Navigating Partnership in Parenting  

Questions and answers from Navigating Partnership in Parenting, a Spright workshop with Christina Zach, LMFT, held on July 22, 2016.

Hi, Christina!

Hello everyone!  My psychotherapy practice in San Francisco specializes in new parents and kids 0-3, so this is the kind of topic I love. I’m so happy to be here to discuss so many great, rich questions with you all. Typically I work with people for several weeks to explore all of these types of issues in more depth, but hope we can think together a little bit today about how to solve some of this in the moment.

So, in keeping with today’s theme of finding balance and navigating some tricky relational stuff, my daughter literally just dumped an entire bag of cheerios on the kitchen rug. Keeping me on my toes, this one. My overarching advice, as of this moment, is "do your best."

My husband seems to be jealous of all the attention I give to our babies; how do I divide my time or explain that these tiny babies need so much love and attention right now that he can't expect things to be the same as before we had kids?

I think there’s a conversation to be had with your husband that can begin pretty much as you stated in your question. During a non-emotional/stressy time (with twins, I’m going to trust you on when that might be!) tell him something like: “These tiny babies need so much love and attention right now, and I know things aren’t the same as before we had kids-I really value our relationship, too. Any thoughts about how we can fit more time in for us?” And then give some space for him to have his say.

The second connected piece that I’m inferring from your question is that if you had a little more help with the babies, there would be more time for your husband (and yourself!) too. If he could take on more of the work of caring for the babies (or find an alternate solution like babysitting for a date night), or even more of the work of planning ways to spend time with you, that would help everyone! Sometimes clearing the air a bit by communicating what it feels like is happening can go a long way.

My partner keeps asking me what to do to be helpful instead of just doing things and it’s driving me crazy. How can I get her to take the initiative instead of needing direction all the time?

I really think the best way to do this is to leave your partner with the baby for several hours, on a semi-regular basis. There are certain things about caring for a baby that parents don’t often learn unless they have to. Only once we experience all of the tiny, tedious chores of baby care can we really understand why “it's the hardest, best job.” Gaining that compassion and empathy will (hopefully!) work wonders.

What's the best way to get my husband to read about stages and parenting methods along with me? I don't want to keep telling him what I've learned and what things we should follow for our son, but understand he works all day and reading is the last thing he wants to do when he gets home. Ideally- he would offer new thoughts or read what I've read so that he can support the schedule, parenting method, etc without me having to keep reminding/nagging him. I never want to be that kind of partner!

This is a common issue! Could you both agree to set aside some time on the weekend or one evening a week to look at/decide on things together? He may not ever read as much as you, but as long as he understands what you are trying to do and why, you’ll both be better off.

As baby gets older, some of this gets a little less intense, in my experience, so you have that to look forward to! So much is very heavily front-loaded in the early days.

We’re navigating two full time jobs, equally demanding (and fairly equal compensation) although mine tends to have more flexibility and also a much more supportive/understanding culture than my husband's. I do all of the reading/research on things related to baby, purely because of my own interest/drive, and nearly all bedtimes and nanny hand-offs. Husband wants and tries to be supportive, but there is still much more that I end up doing mostly because I "see the things that need to be done,” if that makes sense, and whenever I try to find ways to direct him to help they come across as nagging. Interested in better ways to share responsibilities (and convey the responsibilities that need to be shared..). I also don't want to hold myself back at work simply because I can get away with doing so more so than he can.

This question gets to the heart of what I feel is often behind a lot of conflict in the early days: managing expectations. Many of these expectations are easy to talk about and understand, but others aren't.

Some of what you mention has to do with how things are set up differently in our culture for mothers and fathers. We are carving out our own path as we go, as this is new stuff for our generation.  Many women in our parents generation didn’t work, and many more men are interested in equal partnership these days (acknowledging my totally stereotypical heteronormative view, here) so with this context know what you’re really doing here-it’s big and not easy!

If you (or anyone else) wants to get nerdy about it, this thread about emotional labor is a good place to start to understand the scope of what's underneath a lot of our conflict.

On a fundamental level, "emotional labor" is the work of "caring." It's all the stuff that just gets "done" but that isn't really seen as "work" in our culture even though it often takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. Examples include some of the aspects of baby care, and like @lilly said so beautifully, the act of "just seeing the things that need to be done."
The fact that we are even putting words to this concept is pretty badass, in my opinion, and says a lot about how far we've come toward a more equal partnership and culture. Even though we obviously have a lot to talk about, still…

I’m interested in advice on managing different parenting styles- one more laid-back (less strict on schedule, more rough-n-tumble, etc) much to get on same page versus good to balance one another out.

