Jancee Dunn, who grew up in Chatham, has written an engaging book on how tough it can be if spouses are not on the same page when rearing children.Elena Seibert
“How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids”
By Jancee Dunn
(Little, Brown and Company, 269 pp, $27)
Jancee Dunn has a real Jersey mouth on her.
As someone who can drop the F bomb into most words (I bristle at even couching it, but this is a family newspaper), kudos to the Chatham-raised Dunn.
She found herself spewing hateful invectives at Tom, her husband, not during birth when such language is expected. Nope, it was after, when it was his turn to empty the Diaper Genie. It “had grown to the size of a Burmese python, and was about to spring like the snake-in-a-nut can gag.” Tom issued what were certainly the last words of many husbands: “In a minute, hon.”
And so launched years of epic battles. Those days and nights when a squalling infant leeches you of sleep and sanity are incredibly tough. (I used to think that at least if I were a hollow-eyed, tortured political prisoner my sacrifice would have been for some philosophical cause.)
Over the years, Dunn’s rage grows. Eventually Sylvie is old enough to pick up on what’s going on and sides with her dad. This isn’t good for anyone. Dunn felt awful, her husband retreated. So Dunn set out to right the problems and, fairly, often explains what a good guy Tom is.
Dunn and Tom are freelance writers, working from home while raising their daughter. Dunn expected they were in this together, as in 50/50. Eventually she learns that she and Tom have very different interpretations of what half means and what is important. Why is she doing so much more? Is what she insists on doing necessary? And who decides what should be done?
“Your basic Mom Party lasts roughly 45 minutes to an hour before the celebrant slumps forward in a dead sleep,” Dunn writes explaining the preferred attire to this party is “yoga pants stretched out just the way you like them, an old T-shirt worn to translucence, maternity underwear in a fetching shade of ‘greige’.”
These questions trigger an odyssey of self-discovery, with Tom in tow. They meet with many therapists and counselors, spending a lot of money. Wisdom is imparted. A Boston marriage counselor, who charges $800 an hour, zeroes on their individual behaviors, explodes when he learns they took their daughter with them even to this long session. He tells them they must hire a babysitter.
Dunn, an extraordinarily thorough reporter, shoehorns in multiple reports and quotes experts about marriage, division of home labor and how people cope. These offer scientific ballast to accepted observations that many men don’t care if towels are folded in thirds and consider expiration dates on food secret math riddles.
Her self-awareness and humor keep this book from becoming tiresome or feeling like a collection of magazine articles on saving marriages.
“When the skirmish is over and you have made a decent repair, do not ruminate (something of a pastime of mine, one that some studies show is more common among women in general).”
She offers plenty of good advice. A former FBI negotiator teaches about active listening, using “I” messages and asking open-ended questions. Of course if you are a hostage in your marriage, you need more than an amusingly done self-help memoir.
Dunn seeks advice from so many it’s dizzying to think of her applying new skills each time. She approaches challenge each earnestly and shares freely, though to her credit during her mission to revive their sex life, she does not get explicit.
As Dunn realizes she need not compulsively fill every minute of every day, she and Tom build schedules, allowing time for both of them to still be individuals, and agree on what Sylvie should do and how much to spend, they find themselves happier.
Her goal is one most strive for: a happy marriage and a well-adjusted child.
“I also have a horror of entitled children – another value revealed – and don’t want Sylvie to be spoiled. When (financial therapist Amanda) Clayman asks what sorts of traits I would like to see in our daughter, what comes to mind is kindness, empathy, generosity, and to coin a phrase, exuberant nerdiness.”
Were she not as engaging a writer as she is, the book could easily have become tiresome as much of this feels self-evident: Listen to what your spouse is saying (no one is saying obey), clean up after yourself, be grateful, make joint decisions, especially about kids and money, show up and participate.
There are plenty of usable tips, especially from the whirlwind organizer, who helps Dunn’s sister gain control of her home. What Dunn learns, summarized at the end, could be a pamphlet for how to have a happy marriage including “forge an alliance for the teen years.”
Do because those stormy years can make one wistful for emptying a diaper pail.