I faced a challenge when we started a family: my husband, Bill, had no domestic skills. He wanted to share parenting. His flexible hours as an academic allowed him to help at home. But he could barely boil an egg.
Needless to say, our early experience was rocky. We persevered, however, and the fifty-fifty parenting arrangement we worked out with our first child made having our second baby much easier than it would have been otherwise. What follows are tips from our experience and from my reporting on the subject:
*Be sure it's what you want. Sharing parenting involves tradeoffs. As a mom, you don't always get to do things your way. You negotiate childcare issues a lot with your mate, which can be tedious. However you get a real partner and the kids get a hands-on dad. You also understand each other's lives better than when you operate in separate spheres.
*Take a stand. Women usually don't get a fifty-fifty deal unless they push for it. Parenting tasks can be tedious. Many men won't do them unless asked. In addition, women serve as gatekeepers for fathers' involvement; studies show that husbands take cues from their wives about how much to step in. Make clear what you want, see if he agrees, and if so, get out of the way.
*Don't take work as an excuse. Recently a new mom asked me, "If I stay at home with the kids and he works, should I expect him to help after hours?" Yes. After all, come evening you've both worked. Alternate parenting duties after hours so each person gets a break. But recognize that if he works 80 hours a week sharing parenting probably isn't an option. Parents who share duties usually have family-friendly careers.
*Be specific. I spent our first year parenting saying, "I need more help." Bill responded, "I want to help." And round and round we went. Finally I listed our domestic duties and we divided them up. Making the list was empowering. Finally all my minute tasks were visible to my partner. I also realized how much my husband was doing already.
*Create mom and dad duties. Often the obstacle to sharing parenting isn't the man in the house, but the toddler. The minute daddy takes over, the little one screams, "NO, I WANT MOMMY!" Kids thrive on routines so set duties can help with this. Make dad the bath guy and mom the bedtime reader. Don't intervene when your husband is in charge. And if junior hollers for dad when you're on duty? Don't judge yourself by your toddler's whims.
*Be flexible. Equal doesn't have to mean the same. Some couples thrive splitting childcare tasks down the middle. Others prefer to carve out separate spheres of responsibility. Either way works as long as each parent is free from meddling by the other.
*Train him. Nobody likes being told what to do. But if your husband is like mine, you have to train him. Show him how to make one simple kid's meal. Don't rescue him. You learned how to cook burning burgers too. And take heart, attitude is more important than aptitude. The difficult guy is the one who made the gourmet meals when you were dating and has refused to cook since.
*Air anger when necessary. The silent treatment doesn't work. I know. I've tried it. Having a tantrum, however, can be effective. I'm not proud of the one I had in a restaurant but it got my man's attention. Men can handle anger, but they're lousy at reading tea leaves. Better a few fights than resentment.
*Plan for baby number two. If you're having a second child, talk to your husband about the family's needs before the baby arrives. What worked or didn't the first time around? How can you do things differently? Get dad to start caring for your older child before the second arrives, by, say, getting your firstborn ready for school. Think small. What will need to be done? Who can do it best?
*Brag about sharing parenting. Boast to the women at the park. Praise your husband's parenting skills in front of others. A lot of people want to share parenting but lack role models. Your example can help. Bragging also recognizes shared parenting for what it is: a great accomplishment!
(c) 2006 Jennifer Bingham Hull
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Jennifer Bingham Hull's award-winning book, Beyond One: Growing a Family and Getting a Life, looks at life after the second child. Visit www.growingafamily.com, where you can contact her to receive this "Life Beyond One" column regularly and sign up for her free newsletter.
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