What Co-Parenting Really Looks Like

On Tuesday, my daughter woke up early. I gave her some warm milk (her favorite wake-up treat) and then asked her to go back to sleep. Of course, 30 minutes later, she was still awake so I went in before I left to say goodbye. She didn’t want me to leave, so I brought her into our bed for some snuggles. She kept insisting that she didn’t want me to go so I lay with her and kissed her face and acknowledged how sad she was and told her that I wished I could stay with her that morning, I really did.

And then we just lay there, next to each other, until she rolled over to her father’s side, saying it was time to snuggle and asking if they could read books. I said goodbye, kissed her cheek and crept out the garage door, all the while mentally thanking, How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk for their awesome, easy to use, chapter 1 tips.

Later Mi.Vida called me, exasperated. He couldn’t find any clean school uniform shirts and after I apologized for the bag of clean, but unfolded, clothes hiding in our bedroom (lest our cat find them and pee all over them) he gave me the run down on Isa’s tantrums so far that morning. He sounded beat down and exasperated.

I listening and commiserated and then we both sat in silence. Finally Mi.Vida said, “I don’t think I’ll have time to read that book you got for me.”


The book is The Explosive Child, which was recommended to me by a friend. I bought us each a copy on Kindle, hoping we could read something–and apply the new techniques we learned–together. I hoped it would help him better navigate the challenging morning situation, make him feel more in control. I also hoped it would stymie these frequent phone calls in which Mi.Vida unloads his stress about Isa’s bad behavior on to me.

Hearing him declare he just couldn’t find time to read it only moments after he recounted Isa’s many uncontrollable moments was, in a word, frustrating. I got off the phone pretty quickly after that.

Then I simmered in passive aggressive rage most of the morning.

I used to be really proud of our co-parenting situation. I believed that both parents working–while a challenging situation to be sure–was ultimately positive because it helped create a domestic/parenting situation steeped in equality. The fact that Mi.Vida takes Isa to school and I pick her up gives us both a chance to be the primary care giver. The fact that we both work full time hours means we’re both responsible for after-work tasks like making dinner and doing the dishes. With both of us working outside the home, our work inside the home can be more equally shared.

Except, I’m realizing, that it’s not.

Recently I read an interesting article in The Atlantic; The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss. I really enjoyed looking at how gay and lesbian couples compared and contrasted to hetero couples. Not surprisingly (to me at least) most same-sex couples do a better job of dividing domestic chores equally, since they are not tempted to fall into traditional gender roles. This is especially true for same-sex couples with kids.

And yet, as many same-sex couples as opposite-sex couples chose for one parent to stay home and be the primary caregiver while the other went to work to be the primary breadwinner. This “specialization” is evidently the easier way for many (regardless of gender norms) to organize a family because it gives each parent a domain in which they are primarily responsible. Having someone at home to watch the kids, take care of the house and cook the meals allows the other person to commit fully to his or her job, which in turn gives him or her more opportunities to increase earning potential. In this situation, each person gets to focus on one thing and can be more successful in that one area of family life. The family unit becomes a more well-oiled machine.

Reading that article last month I actually found myself nodding along. In the past I would have found the idea antiquated–and a bad fit for our family–but now I see the common sense of “specialization.” In light of the seeming failure of our own attempt at equality, I wonder if having one person being in charge of the home, and one in charge of earning, isn’t the way to go, even for us.

The reality is, in our family, the shared responsibility model is not working out so great. Mi.Vida feels increasingly frustrated with his morning duties and I end up being stuck in both the role of full time teacher AND primary care giver. Almost all the stay-at-home parent responsibilities fall to me: I am the one who buys all of Isa’s clothes and gets rid of the ones that don’t fit; I make and take her to her doctor’s appointments; I give her all her baths and put her to bed; I buy her birthday presents, make her birthday cupcakes and take time off work to bring them to school on her special day; I’m the one who takes her to the library and gets her hair cut; I make her dinner every weekday night (though Mi.Vida makes her breakfast). While we do share the domestic responsibilities more evenly, the parenting responsibilities fall primarily to me.

I know this division of responsibilities is partly due to circumstance and partly my own fault. I was the one home with Isa for the first six months of her life AND I’ve had two other summers to be home with her. I also get about a month worth of vacations during the year when I’m with her. Of course I’m also more interested in a lot of what I listed above and I will admit to enjoying buying clothes and birthday presents, and while I’d rather forgo the actual baking of the cupcakes I certainly want to be the one who brings them to school this Friday.

Mi.Vida would describe this division as “relative equality” and the Atlantic article mentions something similar in that same sex couples are more likely to divide responsibilities by the ability/interest level of each partner than by what is expected by society. For example, if one partner enjoys cooking more they would do that, while if another is more particular about how clothes are washed, he or she would do laundry. In our household, I am more interested in the daily minutia of raising a child and so I take on many responsibilities happily, but by doing that I seem to end up with the other, less savory responsibilities as well.

