Journalist Jancee Dunn enjoys a happy home life with her husband and young daughter. But it wasn’t always all smiles and sunshine. The couple’s contentment became strained soon after the birth of their child.
Resentment festered — over whose turn it was to empty the diaper pail, who was supposed to make dinner, who got coveted time to themselves. The pressures of raising a child escalated. Stress grew.
Dunn decided to do something about their situation before they became another divorce statistic. She embarked on a journey to improve her marriage, seeking out therapists and other relationship experts, as well as delving into research.
The culmination of her efforts is her new book, “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids.” A former Rolling Stone writer, she incorporates her straightforward, humorous writing style as she shares private moments of being a wife and mother, along with advice.
We spoke with Dunn to find out about her experiences, how life has changed for her family and what tips she can offer other moms.
Washington Post: Do you think a lot of women can relate to the title of your book?
Jancee Dunn: A lot of my friends who used to tell me intimate things had kept this aspect of their lives a secret. One friend said, ‘Oh, Sean and I didn’t talk for two years after the twins were born’ and I had no idea. I thought everything was fine. I’ve asked women, ‘Hey, do you get as upset with your husband as I do?’ The force of their answers blew me away. They went on for days.
WP: Did you aim your book at new moms?
JD: I wrote it with an eye toward new moms and I kept thinking how naive I was when I was pregnant. I thought about myself and other pregnant women I knew. You don’t have these basic conversations with your mate. When I was pregnant it was a dreamy time. We would walk up and down the street and talk about names. That was so much fun. And how are you going to decorate the nursery is such a wonderful conversation. I can’t even say how many hours we spent on the color of the room. But we didn’t have the most basic conversations about who, after I went back to work, who will take care of the baby when she gets sick. We hadn’t talked about is religion going to play a role, what roles are the grandparents going to have, what will we do on weekends, who will do what chores around the house.
WP: What spurred you to embark on this project?
JD: I can remember a specific time we were squabbling about emptying the Diaper Genie. Something as everyday as that and the anger that I felt for him that he wasn’t pitching in — I was really strangled by the force of my anger because we really did have a placid marriage before that and I remember thinking, ‘Wow I could actually maybe kill him.’ I looked at my hands and they were clenching. Rationally I knew that I was reeling from hormones and lack of sleep and the fact our lives had turned upside down but I couldn’t control my anger and I thought, this is not good, I’ve never had this kind of anger before.
WP: What was behind some of the emotions?
JD: I felt like I was on the job 24 hours. I felt like I never had a mental break. I was in charge and did it well. I became more and more resentful.
WP: You mention “maternal gatekeeping” as something to be aware of. What is that?
JD: You deliberately shut out your partner and there are so many different ways. When I started to key into what I was doing — I was practicing maternal gatekeeping all day long. Even when I texted with other moms about an issue at school and my husband would ask what’s going on, I would say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’ That’s maternal gatekeeping. Or I would say, ‘That’s not how she likes her toast.’ Let him make the damn toast, who cares? It’s a way to tell him he’s doing it wrong and I know better; ‘This is not how she dresses, this is not how she wears her hair.’ Who cares?
WP: How can moms avoid maternal gatekeeping?
JD: To be very aware of ‘what does it cost me.’ What does it cost me if the kid is wearing stripes and plaids? If he makes dinner and there is not a vegetable, it’s okay. If there is a school matter, involve him, CC him, talk to him about it. Give him the benefit of the doubt that he would be interested.
WP: You also mention “loosening your standards.”
JD: Your child is happier with a relaxed mom rather than an uptight mom who is up until midnight making ladybug cupcakes for the kindergarten party. When you are being a perfectionist, you can funnel that energy elsewhere. Things don’t need to be perfect.
WP: The power of saying ‘thank you’ is another tool you discuss in your book.
JD: It has a reciprocal effect. If you say thank you, the other person starts doing it. Oh, thank you for sitting with the baby while I took a shower, thank you for cleaning up — things you don’t have to thank them for I would say ‘thank you.’ Then he started doing it back. It’s amazing, how he would say, ‘Oh, thank you, that was a great dinner’ and I would blossom inside. There are studies that show if you thank a partner your relationship measurably improves. It’s two words, a very basic thing. One thing I hear over and over from mothers is that feeling of being taken for granted, of feeling invisible, like you’re a stagehand. When someone thanks you, you feel visible.
WP: You and your husband spent a lot of effort trying to resolve differences.
JD: It’s not easy but we are the grown-ups, we have to act like grown-ups. We can’t act like squabbling toddlers. The heat is out of our fights. We disagree but we work it out. The goal is not to vent and yell at each other. We have a goal now and it is to work it out.
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