Changing the Shape of Parenthood

Dads want to participate more.

Posted Jan 31, 2019

Couples who take the path of becoming parents are taking their relationship into a very different terrain. No longer a dyad, becoming parents will transform them into the shape of triad, quadriad and even more. Traditionally, soon-to-be mothers would think, question, imagine all kinds of changes and challenges related to how to take care of the newborns—emotionally, physically, while fathers imagine what it will be like to support the entire family—financially.

Although this remains a real, raw discussion of many couples who happily follow the traditionally paved parenthood, it seems that dads are wanting to—and are actually—participating more and more in parenthood. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2016, fathers were participating in raising their children 4 times more than they were in 1965, and 57 percent of fathers found fatherhood to be a positive experience for them and central to their identity. The same survey indicated that dual income families steadily rose to 66 percent in 2016, making a significant contrast to the 27 percent of families that were single income.

Couples in this millennium seem to want to custom-make their parenthood; they are laying out many options and picking the best versions of parenthood that suit them. I would like to share the actual voice of a father who is willing and wants to participate as a father and how his participation is shaping the parenthood he shares with his wife.

Alex having an absent father to wanting to become a show-up father

“I did not see much of my father when I was growing up. He was always busy with work and when I was 12 my parents divorced. After that, I saw him sporadically. Back then there was not much effort from my father to reach out to me. He was not a bad father but was a typical father of 70’s and 80’s. More than half of my friends' parents were divorced back then, and absent fathers were the norm. So I want to be a show-up dad for my kid. It will make me happy as a parent to bond with him since I did not get to bond with my own father.”

Isabelle want to do parenthood with her partner

“I have a lot of fear around becoming a mother. What I most fear is the possibility that I will be overwhelmed by the challenge of balancing work and family,” says Isabelle. “Alex and I share many household-related responsibilities, walking our dog, taking out the trash, cleaning, and doing grocery shopping. I want that to be the same for raising our baby. I want to share parenting with Alex.”

It’s the new normal

Alex and Isabelle are expecting to be parents very soon. Alex is Caucasian, in his early 40’s, and works in the publishing industry. He grew up in a middle class, single-mother household and is an only child. He recalls being very angry at times about not seeing his father. He felt like his father prioritized his work over him and his family. Now, as an adult, he understands why his father needed to tend to his work constantly (as was the stereotype then), he wants to do things that his father could not do for him. He wants to be there for his child and partner. “On the way to work, I see dads dropping kids off at daycare and school. Some are pushing strollers. It seems normal for dads to get involved and help out. New York City might be a small pocket where dads help more than the rest of the country. But I know I want to show up for my kid—that’s also showing up for me, what I really want.”

Isabelle identifies herself as Latina and is in her mid 30’s. She has been working as a college professor. She grew up in a home where both of her parents worked and they lived with her maternal grandmother. She is the youngest of three. “In my family, everyone helped. My parents needed to work so my grandmother, who lived with us, helped to raise us. But for Alex and me, my mother won’t be helping five days a week. We had an interview with a babysitter who can come three days each week. I will ask my mother to cover one afternoon a week for our baby. And that leaves two mornings that will be covered by me. And when I teach evening classes, my husband will take care of those evenings and Friday afternoon.”

But how do you divide childcare?

I interviewed renowned executive career coaching experts and co-parents, Dr. Lisa Orbe-Austin and Dr. Richard Orbe-Austin, who shared some very helpful and practical tips for couples who want to share parenting duties:

1) Carve out specific time blocks to discuss your children. Use these discussions to make plans that address any new or ongoing issues—issues such as progress and development, planned activities, etc. “For example,” says Lisa, We schedule a monthly finance meeting to review budgets, upcoming plans, and future goals.” “It's a nice time to examine our resources, especially time and money,” explains Richard, “and how we are going to allocate our resources to address child-related activities and discuss issues related to these experiences.”

2) Develop high levels of communication around your own experiences of parenting, learn to share and listen to each other to learn how to be supportive to each other, and use this to establish collaborative solutions for whatever issues arise in the everyday life of co-parenting.

3) Develop an understanding of the concept of equality in parenting. “This, for us,” says Richard, “includes confronting gender stereotypes around parenting.” Knowing the difference between something being equitable and being equal in that the tasks that you will be doing as parents will be different, but the load should feel about the same and when it doesn't (e.g., when one parent's workload becomes heavier), make the adjustments to accommodate the change.

I understand, from the description of co-parenting offered by Dr. Lisa and Richard Orbe-Austin, that sharing childcare and parenthood is an on-going collaborative work between partners—in many ways, grounded in effective communication. Much social research suggests that having fathers participate in childcare contributes to healthier child development. Both the suggestions offered by the Orbe-Austins and my work with couples support the idea that sharing childcare and parental responsibilities in a collaborative way strengthens the relationship of parents.

“Oh, there’s another thing that I am worried about is,” Isabelle says. “When I am stressed out, I have the tendency to be nit-picky. I hope I won’t do this to Alex when I am sleep deprived. Something like, ‘How come there aren't enough diapers in the diaper bag?’ ‘How is it that you left a water bottle at the park?’ I want to give Alex a chance and give him time to learn how to be a father as much as I deserve time to learn how to be a mother.”

I pose a question to Isabelle and Alex: “Are you willing to let your partner and yourself learn from the experiences—including your mistakes?” I continue, “I believe parenthood is an active life learning experience. You learn to be a parent—a mother, a father—from being with your own child. The child will teach you to be a parent. So it is a time to accept that you will make mistakes, yours and your partners. If you feel like you are not comfortable with how parenting duties are shared with your partner, you get to talk about them and negotiate with your partner.”

Eminent couple therapist, Michele Scheinkman says that for some couples, negotiation is a form of intimacy. You get to honestly ask for what you need and want from your partner and you allow your partner to do the same. And I believe that through open, nurturing, supportive communication, you and your partner potentially can curve out the best part of each other. Hence, the Michelangelo effect—your relationship can be a tool that brings out the best in you—becomes possible.