It’s a fact that it takes two people to make a baby. It is not a fact that two people are required to rear a baby. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to have both mother and father actively involved in child rearing. Many single parents give their children an excellent start in life, and many married parents do a fine job when forced to fly solo… most of the time. But in general, the process seems to proceed considerably better when it is pursued as a partnership.
Rearing a baby involves a lot of hard work and often induces stress. The more evenly difficult duties are distributed, the easier it will be. Second, rearing a baby brings about some of life’s sweetest pleasures and richest rewards, and such things tend to be magnified when they are shared.
Finally, mixing the personalities of two different individuals into the parenting process has a beneficial effect similar to the one that comes from combining separate sets of chromosomes. As is the case with genetics, a weak trait in one parent can be canceled out by a strong trait in the other. When two strong traits are intertwined, the result can be superior to either one alone.
Consequently, it is wise for couples to form an equal parenting partnership because numerous factors contribute to successful parenting. Dealing with disagreements about child rearing is not easy, but to get on the same “deck” together, debates can help you learn how both of you feel about child rearing issues.
For instance, consistency is a critical factor in child rearing. Young children need to know the rules and limits. Irregular reactions are extraordinarily confusing to them. Persistency also has power. Unless reprimands and encouragement are sustained as well as set by both parents, they can quickly lose their effect.
It would be nice if there was a set of quick and easy instructions for coping with confrontations. But every individual has her own special collection of thoughts and feelings, and every couple has a distinct system of dynamics. However, extensive observations of hundreds of mothers and fathers who have struggles to achieve balance and harmony in their parenting partnerships have produced the following helpful hints:
Plan in Advance
A lot of parenting partnerships flounder because they were formed as an afterthought. The couple fails to discuss child-rearing beliefs prior to the arrival of a baby. Then Dad assumes tradition will take care of the details and Mom expects enlightenment to prevail. The result: Mom ends up chronically overworked while Dad finds himself largely left out.
If this happens, subsequent efforts to bring about equality are often unpleasant. Perhaps feeling that she has been “dumped upon,” Mom may be concerned with getting rid of whatever dull, time-consuming tasks she can, and possibly feeling that he has been “cheated,” Dad may primarily be interested in grabbing whatever gratifying duties are available.
Given the mismatched motivation and strong resentment involved, it is likely that whatever compromises are reached will be less than satisfying for either party. It is imperative for expectant parents to sit down before the birth of their baby to take a long, hard look at what is about to occur and what child rearing means to them.
Share Rather Than Divide
Some parenting partnerships feature clear divisions of labor. For example, Mom does the diapering and feeding while Dad does bedtime stories and discipline. On the surface, it would appear that such an arrangement reduces conflicts.
However, division rarely works well in the long run. Sooner or later, situations arise where the designated parent is unavailable. When the other parent fills in temporarily, it is very easy for her to get a distorted picture of what typically takes place. For instance, one weekend while Mom is out of town, Dad does the diapering and decides it is no big deal. He then wonders why the family is spending a fortune on disposable diapers instead of using the more complicated but less expensive cloth ones. When Mom returns, the parents find themselves embroiled in a debate concerning convenience versus economy.
It helps for parents to share duties and remain flexible. With the singular exception of breastfeeding, no function need be assigned automatically to either mother or father. If both parents regularly experience all the effort and drudgery of some tasks and all the enrichment and delight of others, there is a greater likelihood they ultimately will agree on how those tasks should be carried out.
Be Open to Suggestions and Developments
Sharing tasks does not necessarily mean everyone has to do the same thing the same way every time. Since advice from one’s partner often is seen as criticism, and a suggestion to do something differently is usually taken to mean “do it better,” task sharing builds understanding and flexibility.
In an area like limit setting, it obviously is important for both parents to agree on what behaviors will be ruled out-of-bounds and what course of action will be followed to control them. On the other hand, in most areas of child rearing, only the basic motivation and ultimate goal need to be identical, and there is plenty of room for individual taste.
For instance, when bathing the baby, Mom might save shampooing the hair until the end to avoid making the water too sudsy, while Dad thinks shampooing is the most difficult part of the process and likes to get it over with first. When each discovers what the other is doing, friction can develop if each parent ardently promotes and adamantly defends his or her position. If both Mom and Dad take a step back and look at the real issues involved, problems can be deflated. It really doesn’t matter precisely how the bath gets done as long as the baby is clean.
Call in an Arbitrator
It is easy for any disagreement to get out of hand in a hurry. What starts out as a small difference of opinion can quickly become a serious stalemate. For example, when dealing with the unacceptable behavior of a belligerent 2-year-old, many embattled parents have come to blows as they argue over the advisability of spanking a child. The best way to avoid this eventuality is to employ the services of an impartial third party.
A word of caution about this: Family members make notoriously bad choices, and the introduction of in-laws into an argument often inflames rather than alleviates the problem. Your pediatrician, a book or magazine article by a well-respected psychologist or early educator, or a neighbor who has done a good job of raising his or her children are acceptable alternatives.
Parents are People, Too
At first glance, virtually all arguments over child rearing appear to be centered on what is or is not in the best interest of the child. However, it often becomes evident that the particular insecurities or idiosyncrasies of one or the other parent are really the central issue. In such cases, one parent’s sensitivity to and understanding of what seems to be the other’s selfishness can go a long way toward maintaining harmony in the home.
After all, while a child is a special and cherished addition to a family, she ultimately is no more special and cherished than any other member of that family. Furthermore, children are not as fragile as we sometimes fear they are, and adults are not as tough as we often like to think.
Never Look Back
No matter how disagreements are resolved, no matter who “wins” or “loses,” once it is over, put it in the past and keep it there. Rearing children inevitably will bring pleasure. Disagreements can be minimized and the joy of parenting your child can be maximized as long as both parents focus on the future.
Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D. is executive director of The Epicenter Inc., “The Education for Parenting Information Center,” a family advisory and advocacy agency.