our families healthier and happier.
And sometimes, our little people may help us to sweat much less!