During the recent Chattanooga Women's Leadership Institute's Impact dinner, Katty Kay, a British journalist, author and broadcaster, spoke about the importance of confidence and competence, specifically in women.
Kay shared that both she and her husband travel a lot. Whenever she was headed out of town, she lined up extra baby sitters, made sure the refrigerator was stocked and made lists — lots of lists of all the kids' activities and such, to ensure that her husband didn't forget anything. At some point, she realized that she was going to all of this extra effort in preparation for leaving town, but that when her husband went out of town, he just left. This irritated her a bit.
She had a conversation with him about it that went something along the lines of, "Whenever I am going out of town, I take the time to do all of this prep for you to make sure everything gets taken care of. Yet when you go out of town, you do nothing."
His response to her was, "Yes you do, but I did not ask you to do that."
So the next time she went out of town, she did nothing. And, lo and behold, the house was still standing and the kids were taken care of when she returned home.
Katty Kay is definitely not the only woman to fall into the trap of believing that if she doesn't map everything out, things will fall apart while she is away. In fact, more than likely, a majority of women do the very same thing.
Here's the deal. According to research, men want to know: Am I adequate? Am I able? Am I any good at what I do on the outside?
Despite all the well-meaning intention behind the prep, the message men receive isn't "I love you so much that I am doing all of this for you before I leave town." The inadvertent message is, "I'm not confident you have the bandwidth to remember everything that needs to be done, so I will put a safety net in place to make sure none of the balls get dropped."
Research conducted by Harvard-educated analyst Shaunti Feldhahn found that three-quarters of the men surveyed, if forced to choose, would give up feeling loved by their wife if they could just feel respected by her.
In an effort to try to better understand this, Feldhahn was speaking with a friend who stated: "I love my wife, but nothing I do is ever good enough." When she asked what he meant, he said that they recently had friends over for dinner. Afterward, his wife needed to run to a meeting, so he cleaned up the kitchen. Upon returning home, the wife kissed his cheek, looked over his shoulder and sighed. She then went into the kitchen and started cleaning the countertops. Feldhahn asked the husband if there was anything his wife could have done differently and he said, "Yes, she could have said thanks."
Feldhahn explains that when women are thinking about something, they usually process out loud so there's no question what they're thinking. On the other hand, when men think and process, they almost do an internal chess match before they ever talk about it. Her research showed that in most cases, instead of questioning the husband's decision, saying "Help me understand" will result in a long, well thought-out explanation.
For example, one wife went out to a birthday party, leaving dad with the kids. When she returned, she asked her husband why he had given the kids juice for dinner instead of milk. He got mad. She got defensive, and things went downhill from there.
Feldhahn asked the husband to help his wife understand what happened. He explained that when he went to the fridge to get the milk, he realized if he gave the kids milk for dinner there wouldn't be enough for breakfast. He was going to go get more milk, but the baby was already asleep. They had been having a terrible time with her sleep cycle, so he didn't want to wake her up just to go get milk. He decided to give the kids juice, which he diluted by half with water so they wouldn't have as much sugar. After the explanation, the look on his wife's face said it all. This was a perfect example of assuming there was no thinking behind the behavior.
Katty Kay's message to the women in the room was this: The need for perfection is often the very thing that holds us back at work, home and in life in general. Just because you may not have it down perfectly doesn't mean you aren't qualified to do the job. Just because your spouse doesn't clean the kitchen just like you would doesn't mean you have to go behind them and "fix it." Women have to be willing to step out of their comfort zone and try. She also said that learning how to fail and still move forward is important. And finally, as women grow in their confidence and competence, they should pass it on.
Ironically, the very things women don't want people doing to them, such as pigeonholing them, penalizing them for taking risks and questioning their competence, is the exact thing women often do to their husbands.
Feldhahn believes it's important to let your husband be the dad he wants to be, not the dad you want him to be. Just like Kay pointed out that women don't like feeling or being seen as incompetent or lacking in confidence, neither do men. Feldhahn encourages women to stop sending signals or telling their man he is inadequate and doesn't measure up. Instead of questioning his decisions, assume he has thought about it and seek to understand.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.