How to Be Good Partners in Parenting

How to Be Good Partners in Parenting

Shortly after everyone had signed the Declaration of Independence, one of those present is believed to have said: “Gentlemen, we must hang together now. Or we will all hang separately!”

Much the same is true for parents. Once the baby arrives, there is an urgent need for teamwork. There is just too much for one person to do alone, and each parent has a big stake in what the other one does with the child. Decisions have to be made now that could be postponed prior to children.

It’s Hard to Stay Two When Baby Makes Three

But working together cooperatively can be hard. The stresses on mothers are well-known. Physically, there are the demands of pregnancy, labor, nursing, sleep disturbance, and long hours of work. Tending to children and a home contains all the conditions known to cause dangerous levels of psychological stress in the workplace: constant interruptions, little control over what happens next, needing to learn new skills on the fly, juggling multiple tasks at once, difficulty finishing anything, giving instructions that are repeatedly ignored, little respite, long hours, isolation, and low status. Then add the emotional intensity, such as worries when a baby is sick, anger at a three-year-old who won’t do what you say, or hurt at the rejection of a teenager.

And fathers get stressed too. For example, like lots of men, Rick felt an urgent need to provide for our family that drove him to work long hours and carry a mental load of financial pressure. Many men want to be a decent father, at least as good and maybe better than their own dads, so they worry about the kids too. They get affected emotionally when their children cry or squabble, or when their wives are unhappy.

As a result, both parents are often worn out and irritable, making it harder to keep a clear head or civil tongue. They may have different ideas about how to raise children, spend time and money, or paint the bedroom Some personalities don’t like sharing power or accepting the influence of another, but you have to do both when you’re all roped together on the long climb of raising a family. Negotiating takes skills that many of us lack, and they don’t just come with a birth certificate. People may have different communication styles or aims in relationship; for example, some place a high value on feeling connected while others prize separation and independence.

In particular, men and women often differ in how they communicate. As a generalization with individual exceptions:

  • Male style — Terse, targeted on a single topic, focused on tasks and outcomes, and impersonal
  • Female style — Expansive, moving from topic to topic, relationship-focused, and personal

Plus many fathers are, frankly, mediocre teammates: uncomfortable with young children, dismissive of the work or stress of mothering, unwilling to learn parenting skills, or willing to do what they are told but not take initiative. Consequently, the average mother has a total workload of fifteen to twenty hours per week more than her partner. Even when a man has the best of intentions, his partnership with the mother can be strained by financial pressures, workplace policies, her interference with or over-criticism of his approach to the kids, or children who continue to go to her.

Conflicts related to children have a special intensity because of their primal importance. If they happen again and again, positions harden, emotions become increasingly raw and bitter — and it gets more difficult to work through issues.

Many couples do find ways to rear their children consistently, share the load fairly, forge a true partnership of the heart, and resolve issues with civility, empathy, and skill. But if they don’t, hurts and resentments grow, the home atmosphere gets too cold or too hot, children are affected, and families can come apart. For example, Rick knew a couple, Danielle and Alex, that had three children in six years. Alex threw himself into his job as a sales manager, working late and traveling frequently. Danielle wanted more help at home, plus more say in how Alex spent his time and their money. He was prickly about anyone telling him what to do. Danielle got more and more frustrated, but the madder she got, the more Alex withdrew, and after awhile they stopped talking with each other about anything serious. She thought he needed drugs. He thought she needed drugs. Their love evaporated until nothing was left in their hearts for each other but dry, stony ground. Like roughly a fifth of new parents, they separated before their first child reached kindergarten.

Even when parents are managing to keep living together, we have heard numerous arguments that go essentially like this:

She: You’re never home. And when you are, your mind is elsewhere.

He: You don’t appreciate how hard I work.

She: Hah! You don’t appreciate how hard I work, either.

He: I have to pull those hours to make the money that keeps us afloat. Everybody else stays just as late. If I left early, I’d feel like a quitter.

She: If you had a heart attack and had to leave at 5:30 no matter what, you’d all adjust and the business would go on the same. We need you home. I need you, the kids need you.

He: I help out. I do a hell of a lot more than my dad ever did — or yours.

