Salute to Spouses Blog

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Retirement: Learning to be a family again

The other night, after my spouse had loaded the dishwasher after dinner without being asked, I went into the kitchen to add a few stray dishes and push the start button.

First, though, I rearranged everything - that glass should be on the top, that bowl should be facing the other way, the silverware should be sorted by type into each basket with the knives pointing down …

Wait. Why was I doing this?

Because that’s the way I’ve always done it.

For 26 years before my husband retired from the military, I did things my own way. I didn’t necessarily think my way was perfect. But, spending more than half our marriage without him, my way was usually the only way. There was no else around to do things any differently.

The same was true of pretty much any adulting done around our house. I had my own system to pay the bills (and sometimes juggle accounts to stretch things until their due dates, or pay something late, with no one being any the wiser). I shopped for insurance, applied for mortgages, picked out houses, bought cars. I decided what to eat, shopped for it and cooked it. I cleaned the house. I did the laundry.

Often times I worked full time, too, but my job was never as demanding as his so it always made me sense for me to do the bulk of the domestic chores. Plus, I was home alone so much that it didn’t much matter.

He did help out when he could, but that always felt like when a guest comes for dinner and offers to clean the table afterward – it’s a nicety in return for something you did for them.

Like many of you, the biggest duty I took on by myself was parenting. For the last 15 years, again with my husband gone more than half the time, I played the role of both “good parent” and “bad parent” to our two kids, being the “fun” one and the “hard” one at the same time.

During deployments, especially, it was me and the kids against the world. The three of us together were a well-oiled machine. They knew that I was the one – the only one - who would fulfill all their needs on a daily basis. As the kids grew into teenagers, we each knew our role in the family and how to respond to – and soothe – each others’ stresses. We knew how to make each other laugh, and we knew when to back off.

Then my husband went on terminal leave, followed by retirement. He was home with us 24/7. Twenty-months later, he’s still here.

Suddenly there was a fourth member of our merry little band.

We’ve all had to adjust. The kids have had to get used to letting dad in our private jokes. They’ve taught him our routines and traditions. They’ve started to sense his moods and learn his quirks, just like they know mine.

I realized it wasn’t that my spouse didn’t want to be an equal parent and domestic partner. He didn’t know to be those things.

And I didn’t know how to let him.

I was used to being the queen bee, and running the house on my terms, the way I wanted. After almost two years, we are still adjusting. The latest sign of progress: Tonight I thanked him for loading the dishwasher, and I didn’t touch a single thing in it. 

Here are seven things I’m working on being better at, to help my spouse feel like a better husband, dad and partner:

  • When you need (or just want) something done, ask. “Hey, can you please go switch the laundry over?” is a good start. My husband’s almost always happy to do things when I ask, and at first he waited for me to ask because he didn’t know what he should be doing, if anything. It may seem obvious to us, the ones who have been doing it alone all these years. But it isn’t so obvious to our frazzled spouses who are just struggling to fit in in their own homes.
  • Acknowledge the good stuff, and don’t complain about the bad. “I really like the way you grilled that chicken last night.” And if the dishwasher isn’t loaded just right? Trust me, the dishes will still get clean.
  • Give options, but not necessarily an option to say no. “Both kids have activities at the same time tonight. Which one do you want to attend?” Of course, don’t be mad if your spouse picks the easy route. I recently gave mine the choice of picking one kid up at swim practice, or taking the other to the dentist. Bet you can’t guess which one he chose - and I can’t say that I blame him!
  • Let your partner be a parent. Learning to relate to the kids was one of the hardest things for my husband. He was reluctant to say a single harsh word to them, even when they deserved it. I also don’t always agree with his parenting style (nor does he agree with mine.) But neither of us is right or wrong, as long as the end result is the one we agreed upon. I’m learning to sit back and let him handle situations on his own. He’ll never become comfortable as a parent if I don’t give him the chance to be one.
  • Be grateful. A little appreciation goes a long way, as does a little praise. Thank him for putting the groceries away, even if he did put the cereal next to the cat food.
  • Create a to-do list. My husband has done this a few times recently and it has been a great communications tool. He makes a list of things that need to be done, then we decide who will do what.
  • Relax. Give up the power. This relates to most of the things above. I don’t need to control everything. And, really, who wants that responsibility? For once in my life, post-retirement, I have someone to share it all with. And that is something to embrace and celebrate.
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