This piece was originally published on New York Family magazine. Republished here with permission.
Whether it’s out of a desire for an equal and supportive relationship—or out of necessity—families are recognizing that life is a lot more manageable when both parents are competent, caring and willing to share the load. Parenting in partnership isn’t always easy, of course. It requires regular communication, flexibility, and usually involves a few moments every now and then when you have to bite your tongue. But in our experience as the co-founders of the social and educational group NYC Dads Group—and particularly in our weekly New Dad Boot Camps—we’ve found that there are certainly best practices (for moms and dads) for producing better partnerships at home.
1. Beware The Gatekeeper
Tradition, popular culture, and unwitting parents have conspired for decades to make moms feel and act as if they are the only ones who can properly take care of the baby— pushing everyone else away—a phenomenon often called “gatekeeping.” In the earliest weeks especially, parenting is about practice more than instinct, and both parents need opportunities to change diapers, to comfort the baby when she’s upset and to enjoy the quiet moments when she’s sleeping on your chest. This is the time for Dad to assert his role, express his willingness to learn and to demonstrate some competence. When both parents develop a skill set, Mom doesn’t feel like the weight of parenting is all on her shoulders, and Dad doesn’t feel left out.
2. Parent As A Team
When both parents are competent, they have a better opportunity to parent as a team rather than as master and apprentice. For example, nursing is a struggle, and often a time when moms feel like they are in it alone. Dads can be very supportive of the nursing process. Bringing the baby over at feeding time, changing the baby’s diaper and getting the baby back to sleep are all ways in which dads can be intimately involved. More generally, the spirit of the idea is this: Team players take initiative, they are generous to one another and they have a plan (so they’re not always debating who does what). If there is a sink full of dishes, a pile of laundry, and a baby to put to bed, you’ve got to divide and conquer. Developing a plan to share the to-do list at the end of the day gets you a lot closer to the moment when both of you can sink into the couch together with a glass of wine and the TV remote control.
3. Be Flexible
When both parents have the flexibility to parent in their own way, it’s much easier to have each other’s backs when things get overwhelming. Relinquishing control means that things might not always be done your way. However, if both parents are capable, each can get things done in their own way and more can get done. In both of our families, we are the primary caregivers and we’ve both been known to give a skeptical look or comment when our wives don’t feed our kids the “right” snack or follow the “right” nap routine. We’ve recognized that doing this deprives ourselves of the opportunity to have a capable parenting partner, and it deprives our wives of having the loving, caring relationship that they want to have with their children. Bite your tongue, leave the room…and let your partner be a parent!
4. Use Your Benefits
Maternity workplace benefits have been in place for a long time and most new moms use them. Many companies are starting to offer new fathers benefits like paid paternity leave, flexible scheduling, and telecommuting, but dads generally haven’t been taking advantage. We need a cultural shift in the workplace that allows mothers and fathers to be the parents they want to be, while still being serious about their careers. As companies slowly institute family-friendly policies, we need more pioneering new fathers who can demonstrate that a two- or four-week leave has a huge impact at home and a minimal impact in the grand scheme of a 40-year career. Dads, figure out what benefits you have and use them! If you don’t have any, start asking for them. Companies are much more likely to consider instituting family-friendly benefits when those of us with families step up and say we need them.
5. Enjoy Your New Family
Parenting isn’t all about dirty diapers, feeding schedules, and naptime. Expecting parents should spend the weeks leading up to birth doing things you enjoy together—go to the movies, eat dinner out, or see friends. After your baby is born, try to fit your new baby into your routines rather than imprison yourselves in a cocoon of worry and to-do lists. It may take several weeks or even a few months, but try to take back some of those moments that are just about the two of you, rather than the baby. For example, use the time your baby is napping in the stroller to take a walk, grab a cup of coffee, or get a bite to eat together. Better yet, set baby up in a rocker next to the kitchen table and sit down with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. Babies don’t require our attention constantly, and they’re often happy just sitting and watching you interact.
6. Remember Your Goals
The transition from life as a couple to life with a baby may be the hardest road any of us will ever take (and we’re supposed to do it with a lot less sleep!). An awareness of these issues and an effort to engage in lots of communication will go a long way toward the three big goals: a happy child, happy partners, and a happy partnership.
Matt Schneider and Lance Somerfeld are the co-founders of the NYC Dads Group, a community of active fathers in the New York City area. Recently, they launched their New Dad Boot Camps, a three-hour workshop for expecting dads to learn from veteran dads. For more on the NYC Dads Group, check out their article Moving Beyond Mr. Mom. You can find them on Twitter at NYCDadsGroup.