Marcella Kelson speaks with Leah about the very real way most of us struggle with resenting our partners through the early years of parenthood—and what can be done to alleviate the issue.
I can still remember the exact moment the idea for this story coalesced from a passing thought into a firm, undeniable thing that demanded exploration and space in this issue. We were visiting my younger sister, and she and I had taken our daughters for a walk around the lake where she lives, strolling in Florida’s late-winter sunshine. My relationship with her is something I treasure and have enjoyed strengthening, conversation by conversation, as we both settle into our adult selves (far from the cruel sniping and insecurities that can wreak havoc in the childhood dynamic). And on this particular walk, both of our girls past the one-year mark, we waded into our respective relationships—and how hair-pullingly frustrating it could be to feel like the man never did as much, ever. And that even the truly well-intended attempts often felt cloaked in some sort of responsibility that lay with us (like an offer to watch the baby that comes with a round of 20 questions).
As we curved around the lake, our physical paths hugging a loop that would never end if you allowed it, we agreed that the feeling felt a whole lot like resentment. But, yikes, what a nasty word, much too aggressive for the mother-and-father responsibility breakdown that has surely been occurring for generations and generations.
“I’d actually prefer not to change the word because it’s such a toxic, unhealthy dynamic in a relationship. The word really helps to portray the impact it has, how it erodes a relationship over time,” Marcella Kelson, a maternal wellness expert with a must-read newsletter on parenting, mothering, and how it all affects our relationships, told me right off the bat when I got her on the phone. I’d begun our chat by inquiring whether she had a different, or better, word. Something kinder and softer, perhaps; less angry and apt to invoke the image of a shrew.
“A lot of us think of it as a disconnect or a lack of understanding, but it’s much bigger than that. It’s actually a poisonous dynamic in a relationship.” She was quick to point out that it’s common, but that that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of alarm bells. “We treat it like something we can expect to feel toward our partners, that it’s part of the deal—the cultural impact is really problematic. There’s this narrative that ‘Yeah, it sucks, but it just is what it is,’ or that men are wired this way and women are more efficient. The excuses we make for how we accommodate resentment in a relationship is the alarming piece.”
At this point in our chat, I couldn’t tell you if I was relieved or terrified at her response. There’s no denying that what she said tracked for me (and my sister and I imagine many other mothers of young children). You expect it. You hear others talk about it. You listen to a partner who is irrefutably supportive and caring tell you that they’ll help with whatever—all you need to do is ask. That exact situation, the “I don’t know if you don’t ask!” moment is one I’ve heard all over, yet never explained quite as brilliantly as by Amanda Doyle, sister to Glennon and cohost of the “We Can Do Hard Things” podcast. In the episode titled “Overwhelm: Is our exhaustion a sign that we’re CareTicking time bombs?” she explained how she has a constant ticker running in her mind, stock-market style, reminding her of the things that need ordering and appointments that need making. And when her husband asks what he can take off her plate, it only underlines the horrifically unfair fact that he doesn’t even know about the ticker, much less have one of his own.
On that walk with my sister, we both poked at a version of this: that if you’re lucky enough to be going through the wild ride of parenthood with a true partner, someone who views you as an equal, it’s actually mildly infuriating that they don’t just know what needs to be done. And any attempt to explain that feeling, at least for me, is met by someone who just doesn’t see it that way. The situation, in turn, is met by Marcella who sees it as a manifestation of poor communication.
“At the end of the day, if your partner knew it made you feel like shit every time they said, ‘Just let me know how I can help,’ my hope is they’d say, ‘I don’t want to make you feel bad; I want to find a better way to support you.’ The problem is that we’re not conveying these things honestly and in moments of clarity. We’re conveying them when we’ve hit a breaking point, and there’s no conversation to be had at that point. It’s a child in a tantrum: There's no clarity or lesson. Everybody’s defensive and scared they're being told they’re doing something wrong. That’s not a moment where people can actually evolve.” True, but hard to escape. (What is modern marriage if not a full-out sprint to try and cram 30 hours’ worth of things into 24, including work and parenting and maintaining relationships? Finding time to reasonably talk things through sounds like a true luxury, though I cringe to even type the words out.)
Still, she’s right, as always, with an approach and script that I made sure to furiously type out. It’s key to have the conversation when you’re calm and level-headed, ideally with phones away and a glass of wine out. It’s when “everyone can be honest about their experience. You can say, ‘Look, I know this sounds silly and you're trying to help, but when you say to just let you know what you can do, it makes me feel like the default partner and that’s too much for me to carry.’ Your partner is getting to hear your real, raw experience versus your anger—the crux of what is wrong. That’s when you can really build a different narrative.”
