Dads are parents, not baby-sitters. But do we sometimes treat them like they’re second class in the parenting department?
This month, on Wednesdays, I’m writing about how the way we just do life in general can interfere with our marriage and our sex life. As the school year gears up again, I’ve been encouraging us to look at the causes of stress in our marriage, and the different kinds of marriage problems that we have. I talked about kids’ schedules and getting those under control, and in our podcast last week I talked about how to figure out what little things are making sex more difficult for you.
Today I want to talk about another habit we can get into in our day-to-day lives when it comes to looking after kids–we make it mostly a mom’s job, and dad is seen as just the occasional baby-sitter.
Now, I have no problem with one spouse doing 100% of the housework, if that’s how it works best for you. When Keith was in medical residency and working 120 hours a week, when he was home, I didn’t want him mopping floors. I wanted to spend what little time we did have together, and I wanted him with the kids. So I did pretty much all the housework. And over the years, I’ve done most of it because I’ve been home during the day (that’s switching now, as I work more than he does).
But childcare is a different matter. Children are not tasks; they’re people. They need BOTH parents. To think, “Well, I work full-time and she’s home with the kids, so the kids are hers to look after”–well, that doesn’t work. Childcare is not the same thing as housework or paperwork or mowing the lawn–it’s a relationship. You don’t get to “clock in and clock out,” or just check off a list (“Well I’ve changed 2 diapers today so I’m all done.”).
Childcare isn’t a 50-50 split. It’s a relationship that requires 100% from both of you because your child needs 100% of you. Your kid doesn’t need half a dad and half a mom–he (or she) needs two parents who are fully devoted to raising him the best they possibly can.
I asked Rebecca to write this one up for me, since she and Connor have been talking about this a lot lately as they’re about to become parents. And here’s how they’ve been wrestling through it:
General principles for both parents to live by
1. Always Assume You’re On Kid Duty
Unless you’re actively outside the house at work during your scheduled work hours, always assume that you are responsible for your child(ren). It’s not fair to simply make plans or make commitments without running it by your spouse first. Want to go to a friend’s place after work one day? Run it by your spouse to make sure you aren’t needed at home. Want to get involved in a volunteer effort? Talk it over as a couple to make sure it won’t put undue pressure on the other spouse.
This doesn’t mean you don’t ever get to do fun things–it just means that your default is, “I’ve got the kids.” If you are assuming that the other will take care of things, that is unfair and likely shows that you’re not taking your responsibilities as a parent as seriously as you should.
2. Time off for one should mean time off for the other
If you’ve run it by your spouse and he/she says “Go for it!”, it’s important that free time is given to them as well. If a husband goes out with the boys for a few hours on a Friday, he should give her some time soon to relax and do whatever she wants, too, whether that’s a 2-hour-long bubble bath or meeting up for coffee with friends while he has the kids.
It isn’t about making sure everything is “fair,” but more about getting into a routine where both people’s needs and wants are respected, versus getting into a habit of giving one person a lot of freedom while the other does all the work that allows for that freedom.
3. Taking care of children should not result in more work for the other than is necessary
If you’ve been busy watching the kids and so didn’t have time to do the dinner dishes like you normally would have, that’s one thing. But if you took care of the kids and now there are toys everywhere, smushed peas dried onto the tray because you didn’t wipe it off in time, and water all over the bathroom floor from bathtime, and you just kick your feet up because you’re done taking care of the kids and leave your spouse to clean up after you–that’s not acceptable.
As a general principle, if something is your responsibility, make sure it’s done properly. Meal time your job tonight? Clean off the high chair and put the leftovers in the fridge or freezer. Bath time your job? Wipe down the floor so that it doesn’t cause damage or your spouse to step in a puddle later. If you spend time playing with the kids, schedule that last 5 minutes to putting all the toys back in the toy box. It’s not difficult to do if you recognize that the task isn’t something you’re doing as a favour for your spouse, but because it’s an important task that is done for the family.
Ways Dads can make sure they’re parents, not just babysitters:
1. Ensure you actually know what goes into taking care of the kid
Do you know how to feed your child? If your baby is breastfed, do you know how to prepare pumped breast milk for her? Do you know which snacks the child should have and when? What about how much food to give during meal times?
