What are we role modelling for our kids?

Since my family lives across the ocean from me, around once a year we plan a trip and spend several weeks together. This is usually in Croatia at my grandfather’s house where he lives on a small hobby farm and makes his own wine. Our evenings are centered around eating amazing food and consuming said, delicious, wine. And having lots of BIG conversations. About politics, travel, family, relationships, health, and many, many more.

And every year, my sister and I inevitably have the same argument with our mom. It usually goes something like this – Marina and I talk about kids and parenting and how rewarding but bloody hard it is. We talk about how little time we have for ourselves or to even look after our health-related appointments, or self-care. Then mom gets feisty and starts ‘reprimanding’ us for being silly, as you know, we should put our own oxygen mask on first, etc, etc, and hasn’t she been telling us for years that we need to look after ourselves first. And that is when both Marina and I lose our marbles and start asking her to name all these ways that she did this when we were kids – to name the times we should have seen her put herself first, look after herself. See my mum, probably like many others, was the one who always put herself last and just ‘owned’ most of the mental and emotional load for our family, leaving her with very little time or even just cognitive space to look after herself.

But last year ‘the fight’ had a different effect on me. For years I was giving myself a pass for not having shifted my behavior to what my mum said, vs what I saw my mum do. If anything I was congratulating myself that I had shifted the division of household labour to equality with my husband, and I thought that was enough. So what if I still tightly held on to most of the mental load for our family? So what if I was still living the 'martyr mother' stereotype a lot of the time, even though I knew it was not good for anyone - not me, and not really my husband either? If I was honest, I had tried to do things differently, but then life inevitably got busy and I went on autopilot and so my default, which came from this internalized, learned role modeling, took over. No big deal I thought, just too hard and I do it out of love. BUT you see, I have kids - both a daugther and a son. And the realisation that dropped on me like a ton of bricks this summer is that since I was then repeating the same patterns of behavior for them to see, I was then quite likely to just pass this behavior on. And that, I cannot abide.

We know how impactful role modeling is on our children. Research tells us that children internalise behavior roles from watching us, and that these unconscious models, especially under stressful situations (like caregiving is), are stronger than our rational intentions. No matter how many times my mum told me not to repeat her 'mistakes', and I wholeheartedly agreed it was the right thing to do, life was always way too busy, so I just did the easy thing – what I had seen all my childhood as it was automatic, and I didn’t have to think about it too much.

We all know there are so, so many of these outdated gendered models we still find ourselves in, that are not serving us. Mums or those taking on the traditionally coded mothering role, being the default parent, putting themselves last, carrying the majority of the mental load and being the project manager of the family. Dads or those in traditionally coded fathering roles, being a breadwinner, pressured to prioritise work over family even if it doesn’t feel right, feeling they have to defer to ‘mum’ when it comes to the home and children stuff. It is not working, for any of us.

Those who have tried to shift things tell us that it is just too bloody hard, and some say that they have just given up. And the feminist in me respects and appreciates their choices. And part of me hates that I am asking the exhausted to consider doing things differently. Because I must be honest, in the beginning it will be hard. We will have to actively work against our gut, our default. We will be on guard, watching our own behavior. But I genuinely, and truly believe that over time this is what we need to reduce the overwhelm. When we are living in line with what how we have chosen to, in line with our values, rather than relying on defaults, our perspectives will change. And we will finally start working as a team.

And apart from this being just better for us all, we will be the ones that stop this repeating itself intergenerationally. Because both my son and my daughter deserve to feel that a family unit is a team built on the partnership of two people who are both just as capable and as deserving of living a life of their own choosing.

So what can we do to start moving in this direction. Here are a few tips:

1. Start with the conversation with your partner – what are you seeing and doing today that you do not want to pass on. I implore you to start this chat from a point of compassion for each other and yourself. None of this is really one person’s fault, and families don’t need any more guilt that they are not doing things ‘right’. This conversation is not about blaming yourself or blaming your partner. We can blame the norms we all grew up in. And then we can move on.

2. If the kids are old enough, have this conversation with them. You would be surprised how progressive they are, and how much they will WANT to change things. But also, be ready that they will not always like it. So just like when you know it is important to let them fail to learn and it breaks your heart, know that when you change things up on them from what you did before it will not always be smooth sailing. But it is good for them, in the long run.

3. Know that you cannot change all things at once. Pick a small, achievable habit you can change. Maybe you can work on default parenting. So, when the kids go to one of you all the time for stuff/help, you both can work together to re-direct. Maybe you can switch who organizes a kids birthday party next. Word of caution – if only one of you has always done this, you will need to help and support (but not take over) the other. You have years of experience and implicit knowledge that you need to slowly transfer.

4. Agree to call each other out. It will be easier for someone else to notice your default gendered behavior. So be each other's accountability buddy.

5. Know you will fail A LOT. And not because you are a bad role model, or you suck at this, but because you are working to undo, or even slowly start unpicking a lifetime of internalized behavior. And this will take time.

6. Celebrate the small wins. We at melo love the idea of a family huddle. So, from time to time, take a moment to recognize what you have done differently and celebrate.

So, have a think. And with a ton of love and compassion for yourself first and your partner have a go at stopping the cycle. It will be hard, messy and we must know we will not fix it all in our lifetime. But far out is it worth it…