As far as actually breaking down how you both want to parent and what's important to you, the only suggestion I have is to really get into it. Take some time to talk about what you value in each other and hope to impart in your child.

I do think different parenting styles can balance each other out nicely, but only if the more schedule-oriented parent isn't made to be the "bad guy" all the time. That's no fun and no fair for anyone.

Any tips for supporting your partner (with patience!) while also trying to focus on self-care in the midst of motherhood & hormones?

You also stated some of the difficulties of modern parenting so succinctly and beautifully. It's really "all of the things." I think it's handy to remember that our partners are incredibly capable and functional adults who we never would have procreated with if we didn't think they could handle pretty simple tasks.

The kinds of things our partners often manage at work or in other domains are often much more complex (in theory!) than diaper changes or sleep schedules, so I think it's a good thing to let our partners find their own way with a lot of that. It may not always be how we want it to be or think it should be, but that's also the joy in having a partner in all this craziness! There may be something you hadn't thought of that works great!

And the bottom line in letting your partner parent how they decide to, is it's one less thing for you to worry about (as long as everyone is safe and healthy!) Like the frozen song that shall not be mentioned, sometimes it's good to try and ......!

Self-care, as you mentioned, is really also at the root of so much. The more we are able to care for ourselves (as hard as it is!) in this process, the more we have to give to ourselves, our baby, and our partnership. I know we've all been in that depleted, too tired place. When we aren't able to care for ourselves, our emotions are heightened and it's hard to solve problems.

One of the ways to get that "space" for self-care is to try and clearly state your needs...this idea that mothers should be all-giving and selfless is totally unrealistic and is damaging. If a discussion doesn't cut it and you can't eek out a little time,  you have my permission to tell your partner you are taking a few hours. Everyone will be fine.

The emotional labor thing always gets me feeling resentful. I don't do it because I am inherently better at it- I just try harder/have always felt expected to do it. The idea of taking on additional emotional labor when the twins comes has me feeling overwhelmed. I try to explain this to my husband and he says, " just tell me how to help!" To which, I feel, is the whole point- I don't want to have to constantly be the manager and delegator. #rantover

Ugh...#rantheard! That resentment is real, and rough, and a big part of the crap we have to wade through on our own, though we did NOT ask for it.

I am a big proponent of having a language for all of this, though. The main way for us to not be manager and delegator is to REALLY not be manager and takes a lot of conscious effort on our part not to buy into that. Which also sucks, but is better for everyone in the end.
All of this is easier said than done. And know that you have me on your team!

I remind myself for everything - if I ask him to take out the trash, I can't criticize him for the WAY he took it the trash. And sometimes with our baby the only way to avoid the criticism piece is to go in the other room, look away or starting talking/thinking of something else that distracts me.

Yes. When you do this, you are doing it in service of you and your family's continued reach toward equity. And it's great for baby to have two healthy, capable parents. Each time you practice this you are strengthening all of that.

How can you best have the conversation about housework and expectations before the babies are born?

Though you’ll never really know what you’ll be up against until baby arrives, I am a strong proponent of trying to get on the same page about the fundamental stuff. How will you share household duties? How do you want to be as a parent? What do you worry about? Opening all of this up for conversation will be valuable, both to know what your partner is thinking, and to get in the habit of talking about the big things like this so that when baby is here it’s more natural.

At the end of a long day home alone with the baby, I literally can’t wait for my partner to get home and give me a few minutes of alone time. But when he walks in the door, he’s tired after a long day and also wants some alone time and we end up arguing about stupid stuff. How do we navigate this so both of us get some time to regroup without feeling resentful?

There are a couple of links I'd like to share, both a little older but super relevant to this discussion and can hopefully also address how to navigate some of the more practical sides of striving toward balance. There are a lot of details to iron out that this site has good tools for. Ultimately, I love an "every other" type arrangement for its simplicity. When your partner comes home, you get a half hour one day, your partner gets the first half hour the next day. This works for night wakings, mornings, poopy diapers, etc.

This New York times article really delves into how to strive for balance, too.

Irritability, fights, snippiness...these all happen to even the most solid couples when faced with sleep deprivation and the high stakes of keeping a human alive and thriving. The keys are staying respectful (no low blows!), being as gentle as you can, taking a breather or break if you know either of you need to calm down, and listening to and acknowledging our understanding of our partner’s view. Conflict can actually be constructive if you manage it well and bring some compassion to the table.

Thanks, Christina!

I feel like we really got into some wonderful, meaningful content today. Thank you all for letting me join you in starting to work through this stuff together-it's revolutionary, really! I'm sending all of my good thoughts as you brave souls navigate this territory-it's such important work