Achieving symbiosis

What I’ve learned about family and work relationships during mandatory quarantine

Since the beginning of the quarantine, my wife and I have gone out for a jog with our son every evening and returned home to the smell of our neighbors smoking pot. They’re an older couple — retired with two adult children — and they’re clearly enjoying their empty nest. They have matching silver ponytails. They wear the same long-sleeve t-shirts under the same Patagonia vests. They wear the same blue jeans and the same running shoes. They’re a great example of how two people can become one after decades of cohabitation. Their difference in height is their only distinguishing trait. But when I see them sitting outside, enjoying the longer days of spring, they are indistinguishable. They could be the same person. They are the same person — except that there are two of them. They don’t talk much. I assume they don’t have to because they can read each other’s minds.

A long time ago, I received a bit of career advice about reading minds that has proven valuable over the years:

Don’t spend too much time asking your boss what gaps you need to fill on the team. Instead, identify those gaps on your own, fill them, and let your boss course-correct as necessary. Anticipate your manager’s needs. Figure out where she is headed and try to get there before she does.

If I followed this advice, my mentor told me, I would set myself apart from the others on any team.

I’ve come to realize this is pretty good relationship advice too, and extremely relevant now, when the burden of labor at home is especially onerous and our collective patience runs thin.

But I’ve been an asshole lately.

Recently, my wife told me I wasn’t pulling my weight at home. She said all I care about is work. I scoffed and listed everything I’d done recently to keep our son alive and the house in order. I said I spend hundreds of hours a month with our son, playing, reading, and teaching him new things while she’s upstairs doing god-knows-what.

At some point, everyone in a relationship will feel like they’re doing more than they ought to, or at least more than their partner would appraise. If you independently ask each partner in a relationship what percent they contribute to shared domestic responsibilities, you will almost always hear two responses that add up to more than 100%. We all do our part… and more. In healthy relationships, no one ever willingly takes advantage of their partner.

When I rattled off to my wife a list of everything I do at home, she told me I don’t do the right things. I could see where this conversation was headed, and I didn’t want to argue more. So I replied, “If I’m not doing the right things, just tell me exactly what you need me to do.”

This was a mistake.

If you expect your partner to dictate your schedule as a way to remedy domestic strife, you’ll be disappointed. If you have my luck, you’ll discover that your spouse is doing much more than you could have imagined, working behind the scenes and lying awake at night, anticipating all of your family’s needs weeks in advance.

For example, I’ve always considered myself a minimalist. If I need something in the future, I’ll buy it then. I thought any other way to live is the first step on the path to becoming a hoarder. But this way of living reflects my values as a single person living on his own, without a partner or children. And now, without realizing it, I had gone years enjoying the pleasures of having critical items “in stock” exactly when I needed them. When I changed our son’s diaper at the grocery store and realized that I left the diaper rash cream at home, my wife told me she keeps an extra in the diaper bag. It’s not enough to change the diapers. When I realized that our son was getting tired of his books and needed something new, my wife came downstairs with two new books to choose from — she had picked them up the week before. It’s not enough to read books to your kids. When I noticed that his pants were getting too small after dressing him in the morning, she asked me why I didn’t grab the next size from the drawer at the bottom of the dresser (evidently that’s where we keep them.) It’s not enough to dress your kid in the morning. Having everything at your fingertips when you need it means someone has been working tirelessly behind the scenes, planning and anticipating your needs in the future. If it feels like everything just works at home, stop reading this and go thank your partner. Beg for his or her forgiveness. Better yet, figure out, like I’m having to do now, how to contribute more in this way.

I’ve learned that you can’t ask your partner for a step-by-step task list. You have to figure out what matters on your own, communicate your assumptions, and find ways to integrate your individual contributions with your shared values and collective priorities. That’s the whole point. If you have to perpetually ask your boss what you need to do, instead of determining what you need to do on your own, you can expect a future of mediocrity in your career. In both cases — at work and at home — if you consistently need guidance on execution, then you’re unnecessarily burdening your partner (or your boss), who is already bearing a greater mental load than you probably realize. Anyone can cross an item off a list, but figuring out what should go on that list in the first place? Putting the list in the right order? That’s the hardest part.

It’s easy to forget that the boss has responsibilities to her team as well, and in relationships, everyone has to manage and negotiate their needs. Everyone has their own pet projects and their own pet peeves. If you don’t agree to spend time on things that matter most to your spouse, or to your boss, you need to have a prioritization and values discussion. Maybe it’s OK if we don’t buy new books in advance. Maybe it’s OK if we wait until we get home to apply diaper rash cream. Maybe not everything needs to be planned so far in advance. These considerations are entirely up to you and your partner, and it’s necessary for both of you to negotiate your collective priorities and shared expectations.

Good managers — and good romantic partners — do their best work and get the most from their teams when they make their priorities exceptionally clear from the start. When they regularly communicate their values, standards, and expectations. Don’t make the people reporting to you rely on luck while anticipating your needs. This principle applies at home, too. Don’t make the person you love most guess at what will drive you crazy. Don’t make your partner stress about accidentally triggering your next negative reaction. Our values determine our priorities, so reiterate your most important values to help your partner anticipate your needs.

When my wife and I return home after a jog and our neighbors are outside smoking pot, they often see us and smile in that genuinely sympathetic way, a smile only mature adults can produce. I’m always impressed that I can feel their empathy through such an understated gesture. Without saying a word, they say, “We know what you’re going through. We’ve been there, too. Hang in there. It gets easier.” I may not have the privilege, peace, and serenity that comes with a long silver ponytail, a stash of good weed, and an empty nest. But I think I know a little bit more about the formula to get there. I think I know how one might be capable of building a family together over decades and still finding pleasure in the company of everyone on that journey. The most important step, I think, is willingness to always see a new perspective and continuously adapt and improve. If I can do that, I can get through this quarantine.

If I can do that, I can get through anything.

Principal Data Scientist at Microsoft, U.S. Army veteran, and aspiring polymath.

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