I find, now that I’ve had children, that I spent rather a lot of time bragging about my husband.
For example, a while ago, I was having a conversation at the library storytime with the other stay-at-home parents. They were complaining about how sleep deprived they were. Eventually, the conversation got around to me, and I said, “I’m not sleep-deprived because my husband takes care of the baby all morning every morning until he goes to work, so I sleep in until 9am every morning.” At this point everyone stared at me and I had to flee lest I be suffocated in a jealous rage with a onesie.
So, as one half of one of the Mythical 50/50 Parenting Division Couples, and also one of the 33% of couples whose relationship satisfaction did not decrease after having a baby, I thought I’d explain how we got here.
Partner selection. By far the most important factor in having a fifty/fifty parenting split is having children with the right person. Your spouse is not your slave, and you can’t force someone who parent who doesn’t want to.
One of the most important factors to select for is a genuine desire to parent. My husband is very enthusiastic about having children: in fact, it’s been one of his primary life goals for as long as I’ve known him. Other green flags to look for include an interest in other people’s children and experience taking care of children (such as taking care of a much younger sibling or a housemate’s child, or teenage employment as a babysitter). A lot of the filtering can be done simply by believing people when they tell you about themselves. If your partner’s opinion on children is “meh” or “I guess this is the socially accepted thing to do” or “how about I go live in a yurt in the backyard until they are five years old and therefore interesting,” you will almost certainly not end up having a fifty-fifty parenting division.
Unfortunately, even the most child-loving spouses can fall into patterns of inequality. I would suggest looking for a deep-seated commitment to equality and, if you are a woman or nonbinary person married to a man, anti-sexism. It’s important not to be fooled by male feminists who are woke on Twitter but sexist in their personal lives: in my experience, a man’s tendency to make male tears jokes or talk about mansplaining has surprisingly little correlation with how sexist he is in day-to-day life. It is difficult to make a list of green flags for anti-sexism, because there are plenty of good reasons for any anti-sexist man to not do any specific thing. A man with depression or ADHD may be unable to share chores equally, and a socially conservative man may disapprove equally of promiscuous people of all genders. If there is interest I may write up a list of things I consider to be green flags for anti-sexism in men, but it is a bit of a tangent for this post, so I’ll leave it be.
Be prepared. Two-thirds of couples find that their relationship satisfaction decreases after having a baby. If you don’t have a solid relationship, you should not have a child together, and you certainly shouldn’t have a baby to repair the relationship. A solid relationship– one with affection and intimacy and where you can resolve conflicts in a constructive way– is a necessity for a 50/50 chore division.
Many couples assume that they’re both equality-minded liberals and so naturally a fifty-fifty parenting division is going to work itself out. I think this is often false. I think it is a good idea to talk about division of labor with anyone you plan to coparent with. If you’re a woman in a relationship with a man, bring up the research on the Second Shift. If you’re the primary caregiver, make sure your partner understands and agrees that while they put in a 40 hour week at work you put in a 40 hour week at home, and that not even the military and medical residencies expect people to be on call 168 hours a week.
Long parental leave. My husband got three months of paternity leave and took all three months. (Thank you, Women in STEM retention efforts.) I don’t know how I could have made it through those first three months without him, and I salute everyone who has to be at home alone with a newborn. You guys should get a medal.
I think both partners taking parental leave helps in two ways. First, you get in the habit of 50/50 parenting division from the beginning, when it’s easier and you don’t have to juggle competing obligations. Second, it builds a sense of confidence. Many fathers and many parents who are not the primary caregiver have a sense of learned helplessness about many aspects of caregiving: they don’t know how to make up a bottle, change a diaper, or comfort a crying baby, and they’re pretty sure it’s an impossible skill they’d never actually be able to learn. Parental leave is a chance for both parents to learn how to parent when both of you are sometimes screwing it up.
Unfortunately, many men in America do not have access to paid paternity leave, and for many couples arranging for unpaid paternity leave would be a hardship. But I think that if your future coparent has access to paid parental leave and refuses to take it, that is an enormous red flag and you should strongly reconsider parenting with this person.
The right amount of criticism. Some books on how to reach a fifty-fifty parenting division recommend not criticizing your partner’s parenting ever. However, when I took this advice, I found myself taking over the parenting even on my off days, because I was the only one who knew that the baby needed his iron supplement or how to soothe his teething pain.
There are probably some people who are so defensive that whenever you say something like “the baby needs an iron supplement” they will respond with “I guess I’m just never going to be as good a parent as you are, here, you take the baby” and then they go off to play video games. Don’t coparent with those people. If you’re coparenting with a reasonable person, then they will respond reasonably to kindly and tactfully phrased criticisms, and you shouldn’t feel bad about saying them.
If you’re the primary caregiver or the person who did the most caregiving in the past, then you probably know things your partner doesn’t. You’re the one who takes the baby to her doctor’s visits, who has the most practice comforting her when she cries, who first sees her learning her new abilities, and who spends the most time frantically googling the best ways to treat diaper rash. It’s okay to share that information with your coparent! Your coparent might be thankful that you did, because they also want the baby to be healthy and happy and stop crying so much.
The core of the advice I read, however, is correct. It’s important to chill out. If it’s your partner’s day to take care of the baby, it’s very easy to get mad at your partner when it’s 2pm and the baby is still in his dirty clothes from last night, or to be like “ugh! I’ll take care of it!” However, that happens sometimes. It is a fact of babies that sometimes taking care of them is really hard and they are wearing dirty clothes at 2pm. This has happened to lots of babies and they pretty much all grew up okay. You should remember all the times that you didn’t put the baby in his new clothes until 2pm, and remember that if you try to take over then you will not get a break at all, and then go out to a coffeeshop and let your partner deal with it.
In addition, your parenting style is probably different from your partner’s parenting style. I tend to alternate between periods of focused play with Viktor and periods of letting him play quietly by himself; my husband tends to interact with Viktor every few minutes, while being on Twitter or playing a video game. I have a real tendency to go “why aren’t you doing focused play with Viktor? You should do focused play!” But neither of our styles are bad; they’re just different. The baby will probably have a perfectly enriched environment either way.
The only way to get the child to be parented 100% of the time the way you want to parent him is by doing 100% of the parenting yourself. If you don’t want to do that, you have to accept that sometimes your coparent will do things differently than you will. Obviously, if there’s a legitimate concern for the baby’s safety, health, or development, bring it up! But if it’s just different people having different styles of parenting, let it go.