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  • Dr. Terri Bacow

Better Together? The Challenge of Co-Parenting

“When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”

-John Ruskin

Parents Have Different Styles, and That’s OK

Last summer, my husband and I were at my in-laws’ house in Boston with our children. My daughter discovered an elliptical machine in their bedroom and decided to climb on it.  I want her to explore her world and learn, so I allowed it and stood right next to her, supervising. My husband, walked in and saw her standing on the machine with me in close proximity, and sternly said, “She needs to get down from there! Why are you letting her do this?” I silently rolled my eyes and not-so-silently responded, “What are you talking about? She’s fine!”

This story is one of many examples of my husband’s and my different parenting styles. That is to say, my husband and I are both neurotic…about different things. My threshold for and comfort with risk are simply higher than his.  I do not mind if my children are sitting on the kitchen counter with plenty of surface area supporting them if I am close by, but to my husband, this is NOT SAFE and therefore, not cool. Lest you get the impression that he is cautious about all things,  I freak out if my kids don’t brush their teeth again after having a late night snack before going to bed; my husband doesn’t think this is a big deal. I don’t hesitate to talk louder to express emotion; my husband thinks that raising our voice in front of our kids is completely objectionable. At the same time, he will scold the kids for an infraction of manners, and I will think he is overreacting, especially when it comes to our toddler.

We have different parenting styles and we do not always agree. I guess you could say I am usually a bit more permissive, and he is usually a bit stricter. This is OK; we are different people with unique backgrounds and it is normal for two individuals to have different perspectives on the “correct” approach to parenting.  We were each raised differently by our own parents, which has an impact on our respective points of view. (Not surprisingly, my parents were highly involved but laid-back and extremely invested in my happiness almost to a fault; I would say his parents were an excellent blend of loving but firm, and strongly encouraging of independence and self-sufficiency.)  

During our moments of disagreement about parenting, my husband and I try (emphasis on try) to work it out calmly. During our best moments, we present a united front in front of the kids (this is technically preferable and we certainly attempt it) but this does not always happen. Sometimes he gets his way, sometimes I do, and sometimes we compromise.  As I am a clinical psychologist, I enjoy frequently telling my husband that I know way more about child development than he does and therefore, I am right! One thing we try to recognize is that marriage and parenting isn’t a 50/50 endeavor…sometimes it’s 90/10 my way, and sometimes it’s 90/10 his way.

The Challenge of Emotional Labor 

When I think about co-parenting, an even greater challenge than diverse parenting styles, from my perspective, is the task of effectively teaming up and evenly distributing parenting duties. In heterosexual relationships, women still tend to take on the majority of the household chores even when they are the breadwinners.  This imbalance pertains not only to traditional “chores” (like cleaning), but also to emotional ones.  Though there are many male partners in heterosexual couples who do their fair share, there remains an area of parental labor that, despite all our progress with gender equality, does frequently fall to the mother — that of emotional labor, otherwise referred to as “worry work” or “the mental load.”  In one of my favorite blog posts of all time (The Default Parent), the author brilliantly starts off by asking: “Are you the default parent? If you have to think about it, you're not. You'd know. Trust me. The default parent is the one responsible for the emotional, physical and logistical needs of the children. Spoiler alert: It's typically the one with the uterus.”   

What is emotional labor? It is the invisible and often undervalued work involved in keeping other people comfortable and happy. It is buying the birthday presents, knowing your children’s shoe sizes, sending a card to the teacher, texting to arrange a playdate, making arrangements for childcare, researching then booking the gymnastics class, securing the slot for parent-teacher conference, talking to other parents to resolve inter-child conflict, finding and scheduling physical therapy, completing camp forms, booking doctors’ appointments, replacing empty toothpaste, emailing the teacher about a change in the pick-up permissions and purchasing cookies for the end-of-year potluck. I know where things are in the house and I know our family’s schedule, including events happening months from now. 

For instance, yesterday at work, I was interrupted by a time-consuming text exchange with a caregiver about a last minute change in a play-date plan with complicated logistics (it is always complicated!), and I am sure my husband had no idea this was even happening. While obviously my husband would have helped out, it didn’t occur to anyone to reach out to him first. All this is relentless and never-ending. Sure, husbands do some of these things — but I have yet to hear about one that does it all.  I have a doctoral degree, a private practice, and a director role at a group practice, and I can tell you that I do every single one of these things. I am not sure how I find the time, but I have mad skills.  It is exhausting and certainly more laborious at times than my paid job. The organizational skills required--not to mention the amount of thought--are enough to make me want to send my kids off to college tomorrow, just so I can have a little break!  

Mom Stress and Maternal Gatekeeping 

The fact is, women do more unpaid domestic work than men do, and women are three times more likely to be stressed and anxious about said unpaid domestic labor. What can be done about this? Sure, I could delegate things to my husband, but then I would have to take the time to explain the nuances and intricacies of certain tasks--for example, some of our children’s unique preferences (“Kid #1 only eats this flavor at Trader Joe’s”). In that time spent explaining, I know I can simply do it myself, and correctly.  I am guilty of what Sheryl Sandberg refers to as “maternal gatekeeping” (when the mother in a heterosexual pairing does it all and may not give her partner a chance) — but I feel the deck is stacked against me. These invisible duties only become apparent when I don’t do them, and delegating is not always possible, especially when one partner works longer hours. Many, if not all, of my mom-friends report a similar trend in their households. Of note: this dynamic does not always occur across gendered lines, and it also, of course, occurs in same-sex relationships.

