I’m experiencing family burn-out. I love my wife and kids, but I feel like I’m being used

You say your attempts to talk about this don’t get far, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but the situation won’t change unless you change it

I feel like I’m experiencing family burn-out. I have accommodated my wife’s demanding work life – long hours and moving around the country multiple times (she is an obstetrician) – since before we had kids. She is frequently home late, working after-hours and on her phone or emails when she is home.

I was always somewhat ambivalent about having kids – whereas she definitely wanted them. But despite this I feel that I do the vast majority of parenting. I also have a career and love my work – and would love to be able to even work a bit more than my perennial part-time arrangement. (Perhaps this is akin to how women have historically felt when shoehorned in to home duties.)

I love my wife and kids, but I feel like I’m being used and that my own health is suffering as a consequence. I’m starting to not even enjoy spending time with them as I’m always bitter about the imbalance in our home situation. Any attempts to talk through the problem don’t seem to get far – usually as she feels unable to work any less. I wouldn’t contemplate leaving our family, but I feel that our current lifestyle is unhealthy for all of us.

Eleanor says: In any space we share with other people, it’s inevitable that there’ll be disagreements about the fair distribution of work. When those disagreements happen in formal spaces like offices or public environments, there are procedures for working out what to do. It’s a lot harder in homes or families – where love is meant to be the governing principle.

Because these are meant to be spaces of togetherness and benevolence, it gets much harder to declare you want to look out for your own interests: I feel tired”, “I want time to myself”. At work that would be fine: everyone’s allowed to look out for themselves. But at home, there’s some pressure to act as though your interests just are the interests of the family and there’s no clash: “I’m overjoyed”, “don’t worry”.

As you’re finding out now, that isn’t sustainable. Families and relationships should connect individuals, not erase the fact that they are individuals. You’ll get resentful, she’ll sense it, you’ll each be annoyed at the other because you’re not feeling cared for in proportion to what you’ve sacrificed.

One question might be: what could you both agree is a fair principle for how parents should split the work, before you knew whether you’d be the mostly-out-of-home parent or the mostly-at-home parent? That’s a time-honoured strategy for fair decisions between people with separate interests. Try not to use your ambivalence about having kids as a reason here. You don’t want them to find out you felt that way, and you made the decision to become a joint caretaker. The question is how to make it feel fair.

You say attempts to talk usually don’t get far. I know how it feels to hope that this will get us out of having to talk again: “Aha, I’ve already tried, they didn’t listen, so I’m excused from raising it again. If I keep thinking about this on my own, I’ll find some private strategy for changing their behaviour without a conflict.” But realistically, the only options here are that you spend less time parenting, or that you don’t. That exhausts logical space. It sounds like you want the former (you’d like to work more; you feel your health is suffering; that you’re being used). So one, you want this to be different, and two, there’s no reason to believe it will become different on its own. There’s no secret third door – if you want it to change, you’ll have to change it, and that means fighting through the sense that conversations don’t work.

I’m struck by the fact that you said she feels unable to work less. What’s the root of that feeling? Is it financial? Is it because people’s health turns on her work? Is it about career progression? Is there a way to accommodate that feeling while getting you help with parenting – paid help, family help, more out-of-home activities for the kids?

A friend used to ask the same question whenever I complained about some feature of a relationship: “Would they be surprised to hear this?” It’s an important question: would your wife be surprised by the extent of the feeling you’ve described to me – burned out, used, unhealthy? If so, it might be time to tell her.

You are both allowed to have interests separate from your role in the family. The question isn’t how to make them converge, it’s how to fairly give you both room to explore them.


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Eleanor Gordon-Smith

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