The other version of the “just ask” issue that breeds all types of resentment is how often fathers schedule golf games and work meetings and dash off to the gym without ever thinking to check in before putting something on their calendar. I’m speaking only for myself, but I want to be quite clear: This is not about a controlling partner, someone who needs to know where I am at all times while mysteriously slipping away on their own, but simply how, with our child, the buck stops with me. I cannot fathom scheduling a workout class or a haircut without asking first if he’ll be around to watch her. Marcella personally evades the issue by having a shared calendar with her husband where they both put items that require the other’s approval.
“It’s a conversation,” she insists when I respond with both admiration and amazement. “I’m a broken record, but at the end of the day a lot of these really toxic dynamics come from not communicating each person's needs. To me it’s not fair or even healthy to have two people responsible for a family where one person has a completely different liberty than the other.”
The partner who doesn’t necessarily have less liberty, but less of an idea about what the heck to do with free time, is troubling in a different way. “Everybody needs something that is theirs,” Marcella agrees. The conversation about evening the score when it comes to afternoon golf versus afternoon manicures isn’t about parenting, either—it’s about identity. “When we avoid dealing with our identity we create a lot of issues outside of it, with money or our partners. We turn children into projects and they’re not. They’re humans who need their own space to evolve and that isn’t always in the presence of the mother.”
Then, in a theme that’s popped up with so many people I’ve spoken to surrounding this issue, Marcella pointed to how little we talk about the loss that’s inherent with becoming a mother. “It’s complicated grief,” she explains. “Millennials worked for years and years and had full lives before they had children, so there is a lot of loss that comes with being a mother. We can’t, and I mean this lovingly, but we can’t just accept that we don't have a life.” Even though it literally feels impossible to imagine when you’re in tantrums and diapers, children will grow up and leave, creating a void for anyone whose identity has shifted too much to being a mother. And, per Marcella, the concern is about much more than just maintaining your love of tennis or a book club membership. It’s about knowing your worth as a person outside of being someone’s mother.
“Your confidence is something you have to constantly tend to. It's a plant that you can’t ignore and hope it's still thriving months later. You have to be feeding it and caring for it and working toward it,” she says, the analogy making a tingle run down my spine. “When we stop thinking our time is valuable or our brain is valuable or our interests are valuable, then we really stop watering that plant.” As individualistic as the notion is, there’s also a deeper connection to our relationships and marriage that underscores how important it is to not forget who you are. “It can start to erode the marriage because men continue to have these things that make them who they are. Women start to let them go or deprioritize them, and then you're no longer the couple you started with. You're totally different people. One person goes golfing every Sunday and spends eight hours working on their confidence, and the other just resents them.”
At the end of my conversation with Marcella I thought back to my walk with my sister and wondered if she and I were both better off than we might have thought, or worse. Whether the reminder that our individual experiences were being felt in some version by women all over helped, or if the charge to actually do something about it felt like too much responsibility.
“We just have to keep talking about it and trying to find a way that clicks for our partner. Sometimes you have to be really uncomfortable. It’s baby steps from conversation to conversation, constantly going back to the drawing board and asking what’s working better, what’s not. Taking inventory.” Marcella suggests thinking about marriage like a business partnership with an open and efficient communication flow, pointing out how quickly things would sour if one partner was doing ten times the work but only claiming fifty percent ownership. “It’s not something that you can fix in one conversation. It’s really a cultural shift within a marriage that needs to take place.”
Out of everything we touched on, the piece of advice that lodged deepest in my brain was about the big conversations many of us aren’t having. Strife-filled, cuts-to-the-quick issues that might seem like resentment over someone allowing a work call to run long, but “that’s a much bigger conversation about what kind of marriage we want to have and what quality time looks like for you. That’s a values conversation.” It should be as simple as actually putting words to the things and experiences we value—and asking our partner what they define quality time to be.
“We don’t have those conversations about values and beliefs in a family early on, and there’s a disconnect,” Marcella says, referencing the before and after of welcoming children as a major inflection point. “We went from being a team and a couple to either winning or losing. You’re never doing both at the same time. There’s so much loss and fear and conflicting emotions involved in parenthood, but because we culturally portray it as this blissful thing, nobody accommodates it like they do a death or illness or any other emotionally conflicting, exhausting experience.” To me, that’s the beating heartbeat of the whole tangled, thorny problem (and why the conversations we’re having with In Kind felt too vital to ignore). Parenthood is hard and not always joyful or cloaked in love. And that’s okay, but only if we say it out loud, to our partners and each other. Talking about it is the only way to try and banish not just resentment, but anything that doesn’t deserve space in our lives.