When Sexism Plays a Role

The backdrop to all this is, of course, culture. In, “Don’t Be Grateful That Dad Does His Share,” the author argues that a benevolent sexism still exists in our society. When a father attends a baby gym class, he is applauded! Men also remain relatively insulated against the demands of intensive parenting. For example, men with babies spend twice as much time on weekends engaging in leisure activities as their female partners, and women employed outside the home shoulder 65% of shared childcare responsibilities. Working mothers are 2.5 times more likely than their male partners to get up with children in the middle of the night. As Lisa Lerer writes, “Men often do not realize fully what the burdens of family life are even when they are good fathers...They are blind to what their wives do.”  It is unfair, but all too true.

In A Modest Proposal for Equalizing the Mental Load, Jessica Grose suggests that the solution is simple, if you are a mother — acquire an injury or benign but chronic illness that will incapacitate you for six months. I am afraid to say that this is extremely accurate; by far one of the most relaxing and peaceful weeks of my recent existence occurred when I was bedridden and immobile for a week after hernia repair surgery.  While my husband clearly had a deeper understanding of what I do on a daily basis and tried to pick up some of those things after I recovered, given time many of “my” tasks reverted back to me.

A Good Partner is Hard To Find 

Here is the truth — I resent that I do more, AND I could not function without my husband. I may excel in arranging transportation, attending recitals, and coming up with ideas for crafts, but he has his own set of strengths and provides much needed relief when we are both home and I’m feeling overwhelmed. I am exhausted at the end of workdays; he is tired too, but can handle half the bedtime. (We have two kids; doing “double bedtime” when he is traveling makes me run for the nearest bottle of wine.)  Evenings, for me, are the second shift, and they are so much easier when he is around.  We divide and conquer; I get the little one to bed and he does bedtime for the big guy. By the time we put the kids to bed, I’m effectively done, and could almost pass out without eating. Fortunately, my husband is able to conjure up more energy reserves than I have. He does all the cooking for us, and I’m thankful that I can sit down and binge on Netflix with a glass of wine while he prepares something yummy. He also does all the driving (I am a Native New Yorker who never got a driver’s license). My husband is calm and competent, incredibly handy, and unbothered by things that I avoid wholeheartedly (like taking two children to the playground). I love my children with a deep passion, but my husband just has much more patience when it comes to playing mindless board games or hide and seek in the hallway. My sleep is more important to me than my livelihood; my husband will get up at 2am when one of our kids has peed in the bed. I may give him grief about working long hours, but when we are together during evenings or weekends, we make a pretty good team. Like any good team, if I feel my teammate is slacking, he hears about it (loudly, and immediately — I never said patience was one of my best traits). A good team means you pass the baton and get a moment to sit on the bench; when one of us burns out, the other takes over. It is an interesting contradiction—I am not thrilled that I shoulder the majority of emotional labor, and I would be lost without him as a co-parent.

Make Your Partner a Real Partner 

Sharing responsibilities makes me happier and makes for a happier marriage. The fact is, sharing parenting responsibilities leads to less guilty moms, more involved dads, and thriving children. When fathers provide routine childcare and are involved and loving, their children are more empathetic and achieve more. In heterosexual relationships, when husbands do more, wives are less depressed, marital conflicts decrease, and satisfaction rises. I have a few key suggestions for managing co-parenting challenges and getting your partner to take on more emotional labor:

COMMUNICATE: It is often too easy to let resentments build, and who has the time for (gasp) a live conversation? (I basically shut down after the kids go to bed.) But women should make an effort to have a conscious conversation with their partners about more equitable sharing of household and family responsibilities. It is not going to change if you say nothing. Express your feelings. Talk about it. Emphasize your partner’s strengths and what you would like him or her to do, and how helpful that is.

MAKE A TASK LIST: This is where delegation comes in. Relinquish some responsibility. Make a list of tasks and decide who is going to do what. Avoid nagging. Make your partner a real partner. You may be the ringleader of the circus and that means you can assign tasks. For example, maybe one partner unloads the dishwasher and oversees homework, while the other writes thank-you notes and pays the bills. If I am really pressed, I will definitely call my husband and ask him to deal with a parenting task I am unable to get to, and he always agrees. Often we try to do it all and it does not occur to us that our partners might be willing, if only we would ask.  

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF: Embrace self-care!  If your partner is unable or unwilling to change the emotional labor imbalance, then focus on yourself. We can’t change others directly, but we can change ourselves, which in turn can enable someone else to change. Get specific with yourself about what is stressing you out and seek support. This may involve hiring a sitter and going for a workout or a meal with a girlfriend. It may involve seeking couples therapy or individual therapy. In my private practice, I work with many stressed-out moms who are putting themselves last. It is OK to put yourself first. Burnout helps no one, and your family will actually thank you if you give yourself permission to check out occasionally. Having a decent co-parent only makes that more possible. Here’s a suggestion: if this isn’t happening already, leave the kids with your partner for an hour or more (a night out, or a weekend — even better!) S/he will certainly have a better sense and appreciation of the responsibility involved.

Come On Baby, Let’s Start Anew...

Co-parenting can be an ongoing project, but it is completely worth it as both individuals, not to mention the children, benefit when teamwork is involved. My husband is a pretty great co-parent, and I do sometimes ask for us to co-parent more effectively. Your partner will bring immense value to your parenting team even if you, like most families, occasionally have different opinions about how to raise your children. If you feel that you are carrying more of the mental load, it helps to put a label on it and have your partner acknowledge it and see how s/he can help. They say teamwork makes the dream work, so we are going to keep working at it — and yes, my children WILL go to college — someday!!


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