Whether it’s out of a desire for an equal and supportive relationship, or out of necessity, families are recognizing that life is a lot more manageable when both parents are competent, caring, and willing to share the load. Parenting partnerships aren’t always easy, of course. They require regular communication, flexibility, and biting your tongue every so often. But in our experience as the co-founders of City Dads Group, we’ve found that there are certainly best practices for producing a better partnership at home.
Beware the Gatekeeper: Tradition, popular culture, and unwitting parents have conspired for decades to make moms feel and act as if they are the only ones who can properly take care of the baby—a phenomenon often called “gatekeeping.” In the earliest weeks especially, parenting is about practice more than instinct, and both parents need opportunities to change diapers, to comfort the baby, and to enjoy the quiet moments when the baby’s sleeping on your chest.
Parent as a Team: When both parents are competent, they have a better opportunity to parent as a team rather than as master and apprentice. For example, nursing is a struggle and often a time when moms feel like they are in it alone. We know that dads can be very supportive of the nursing process. Bringing the baby over at feeding time, changing the baby’s diaper, and getting the baby back to sleep are all ways in which dads can be engaged. More generally, team players take initiative, are generous to one another, and have a plan.
Be Flexible: When both parents have the flexibility to parent in their own way, it’s much easier to have each other’s backs when things get overwhelming. Relinquishing control means that things might not always be done your way. If both parents are capable, each can get things done in their own way—and more can get done. In both of our families, we are the primary caregivers and we’ve both been known to give a skeptical look or comment when our wives don’t feed our kids the “right” snack or follow the “right” nap routine. We’ve recognized that doing this deprives ourselves of the opportunity to have a capable parenting partner, and it deprives our wives of having the loving, caring relationship that they want to have with their children.
Use Your Benefits: Maternity workplace benefits have been in place for a long time, and most new moms use them. Many companies are starting to offer new fathers benefits like paid paternity leave, flexible scheduling, and telecommuting, but dads generally haven’t been taking advantage. We need a cultural shift in the workplace that allows mothers and fathers to be the parents they want to be while still being serious about their careers. As companies slowly institute family-friendly policies, we need more pioneering new fathers who can demonstrate that a two- or four-week leave has a huge impact at home and a minimal impact in the grand scheme of a 40-year career.
Enjoy Your New Family: Parenting isn’t all about dirty diapers, feeding schedules, and nap time. Expectant parents should spend the weeks leading up to birth doing things you enjoy together—go to the movies, eat dinner out, or see friends. After your baby is born, try to fit your new baby into your routines rather than imprison yourselves in a cocoon of worry and to-do lists. It may take several weeks or even a few months, but try to take back some of those moments that are just about the two of you, rather than the baby. For example, use the time your baby is napping in the stroller to take a walk, grab a cup of coffee, or get a bite to eat together.
Remember Your Goals: The transition from life as a couple to life with a baby may be the hardest road any of us will ever take (and we’re supposed to do it with a lot less sleep). An awareness of these issues and an effort to engage in lots of communication will go a long way towards the three big goals: A happy child, happy partners, and a happy partnership.
Matt Schneider and Lance Somerfeld are the co-founders of the City Dads Group, a network of active and engaged fathers in 34 cities across the United States.