How a Straight Man’s Article About Divorce Made Me a Better Mom
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A lesbian Solo Mom’s perspective on raising boys
When my friend Liza sent me a link to the article “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes by the Sink,” I read it not because I thought it would be relevant to me, but because it was important to her.
I mean, really, what could a straight guy whose wife dumped him because of dishes tell me, a lesbian Solo Mom, about my life and relationships? Sure, I’m going through a divorce; however, my divorce has nothing to do with leaving dishes by the sink or the symbol of dishes left by the sink or the underlying theme of Matthew Fray’s article, the communication gap between men and women.
But Fray offered up an unexpected gift: he helped me better understand myself and my sons. He also gave me an intervention tool I could use to help my sons not only change behaviors that drive me flippin’ nuts but also become compassionate partners, or at least decent roommates, someday.
Generally speaking, I don’t like to make assumptions about people based on their gender. I don’t like to say “men do this” and “women do that” or “boys do this” and “girls do that.” Gender is way more complex than a limited binary, and I have seen too many people hurt by gender expectations to impose them on others. I have always resisted the notion that our behaviors are coded in our X and X or X and Y chromosomes.
So it was with marked resistance that I read some of Fray’s statements, such as “male and female emotional responses tend to differ pretty dramatically.” That sentence feels like an overfull suitcase that desperately needs to be unpacked.
But then I started to recognize myself in Fray’s reflections, such as, “I remember my wife often saying how exhausting it was for her to have to tell me what to do all the time.” Just as Fray’s ex-wife repeatedly asked him not to leave dirty dishes by the sink, I repeatedly ask my children to do things they, after sharing a home with me for nine and 11 years, respectively, should already know they need to do. Rinse down the sink after you spit toothpaste in it, use appropriate language during meals, put your dirty clothes in the laundry—why do I have to keep saying these things?
I have tried rewarding positive behavior. I have tried doling out consequences for unmet responsibilities. I’ve even tried appealing to their desires and needs, explaining that every time I have to ask them to do something, it drains a little of my energy. If they keep draining my energy, by the end of the day I will be too tired to do anything fun. So, if they want Fun Mom instead of Cranky Mom . . .
None of this has made a lasting impression, and as the sole parent in this house, my patience has been wearing oh so thin these days.
I’m not ready to blame my sons’ gender for their utter lack of allegiance to these expectations. But Fray’s revelations about the communication gap he experienced with his ex-wife really hit home for me. As he says, “I never connected putting a dish in the dishwasher with earning my wife’s respect. . . . [S]he wanted me to apply all of my intelligence and learning capabilities to the logistics of managing our lives and household. . . . She wanted me to figure out all of the things that need [to be] done, and devise my own method of task management.”
Ultimately, this is what I want from my children: to notice, to take responsibility, to perform the most basic kid-appropriate functions of household management without being told. Yet around these issues, I am experiencing the same communication gap with my kids that Fray did with his wife.
When I ask my children to perform these basic functions, what I am asking for is respect, for me and for our shared household. I am asking them to show me they care about my feelings and about the space we live in. But when I ask my children—for the millionth time—to complete menial tasks that have no value to them, what they hear is me nagging them, constantly, over meaningless details.
As Fray says, “There is only ONE reason I will ever stop leaving that glass by the sink. A lesson I learned much too late: Because I love and respect my partner, and it REALLY matters to her.”
He learned his lesson too late to save his marriage, but maybe I learned it just in time to save my sanity. Taking Fray’s cue, when I walked into my 11-year-old’s bedroom to say goodnight, and I saw he had left his dirty day clothes crumpled in a ball on the floor again, I tried a new approach:
Me: I know it doesn’t mean this to you, but when I see your dirty clothes on the ground after I have asked you a million times to put them in the laundry, to me it says, “I don’t respect you. I don’t give a crap about you.”
Kid (incredulous): I give a lot of crap about you. . . .
Me: (Laughing too hard to hear anything else.)
Kid: I just don’t give a crap about putting my laundry away.
Me: (Doubled over laughing.)
As my son rolled out of bed to pick up his discarded shirt and shorts, I noticed a marked absence of the facial expression I’m used to seeing when I “force” him to do something—the clenched jaw and rolling eyes. Instead, I saw an open-hearted, fully present gaze, an expression of receptivity and caring.
I’m not naive enough to believe this is the end of my son’s sweaty T-shirts piling up on his bedroom floor. But in that moment I knew he had heard me, truly heard me, and that’s enough of a win for now.
Plus, I figured out a tween-approved way to say I love you. Standing in the bedroom doorway, hand on the light switch, I watched my five foot three “baby” crawl back into bed.
“Goodnight, kiddo,” I said, still chuckling. “I give a lot of crap about you.”
I switched the light off, and as I closed the door, I heard, “I give a lot of crap about you, too.”
Cheryl Dumesnil, ESME’s LGBTQ Resource Guide, is an author, educator, writing coach, all-around do-gooder, and one of two moms separately coparenting two amazing boys. You can follow her on Twitter at @cheryladumesnil.
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