In most parental relationships, there is one parent who defaults to “primary” parent. Usually it’s whichever parent ends up spending more time with their child. Because this parent spends so much time with their child(ren), they know a lot of the ins and outs of what the little one(s) want or need at any given moment. It can be very rewarding to stay at home with your kids, or just spend every moment you can with those adorable little people, but this comes with some challenges. Primary among these challenges is making sure that your co-parent has parental agency.
Feeling that you are able to exert power and achieve your desired end as a parent is something that, ideally, both parents benefit from. If both parents feel capable and empowered, then they are both equally able to handle situations that arise and don’t need to fall back on the other parent. Having this balance prevents one parent from feeling helpless, while the other parent feels like they can never get a moment to themselves.
I’d like to think that my husband and I have done a pretty good job of co-parenting equally, despite the fact that I’m a stay at home mom and spend all day with our little turtle. I knew I’d be spending a lot of time with the little one from the beginning, so I worked pretty hard to give my partner agency from the beginning too. Here are the things that I/we did that helped that process the most:
1. Being Responsible From the Very Beginning.
My husband and I had discussed the possibility that I could be taken in for a C-Section and that if I couldn’t do skin-to-skin as soon as our son was born, my husband would. As it turned out, I delivered vaginally, but after 4 hours of active pushing I was almost dead tired once our little one arrived. I spent about an hour and a half holding him and nursing him right after he was born, and then I handed him off to my husband so that I could eat and sleep. My husband cuddled him skin-to-skin all night long (with the exception of nursing breaks) and he tells me that this really helped him to bond with our son and feel like a parent from the start. He was responsible and in charge and it allowed him to get comfortable with this tiny new person.
2. Parenting Every Day.
It seems obvious that if you’re a parent, you are a parent every day, but it’s easy to let life get in the way. If someone has had a hard and long day at work, they probably want to come home and have a break – and taking care of children is definitely not a break. But being a parent every day is important. Time really does pass quickly and children change just as fast. If one parent always takes care of your child, the other one misses time and loses out on seeing the way that your child changes. Knowing what is going on with your little one helps both partners to feel like they know what’s going on and what they are doing, so make sure that both parent are getting that time, and not just the “primary” parent.
3. Not Contradicting Your Partner’s Parenting.
This is probably one of the toughest things to do. It’s especially hard if you spend more time with your child than your partner does. Maybe you’ve seen or noticed or experienced just about everything that your child goes through or feels or does. Maybe you’ve tried numerous things before figuring out how to comfort or feed or play with your child. It can be really tempting to watch your partner and tell them how to interact with your little one, but it really benefits everyone if you let your partner figure things out in the moment instead of contradicting what they are doing. It prevents them from feeling undermined or like they are not as good at this whole parenting thing in the short run. And in the long run, it means that they know they are capable of figuring out how to work out problems. This makes your partner less likely to constantly ask you how to do things, call when you’re out, or just ask you (or expect you) to take care of most of the child stuff. If you want to make sure that your partner is aware of new things that come up without contradicting them, just talk about the new things that you’ve discovered during a time when those new things aren’t relevant to what is going on. And feel free to answer questions that your partner has at any time – the more they know, the better they’ll do.
4. Have Alone Time.
You should both be getting alone time at some points, and during that time, the other parent is the one taking care of the kid. If you need to, consider imposing rules on when the parent who is in charge of the child can call/text/etc. For instance, maybe you can’t call or text to complain about how hard it is to have the little one all on your own while the other partner is out having fun. Maybe communication can only be in case of emergencies or maybe it can also include fun updates (ex. “look at how much fun s/he’s having!”) By knowing that they can’t call for routines challenges, your partner can learn how to deal with parenting solo and start feeling as capable as possible.
5. Have Fun Time With Your Child.
I don’t mean go cool places that your child would like or even engage with your little one. I mean, if there is something fun that you or your partner would like to do alone, consider taking your child with you. My husband goes and plays games with his friends…and brings our baby with him. I wanted to hang out with my friends at the racetrack, so I brought my baby with me. It’s not an every time thing, but it gives everyone a chance to go out and do something fun without making their partner feel like they are being abandoned. It will absolutely give the non “primary” parent the experience of handling a baby alone while being with other people and/or in different situations. Usually there is enough of a backlog of projects at our house that the parent who gets time away from the little one (usually me) also does something constructive around the house for the whole family.
6. Ask Questions.
If you’re the “primary” parent, find times to ask your partner questions about your child. After they’ve had an evening or afternoon alone, ask how the little one is doing, if your partner noticed anything new, etc. During normal time together ask if what they think about parenting methods, how your child is sleeping, whether you should get a teal snowsuit or a yellow one. Whatever it is, engage them, make them feel like their experiences and preferences matter. This is probably the most direct way to give your partner agency, because you are indirectly telling them that they know your child and are as good a parent as you are.