Relationship and self-development expert Sarah Litvinoff has been coaching for 15 years, she’s worked with Relate, written for national newspaper and magazines and her books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide. Here she answers a relationship question sent to us by an unhappy mum of three.
“I met my husband through work where I was an HR Director in a large city firm. He was new to the company and reported to me for a while before moving departments soon after we started dating. He was quickly promoted to my level, we got married and our home, work and social life was busy and fun.
Things started to change, though, when I had our first child. I was only off work for three months but I resented the sudden change in the dynamic of our relationship. I was tied to the home breastfeeding while he continued with his life and career – and for the first time our gender differences became apparent. I struggled on with my career working full time and at the same time doing the majority of the nursery drop offs and pick ups. Then while I was on maternity leave with my second child he got a new job and a big promotion and I really started to feel that I was being left behind. I was tied to my existing job; because I’d been there so long I could leave a bit early if I had to or work from home if the kids were sick, so the possibility of applying for another job and progressing my career didn’t seem open to me. Meanwhile, his career went from strength to strength and the gap between us widened.
Finally – my career having become less important to me, plus finding it too hard to do both jobs well – I resigned when I was pregnant with my third baby.
I’ve now been out of the workplace for 8 years. My husband and I are on completely different levels. He never asks how my day is (I don’t blame him as nothing very interesting happens most of the time), he talks to me like I’m a slightly dim employee and if I ask about his work he skips over details as if I wouldn’t understand. He has completely forgotten who I was when we met – and quite frankly, so have I.
At the occasional work do I’m invited along to as his wife I find talking to my ex colleagues excruciating. I have changed so much but I struggle to relate to the person I was and at the same time don’t know who I actually am any more. I feel like I’m in a personality no man’s land.
I have been thinking about working again – maybe setting up my own business – but what to do is the question. I definitely wouldn’t go back to the city.
The only thing my husband and I have in common now is the kids. We do have a decent family life and he’s generally a kind person but I just don’t know what to do to be happier – and make him see there is more to me than his kids’ mother.”
Jenny, St Albans.
When you and your husband planned having a family you had no idea of the life-changing impact it would have on both of you and your relationship. Nobody does until it happens. Even when you’ve seen it happen to other people you think, “Not me. I’m not like that.”
One of the major fallacies is that when you are grown up, certainly by your thirties, you are cooked; you know who you and it is set in stone. But life events continue to change us till the end — who we are, and what’s important to us. As life-changing events go becoming a mother has to be up there at the top. Not only are you turned upside-down physically and then deprived of sleep so that recovery is slow, your priorities undergo a radical change. Add to this your loss of your self-image as a successful professional and all that certainty vanishes.
When you are in a relationship and both of you change, often at different times, it’s going to have an impact. It involves an ongoing conversation to relearn each other — sometimes hard talking, and renegotiation.
Of all the changes you mention it seems to me that it’s the talking that stopped, or fizzled out slowly. When you fell in love you were united by your careers, and that must have made for effortless and lively communication. You’ve come to the point now you say where the only thing you have in common is the kids.
With hindsight you can see how it happened gradually. I think it is mainly to do with your feelings about yourself.
Your self-esteem has taken a series of knocks over the years, mainly it seems because a large part of it was tied up in your work and success. Clearly being a good mother is important to you, but that’s not the same as putting a high value on it. You say “My husband and I are on completely different levels”, with the implication that he is somehow higher than you.
I obviously don’t know whether he always shared your view that his work and his contribution makes him more important, but your view that you have been diminished is going to have an effect on him. Your confidence has suffered. And he sees the confident woman he loves become self-doubting. Perhaps your husband stopped talking about his work with you because he sensed your unhappiness that you could no longer chime in with anecdotes and issues of your own. That’s how no-go areas develop.
I do know some women whose lives have followed the same trajectory as yours — highly successful career swapped for home-making — but who still feel good about themselves and equal with their husbands. Key is that their sense of accomplishment and pride has a knock-on effect on their husbands. Many, many more though have the same story as you.
You describe very movingly your sense of being in limbo in your life. You know that you have changed and can’t relate to the person you were. You say you don’t really know who you are now, yet the subtext is that you do, but don’t like it.
This is the crux. Your project is to make friends with who you are now and to discover what motivates the new you — what gives you energy and brings you happiness. It might be very different from what got you going in the past, but until you stop wistfully harking back to that other person you won’t find it. She was obviously great. But you have more maturity and depth than she ever did. Motherhood confers that.
If I were your coach I’d be encouraging you to embark on six months of experimentation to discover what excites you. What interests do you have that would be worth exploring further? Any short courses which will give you the experience? Regard it as play rather than work. It doesn’t matter if you try something and it doesn’t come up to expectations: you have just learnt something more about yourself. At the end of this time you should have a better idea of what you want to do next, whether it is retraining for another career or starting a business.
When you are excited and involved it will inevitably change the way you interact with your husband. You will have different conversations. And remember that all change, even good change, involves renegotiation. It could be that your husband is comfortable with the status quo and it shakes him up a bit. That would just be the opportunity to develop the habit of constructively dealing with change in your relationship. Because the one sure thing is life will continue to bring events that will alter its dynamic. Couples who learn to deal with these flexibly are the ones that last.
Sarah Litvinoff became a mother to Jemilah at 19, and a single parent two years later. She worked throughout Jemilah’s childhood, and now Jemilah is a working mum herself.
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