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Are You the Upstairs or the Downstairs Parent?

There’s often an upsetting dynamic in co-parenting; here’s how to change it.

Key points

  • Co-parenting is hard, often resulting in a rigid dichotomy between partners: the downstairs and upstairs parents.
  • The downstairs parent runs the day-to-day childrearing duties and often feels overwhelmed and alone.
  • The upstairs parent is more peripheral—and more spontaneous, yet ignored as a parent.
  • When parents soften this split, they feel more supported and seen, resulting in an egalitarian dyad.
 LexScope/Unsplash
Source: LexScope/Unsplash

Parenting is not easy. And true egalitarian, interdependent, differentiated co-parenting is one of the hardest achievements possible.

As both a family therapist and a parent, every day I encounter a dichotomous split between parents in childrearing. I call it the upstairs/downstairs phenomenon: One parent is more central and in charge of the daily childcare (the "downstairs parent") and the other parent is more peripheral and less involved (the "upstairs parent").

The Downstairs Parent

The "downstairs parent" runs the daily operation with the kids: homework, lunch, medical checkups, playdates, after-school activities—the lot. In heterosexual relationships, this role will usually be the woman’s role.

Gains of being the downstairs parent:

  • Immunity to criticism. Since they are doing everything alone, any mistake or mess up is never their fault but rather a direct result of the lack of involvement of the upstairs parent.
  • A feeling of worthiness and superiority. Their (martyr) status emphasizes the underinvolvement of their partner, resulting in a reflected sense of self of superiority and worth in relation to their underfunctioning partner.
  • Monopoly over childrearing. It is the downstairs parent who decides most of the parenting decisions. It is their narrative, legacy, and beliefs that will be mainly internalized by the children. This gives a sense of security, familiarity, and comfort.

Losses of this role:

  • Bitterness. Being parenting lone wolves, downstairs parents often feel invisible, unappreciated, and alone. Indeed bitterness has become somewhat of a worldwide relational pandemic.
  • Heavy. When someone is constantly dealing with reality, there is no place for play. This leads to a narrowed emotional range, as well as less vitality, curiosity, and wonder.
  • Bad cop. Downstairs parents are on the front lines of discipline and give out the punishments and reprimands.
  • Loneliness. Downstairs parents often feel alone on the battlefield, without any backup.

The Upstairs Parent

The "upstairs parents" are usually less hands-on. They are observing from the bleachers, offering up tips and advice to their downstairs partner. They often complain that their downstairs counterpart is “heavy,” resentful, or bitter. In heterosexual pairs, this is usually the man’s role.

Gains of being the upstairs parent:

  • Freedom and playfulness. Since they aren’t burdened with daily childcare duties, they can remain playful, optimistic, fun, and light while they dip in and out of the family routine.
  • Exempt from responsibility. They are exempt from the tiring, monotonous routine of family life and can focus their energy on other endeavors.
  • Good cop. Upstairs parents seldom discipline, thereby enjoying more positive-affect appreciation from the children.

Losses of the role:

  • Contempt and lack of respect from partner. Upstairs parents are usually criticized and scorned by the downstairs parent as being a sort of visitor, or more of a child than a partner.
  • No seat at the table. Being peripheral means that their voice and opinion are not heard or respected. Their parental insights and directions, even when true or helpful, are often dismissed or ignored.
  • Passivity and reactivity. They don’t initiate or lead family development. They sit in the passenger seat, watching their partner shape the minds and lives of their children.
  • Lack of respect from the children. Even though upstairs parents are the good cops, children intuit that the upstairs parents are not in charge, so their requests and concerns are listened to less.
  • Loneliness. Upstairs parents usually feel unseen and unappreciated by their partner. They feel judged harshly and always under scrutiny.

How Does This Split Manifest in the Daily Family Dynamic?

When this split is rigid, the parental team is split and broken. The downstairs parent may become bitter and spiteful toward the upstairs parent, often belittling, ignoring, or (unsuccessfully) micromanaging them.

The upstairs parent, who feels their partner’s negativity, might blind (or dumb) themselves down, becoming less present, more forgetful, and cynical. Others will punish the downstairs parent by constantly critiquing through a steady flow of comments, criticism, and passive-aggressive behaviors.

How to Soften the Upstairs/Downstairs Dynamic

Softening this routine is more like changing an old habit than changing personality traits. It requires hard work and resilience, as long-lasting systemic change is not easy.

  • Know thyself. Reflect on which parent you are. If you aren't sure, ask your partner (or your children).

  • Gains and losses. List all the gains and losses of your role (for more on gains/losses, read here). If your losses outweigh your gains, or your children are being triangulated in more extreme ways, then it is time to soften this dynamic.
  • Share this article with your partner. Changing this dynamic is hard, and it will take time. Having a common language to name and identify this dance can help both of you learn to soften it.

The upstairs parent:

  • Go downstairs. Start taking little tasks, even when your partner gives you a free pass to be exempt. Anticipate mistakes and failures—they are how you learn.
  • Expect pushback. Since the downstairs parent is so used to flying solo, expect some ruptures, micromanaging, and even some ridicule.
  • Hold on to yourself playfully. Come downstairs and stay there when it gets hard. Don't run back upstairs. Don't give up. Being playful will help you remain downstairs, even when it gets hot.

The downstairs parent:

  • Let go. Accept that you cannot do everything alone, and learn to rely on your partner.
  • Don’t micromanage. As the upstairs parent explores the ground floor, be patient. They’re less experienced and inevitably will make many “mistakes.” Resist the urge to give them constructive feedback too often, because too much of that will send them straight back upstairs.
  • Have fun. Joy is a verb and therefore try initiating spontaneous undertakings with your children. This will help you relax more, soften your bad-cop image, and supply some upstairs loving.

This easing up will take time and be full of mix-ups, ruptures, fights, and tensions. Yet if you persevere, you will both feel more supported, allowing the whole family to grow.

So what are you waiting for?

References

Schnarsh, D. (1997). Passionate Marriage: Keeping love and intimacy alive in committed relationship. New York, NY: Owl books.

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