The easy solution to make sure you know how to be your child’s parent is to rotate parenting duties with your spouse. Be the one who does feedings all day on weekends if you’re the one who works outside the home so that you can know what your child’s eating schedule is. Take care of bathtime during the week. Alternate who puts the child to bed so that both of you are able to complete his bedtime routine.
2. Do errands with your child
One of the biggest differences I see often among how dads act with kids versus how moms act is that moms assume the kid is coming with them when they run errands whereas the dad assumes that the kid is staying home.
When you go out to run errands, every now and then take the children with you. It’s good to learn to grocery shop with kids–that’s part of being a parent. It also provides good learning opportunities–you can quiz kids on different types of cars while you’re waiting on your oil change, or you can play I Spy while walking through the mall doing exchanges and returns.
3. Have dedicated time where you are taking care of the child without your wife around
This is especially important if you work outside the house and she is a stay-at-home mom. If that’s the case, she takes care of the child 40+ hours a week without your help, so you’re more than capable of giving her a few hours of uninterrupted kid-free time on a regular basis.
As well, this should include not texting her with questions about how to take care of the baby! Unless it’s vitally important that you ask specifically her, figure it out yourself (Google is a powerful tool). If you don’t know, consider asking your parents for advice! They raised you, after all, and would likely enjoy being able to help over the phone.
If you think this is unreasonable because she already knows all this and why shouldn’t you ask her, ask yourself–how does SHE know all this? Odds are she didn’t text you about it to figure it out, she researched it, she called other moms, she figured it out for herself. There is nothing stopping you from doing that, too! It just means you need to take ownership of your role as a parent and truly see yourself as a dad, not a glorified babysitter.
4. Have faith in yourself!
Recognize you are capable of being an awesome dad and an awesome parent. Many men enter parenting with less baby and kid experience than their wives simply because girls are more likely to grow up babysitting, taking care of kids, and being handed babies in social situations than boys are. But if you’re a dad who feels like he just doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing, take heart–you CAN do this, and you WILL learn as long as you put in the work.
Ways moms can encourage their husbands to be great dads:
1. Recognize that there is more than one way to skin a cat
You and your husband are likely going to do some things differently. That is perfectly OK. In fact, a lot of psychological research has found that it’s actually good for your kid to have these different influences! In general, dads tend to be rougher, louder, and more confrontational in their play (like playing “monster” and chasing a kid around the house) and in their parenting whereas moms tend to be more subdued, conversational, and emotions-focused. In other words, the mom is more likely to say “careful” and the dad is more likely to say “let’s see how fast you can really ride that bike down the hill.” (Obviously both sexes can do both, but that’s what studies have found.)
Beyond just play styles, though, understand that if something isn’t harmful or dangerous to your child, you need to give your husband room to just be a dad. If you want him to take ownership of fatherhood, you can’t keep him on a tight leash. Let him make decisions, give him freedom to try new things, and recognize that even if the kid doesn’t end up wearing an outfit you like all that much, that’s not a big deal when you put it in perspective.
2. Allow for a learning curve
When you’re tempted to say something like, “Just let me do it,” step back. Odds are, you have more experience with childcare than your husband, since girls are statistically more likely to have babysat or spent time with babies before having one themselves than men are. You had to learn these things at some point, too, and you were given the opportunity to learn them. If he’s bumbling a bit while changing a diaper, just leave and let him change the diaper. He’ll get better with practice, but he does need the practice.
3. Watch how you talk about your husband as a father
When we were first married, I was quite critical of Connor. Although I’m not 100% yet by any stretch of the imagination, a huge help to me early on was to take a day and imagine that I had a tape recorder of everything I said about my husband that would play back to my friends and family later. Every time I said something about Connor I’d ask myself–do I want my parents to hear that? Would I say that to his best friend? Would I say that to him?
It really made me realize how sometimes the way I thought or talked about him was simply not beneficial because it was unnecessarily harsh and belittling.
Try that exercise when it comes to talking about your husband as a dad. Do you talk about him with pride, love, and trust? Or do you scoff at how little he knows, how helpless he is, or how everyone would just starve or go naked if you weren’t around for a day?
Our words matter. If you want your husband to take parenting seriously and to feel confident as a dad, don’t say words that tear him down. Offer critiques when necessary, yes, but be very careful that the message you’re giving your husband is not, “I don’t trust you with our children.”
Those are our tips for helping both parents take ownership of raising the kids–what has worked for your family? And feel free to share awesome parenting win stories in the comments below! Let’s learn from each other’s successes!