A Family Affair

Parents, Children and Society

The Co-Parenting Mine Field (in intact families)

What do you really want? A partner or a helper?

There was a time, way back when, when the rules and the roles of the parenting game were pretty straightforward. And they went something like this: Mothers managed children, for the most part, cuddling them, dressing and feeding them when young; taking them here and there for activities when they were older; assisting with homework and so much more. They also did-and still do--most of the planning involved in child care, be that selecting a preschool or day care center, making and keeping a doctor's appointment, or handling what are today called "playdates." For the most part, dads sat back, perhaps playing the silent type, but--and this is the critical part--stepping in and PUTTING THEIR FOOT DOWN when they judged that to be what was needed. Routinely, mothers went along, no matter what they felt about dad's parenting skills-or lack thereof.

Many parents today fail to appreciate that there was one great benefit to this sexist division of parenting labor: Parenting did not need to be negotiated between mother and father and so a huge arena of potential conflict in the marital relationship simply didn't generate all that much disagreement. For the most part, things went mom's way, but when dad said something, his views typically prevailed. But boy how things have changed over the past 30 years.

This will probably sound sexist, but I am going to risk it anyway: My observations of many families across these years teaches me that even though many a modern woman says that what she wants when it comes to parenting by her husband/boyfriend is a "full partner" who will share much, perhaps even 50%, of the work of parenting, what she actually desires is a "helper". What is the difference? Well from the mother's perspective, a partner doesn't "babysit" when mother is not there or just assist her, but assumes real responsibilities, even burdens of parenting, including thinking about the kids when they are not around, planning for what they will need and, of course, doing much of the more obvious work of parenting. But from the perspective of a father, a helper is someone who does many of these things--or perhaps not all that many--in the way that mom wants them done, because if and when he doesn't, she lets him know it!

"You can't put that top on the baby", I recall hearing one mother exclaim during an observation I was doing in the home of one family after instructing them "to go about their everyday household routine, imagining that I am not even here." "Why not?" asked the father? The mother replied, in an exasperated tone, "because he wore it yesterday!" It didn't surprise me that the dad didn't "get it". After all, the child in question was 10 months old--and the father in question had just finished undressing, wiping, bathing and re-dressing the baby, most certainly enabling mother to get on with other things she would not be able to in the many other homes where dads still don't assume responsibility for these types of daily tasks.

Then there was the case of the father who liked to take his toddler into the shower with him--and we are not talking sexual abuse concerns here, please--but the mother objected. I actually found the idea interesting, having never tried it myself at home, only at the beach. And for those who want to contend that this practice is simply unsafe, let me point out that my soapy 12-month old once slipped in the tub and out of my soapy hands while being bathed in the traditional manner, resulting in a rush to the hospital to stitch up his split chin.

Now I don't mean to imply that there are no times or places when one parent really should, even must, step in to alter their partner's parenting, but my guess is that once you eliminate truly nasty, hostile and/or demeaning parenting, there are probably few occasions when this is really called for.

The bottom line is that ever since parental roles began to be re-organized, and certainly mostly if not entirely for the better, in modern western society, co-parenting, as the phenomenon under discussion is formally known, has turned into a mine field. And how parents navigate this landscape matters, not just to their intimate relationship with each other, but to their children's well being. As any family therapist will tell you, being caught in the middle is not in the child's best interest. And being the reason, or even just part of the reason, why mom is chastising dad in some manner, shape or form (or vice versa, as that also happens for sure), is one way in which children these days often find themselves in the middle.

So here is a belated father's day recommendation from me, though it would be timely on mother's day-or any day-for that matter: Before you think poorly about how your spouse is handling your child and especially before you express your reservations, seeking to change what he or she is doing, ask yourself whether they are the reservations of someone who wants a partner or a helper!
--------------------------

For a subsequent blog on "Coparenting WELL" and another on "Coparenting POORLY" see:

http://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/a-family-affair/200806/co-p...

http://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/a-family-affair/200807/co-p...

 

For some relevant research and writing on the subject of co-parenting in intact families, see:

http://www.familyrapp.com/Results/archive_results_details.asp?Art...
http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/FY/FY100000.pdf
http://lib.bioinfo.pl/pmid:18410212
http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract;jsessionid=2...

 

Jay Belsky is Director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues and Professor of Psychology at Birkbeck University of London. more...

Subscribe to A Family Affair

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.