She: So what? It’s still less than you should be doing. When you’re at work, I’m working, too, here at home. And when you do get home — usually later than you promised! — you read or watch TV and avoid helping. Plus you always have to be told what to do. I feel like it’s all up to me. It’s not my child, it’s ours.

He: It wouldn’t be all up to you if you would ever let me do things my way! And it’s just for a few more years. I’m building up a nest egg that will be good for all of us. Can’t you see that? Can’t you just handle things meanwhile? What’s so hard about that?

She: Of course I can handle it alone. But I don’t want to. These are precious years. Your son will never be two again, or three or four. We can make more money later, but we can’t ever get these years back. Besides, I don’t know if we’ll be able to get us back.

What Makes a Good Partnership?

A good partnership has these characteristics:

  • Alignment — Shared values about life, family, childrearing, the roles of mothers and fathers, and the involvement of the father in childrearing and housework; specific agreement about parenting practices, schedules, and finances; backing up each other with the kids
  • Fairness — A workload that is similar in its hours and stresses
  • Ownership — Shared, mutual responsibility for planning, worries, and important decisions
  • Trust — Agreements are kept or renegotiated; each person is reliable and sensible
  • Communication — Civility; empathy; emotional support; open, explicit, direct, authentic conversation; skillful negotiation.

The first four are about content: what gets done. The last one is about process: how parents talk with each other — and it is probably the most important, because when a mother and father have good process, they can usually find a way to work out or live with whatever differences in content lie between them.

A good partnership is also flexible, pragmatic, and tolerant of differences. In particular:

  • Alignment means largely shared values, not exact agreement on every point; it is a work in progress as new issues emerge, from getting an infant to sleep through the night to curfews in high school. Some differences in parenting styles are fine and prepare children for the various kinds of people who will be their teachers or supervisors. Even though it is generally a good idea to support each other in front of the kids, sometimes a tactful intervention is called for if the other parent is going overboard or losing control.
  • Fairness allows for complementary roles: perhaps he does more yardwork and she more laundry. But beware the common pattern in which the mother’s tasks are more unpredictable, emotionally charged, three-things-at-once, and continually interrupted while the father’s are more contained, scheduled when he wants to do them, focused, and carried to completion; that makes her role more stressful.
  • Ownership refers to the “Board of Directors” level of managing a family, and different boards function in different ways. For example, if both parents agree to it, it is fine if the mother is the one who keeps in mind many of the details of the children’s lives (the common arrangement), as long as she feels that her husband is mentally and emotionally engaged and helpful when she wants to talk about something. The mother may also take leadership and initiative for more family matters (such as relationships with friends and relatives or the kids’ health) while the father shoulders more responsibility for making money, overlooking their savings or investments, and dealing with the cars — another common way of doing things. But dads need to let themselves worry about the things their wives worry about; when we are bothered about something, it is upsetting to feel that we are the only one who has that concern. And fathers also need to take leadership about some aspects of raising their children, such as religious or character education, school placement, or homework.
  • Trust can be recreated if a promise is not kept. We all blow it sometimes. But trust is fragile and profoundly important in a marriage. It boils down to performance, not good intentions: Do you do what you say you are going to do at least 98% of the time? If you are impeccable and delivering the reasonable goods to your partner, you are on a much stronger footing to ask for what you want from him or her.
  • Communication means a lively, real process that inevitably has some misunderstandings, heated arguments, breakdowns and deadlocks. Good arguments have a kind of trajectory in which the parties begin with disagreement and misunderstanding and emotional heat, yet conclude with a common plan, clarity about where each stands, and peace between them. The crux is where things end up, not where they start.

Assessment of Your Partnership

Different couples have different kinds of partnerships. By understanding your strengths and weaknesses as a team, you can build on what works well and start shoring up what could use some improvement.

Please take a look at the assessment below. You and your partner can fill it out individually and then talk about it, or you alone could do it. If each of you do the assessment, we have some suggestions about how to talk about it from our own, sometimes bumpy, experience:

  • First, focus on the experience of yourself and your partner, rather than disagreements about how each other acts, the circumstances, justifications, or what to do. It is hard to argue about how you feel; no one can tell us what our feelings are or what it’s like for us when something happens.
  • Second, try to resolve what the facts are. Do not get bogged down in disagreements about what happened the past. Rather, start tracking what the facts are right now. For example, if there is a question about who is doing what, for a week each person can keep a log of his or her activities: this is usually very eye-opening, and we will say more about this exercise in future columns.
  • Third, each person should make at least one agreement about how he or she could be a better partner. Try to focus more on what you could do better than on any grievances you may have with your partner.

