My sister and I traded dreams one day. Mainly because, with her new baby and my one- and three-year-old, the chance to actually fall asleep and dream was a rarity. We sat on my peeling leather couch in the sundrenched room, looking over the Pacific, totally unaware of the beauty surrounding us because we were in our sister cocoon of love and laughter and caffeine.
“Oh my god, it was so hot.”
“Oh?” I say, taking a piece of dog kibble out of my toddler’s mouth. Sex was a dark cave that was cold and damp, with moss growing in it since my daughter’s birth. I was interested to hear a bit of giddy-up that was lighting anyone’s fire.
“I had this dream about Thor. We were kissing, messing around. He picked me up and threw me down on the bed. His muscles were glistening in the sun, and he held my face while he kissed me. Then the baby started crying..”
“Wait in the dream?” Fire was out.
“Yeah, in the dream, and he said the sexiest thing.”
“What?” I took a deep sip of my rocket fuel coffee, trying to shock my brain online.
“He said, ‘Don’t get up, I’ve got the baby.’”
I would have done a spit take on my coffee if it weren't more precious to me than children.
We laughed and also felt a sting that what we wanted most from our romantic partners at that moment was for them to take something off our plates.
Motherhood is like taking two decks of cards, your pre-baby self, and your mama self, and shuffling them together with oven mitts. Cards go flying. Distributing each deck evenly takes a few shuffles. It's an incredible identity formation transpiring in the midst of the steep learning curve of caring for another human 24/7 and sleep deprivation. There is social isolation and physiological changes. Then you mix in there the expectations of a partner. More cards flying.
Our hearts grow to accommodate the little ones. However, we are human and only have human amounts of energy and emotional bandwidth. Often in relationships, however, there is a superhuman expectation of the birthing partner to take on the bulk of the domestic and emotional heavy lifting. Highly competent women have an amazing capacity to do it all until they don’t. Then they are in my office with burnout, resentment and depression over their perceived failure at being unable to stretch to meet superhuman demands and their partner’s inability to help.
Where is the Thor fantasy?
The echoes of antiquated gender roles drown it out. My outraged inner feminist screams: "how does having a vagina make me more qualified to run a vacuum?" Reductive as it might be, the screams are right. They identify the values that contribute to the problem but not the solution for partnerships.
The notion of what it means to be partners is so deeply rooted in our family of origin that it will take a vast amount of unlearning to approach the Thor fantasy.
I listened to an Oprah Master Class where actress and feminist icon Susan Sarandon reflected on her relationships with men by saying: “I need to let the men in my life be men and not boys.” She was commenting on the overwork she had been prone to as the eldest of a large family, when she saw the men in her life struggle, she was more than capable of stepping in to help. This phenomenon of competent women overworking to compensate for their partner’s discomfort, disinterest or lagging skills is ubiquitous among mothers. The problem is twofold. Invariably women land on feeling overworked and that they are mothering their partner. Partners, on the other hand, are denied the opportunity to grow into a more adult role in their relationship because their partners are seamlessly picking up the slack, problem-solving, and organizing. The dynamic perpetuates the roles of mothers overwork and partners being infantilized.
This power dynamic contributes to a loss of intimacy. I hear a lot of:
“Sex just feels like one more thing I have to do.”
“When I have to remind him six times to take the trash out, I do it myself.”
“When they don’t get what they want, they just sit there and sulk. Like it’s up to me to make them feel better”
“It feels like one more way they are getting their needs met. What about me?”
Being placed in a perpetual parent-child role with our partners is not a turn-on. There is no Thor in that.
In her book Vagina: A New Biography, Naomi Wolf explains that the arousal of women’s sexual functions is dependent on a regulated autonomic nervous system. That is to say, if we feel threatened or are constantly bracing, we are not going to be physiologically primed for sex. When our partners feel more like someone who we are caretaking or someone we are in constant conflict with, our autonomic nervous system will be dysregulated, aka no giddy-up.
How can we unlearn what may have been our own parents' dynamic and approach something more equitable? The answer, like so many related to relationships, is that it's complicated. It took both people to create the dynamic, it will take both and possibly a therapist to create a new one. The simultaneous withdrawal of the overworking partner coupled with more work from the other is what creates something new. It starts with a question of values.
On what are we basing the way our household and relationship duties are allocated? Are these values serving us in our current relationship or are they echoes of our families of origin? What does it mean to completely assume a responsibility and what does it mean to let it go? For the overworking partner, I ask them to reflect on a task they might do for their partner; is this something that a grown-up could be expected to do?
For couples visiting me, I ask them to proactively sit together with a calendar once a week and list everything that is required to run their household. They check in with each other emotionally and see if either of them is, to quote Brene Brown, blown or in the reeds. Here the planning of a household becomes a conduit for emotional connection. Understanding that if either of the couple is blown, that is to say completely spent emotionally or overwhelmed, the week’s responsibilities of the other is going to be higher.
The system becomes responsive to the couple’s needs. In addition, the couple is instructed to schedule weekly protected self-care time. Few parents would miss a scheduled appointment with a doctor, but often the ever-growing demands of parenting necessitates the extra resources coming from somewhere, and it's often time to take care of ourselves that is first to go. Regular attempts to keep appointments with ourselves increases the chances of keeping that time. Self-care is a huge component for rest and compassion, vital to healthy nervous systems. Once those items are in place the Thor fantasy becomes increasingly closer to reality. When we relate heart to heart, when our needs and feelings are seen and heard in a relationship and responded to, we feel a sense of emotional connection and safety.
Then there is a whole lot more fire to the fantasy.