Developing Good Communication

In other columns, we will describe how to develop good communication, starting with civility and empathy. Then we will show how to use those skills to work on the specific issues of alignment, fairness, ownership, and trust many couples have.

* * * * *

Assessment of Your Partnership

Please consider the past month. Unless otherwise indicated, please mark the questions below using the following scale: 0 Not at all or very little 1 Somewhat 2 Very much

When you are done, take a look at the overall picture. Are there many more “2’s” than “1’s” and “0’s”? Also look at specific questions: Where are the zeros? (Note that this scoring is reversed in the negative characteristics section of the COMMUNICATION part, where high scores are a problem.)

Also consider where you and your partner view things very differently, especially if one person’s score is a “0” while the other’s is a “2.” In these cases, you might agree to rate the question on a daily or weekly basis, both to come together on how you rate things as well as to have things go better from now on.

ALIGNMENT

How much do you and your partner have similar values about:

Life? ______ The importance of family? ______ How to raise children? ______ The involvement of the father in childrearing? ______ In housework? ______

How much do you and your partner agree about childrearing:

Sleeping? ______ Eating? ______ Discipline? ______ Daily routines? ______ School and homework? ______ TV, Nintendo, computer games? ______

Religious instruction? ______ Allowances and money? ______ Friends? ______ Handling squabbles between siblings? ______ After school activities? ______ Sexuality? ______ Drugs and alcohol? ______

Supporting each other with the kids? ______

Balance of nurturing and challenging children? ______

Your tone of voice? ______

How much do you and your partner act in agreement about:

Spending money? ______ When to get home from work? ______

How to spend time in the evenings or weekends? ______

FAIRNESS

When you add up everything you each do, including tending to children, scheduling activities, housework, managing family affairs, or going to a job, do you and your partner have the same total workload? ______

If not, about how many hours each week is one partner “on task” more than the other: _____________ hours.

Considering all of the activities you each engage in, is your stress level about the same? ______

OWNERSHIP

How much do you and your partner share responsibility for the children’s:

Health? ______ Schooling? ______ Physical development? ______

Psychological development? ______ Moral or religious development? ______

Relationships with friends? ______ With siblings? ______

How much do you and your partner share responsibility for:

Making enough money? ______ Bookkeeping and paying the bills? ______ Paperwork? ______ Tax returns? ______ Home maintenance? ______

Figuring out insurance or loans? ______ Planning vacations? ______

Relationships with relatives? ______ With friends and others? ______

Other important decisions? ______

How engaged are you with your partner’s worries and concerns? ______

How engaged is your partner with your worries and concerns? ______

TRUST

How much do you and your partner keep your agreements with each other about:

[put your assessment of your partner in parentheses]

Parenting? ______ Housework? ______ Time home from work? ______

Spending time together? ______ Spending money? ______

Romantic or sexual behavior? ______ Other matters? ______

COMMUNICATION

How much do you and your partner communicate with each other in a way that is:

[put your assessment of your partner in parentheses]

Civil? ______ Explicit, direct, and clear? ______ Authentic? ______ Open? ______

On topic? ______ Accurate? ______ Aimed at a resolution? ______

Positive in tone? ______ Warm or friendly? ______

Understanding or empathic? ______ Light-hearted or humorous? ______

Appreciative or complimentary? ______ Affectionate? ______

Supportive? ______ Helpful? ______

How much do you and your partner communicate with each other in a way that is:

[put your assessment of your partner in parentheses]

Critical? ______ Complaining? ______ Irritated, resentful, or angry? ______

Blaming? ______ Inflammatory in language? ______ Disdainful? ______

Exaggerated? ______ Wandering off topic? ______ Defensive? ______

Hinting or indirect? ______ Confused, murky? ______ Guarded? ______

Inauthentic, putting on a mask, hard to read? ______ Cold? ______

Aimed more at proving your point than at a resolution? ______

How well do you and your partner negotiate your disagreements? ______

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.



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