The least surprising conclusion of the Atlantic article was the of all the partners in same- and opposite-sex couples, the woman in the hetero couples were the least happy. Women in hetero relationships, especially those raising children, were most likely to feel they carried an unfair workload while feeling least supported by their spouse. I definitely nodded my head at that statistic and I’m sure many women I know would do the same.

In the end, I don’t know how to improve our situation. With our mortgage and health insurance there is no way I can stay at home and with my early-start school schedule Mi.Vida will always have morning duty, so how do we create a system that works for both of us? I can’t keep absorbing the stress he feels when he’s alone with our daughter and he doesn’t seem open to learning new techniques. It just feels like this is a never ending cycle and we’ll never find a balance that works for us. It’s so disheartening.

What does your family dichotomy look like? Does it work for you?

16 responses

  1. Our situation is unique, I’m finding. But it doesn’t feel unique to me. I stay home full time with our son but B is in full-on dad mode the minute he’s in the door and changed from work. He takes responsibility for Matthew.so I can cook dinner and lets.me focus on that. I let him play with Matthew while I clean up, but he tries to clean up after dinner each night. I like doing it, and Matthew needs dad time, so I prefer B to play with him. When bed time rolls around, we split responsibilities and are both working until Matthew is asleep. Someone is bathing while the other is picking up toys, one is reading books while the other scoops cat litter, one is rocking while the other is hand washing plastic dishes. It works well for us and makes me feel a little valued. :). It wasn’t always this way.

    B used to come home, frustrated that dinner wasn’t ready. He’d hide out in the bathroom while I balanced cooking and Matthew. He’d “do some work” while I’d play with Matthew. He’d rest while I rocked and put Matthew to bed. I hated it, and felt completely unvalued and taken advantage of. It took him “working from home” a few times to SEE FOR HIMSELF how hard it is for me to get dinner ready with a toddler running around. He had to SEE FOR HIMSELF how fussy and clingy Matthew is after his nap. He just didn’t believe me when I’d tell him these things (which is infuriating to me).

    It was worse when I worked. Washing bottles was my job, feeding baby was my job, bathing baby was my job, etc. This was one of the reasons I decided to stay home – I couldn’t do it all and still work, AND still be happy. I was resentful very quickly.

    It took his own experiences and lots of vocalizing on my part to get to where we are today. I find that my friends are shocked that we divide things so well post work hours. I also find that my working friends have much less help in the evenings from their husbands than those who stay home. What I see and hear from friends totally supports the article you cited.

  2. As I am nodding my head in agreement. I feel like I put myself in the situation of primary caregiver. I do not want to “give up” my responsibilities of bathing, feeding and loving her – I just want to know that all I do is appreciated and noticed. Not to mention we both work full-time (plus some) and then I want to given every spare second to our baby. All the while cleaning, cooking and folding laundry. I just want him to offer to help or pick up a toy or put away a shirt without me feeling like I am nagging. Perhaps sitting him down would help or leaving him home with the baby for one whole day would let him see the “light”!

  3. So far – yes. I work Monday – Wednesday, I drop Molly off and R picks her up. Gets her ready for the night till I get home. He has lifted his game a lot. I am still the main parent but he is involved in all decision making and is across what needs to be done. I feel comfortable knowing that he knows what to do. It’s early days but its working. Now. If only she would sleep …

  4. Courtney is right – working moms do seem to get less help at home than SAHMs. In our situation, I work 32 hours a week and do almost everything at home. My husband works 65+ hours and week and does very little. I actually think having 2 kids has made him step up more, though. there is NO WAY i can do it all, and I think he finally sees that. Plus it’s easier to think of ways to share responsibility when one of us takes one kid and one takes the other. He really has been very helpful the past few months.

    I do find that, like you, I assumed we’d both work full-time and equally share household repsonsiblities, and it’s taken some adjustment as it hasn’t turned out that way. Sometimes it’s a question of finding which things K can do (or likes to do) and taking what I can get. Some tasks, he’s never going to help with or just doesn’t do well.

    It might seem condescending, but you might just have to summarize that book for Mi.Vida rather than expecting him to read it. Or maybe tell him you really don’t want him to call you and vent anymore until he’s read it and tried some of the strategies. Sometimes I tell K about things I’ve read and ask him to try them too. It’s not a perfect system, but it helps.

  5. I’ve really enjoyed these posts lately about coparenting and division of responsibilities. With me being so sick the past month, it is more evident than ever how much I usually do around the house (and conversely, how little my husband does). It’s hard to not feel frustrated and unhappy about that, especially when I’m already in a “woe is me” sort of mindset right now. It’s hard to find a good balance. Part of me thinks that if I let it go long enough, maybe he’ll help out more — but then reality kicks in, and I figure I just need to hire a cleaner to help me out until I’m feeling better. 😛

  6. It really IS hard! When we decided to take up this job-sharing situation, we did so in hopes of balancing our roles in and out of the house. It’s been good, but not perfect. This morning I had to run out to the store for something, leaving DH to finish getting the kids ready for school. He acted totally helpless, asking me really basic questions – even though he’s done this on his own perfectly well on mornings when I’ve been out of town. So weird.

    We do have different parenting styles, and often disagree on details even though our overall philosophies are fairly similar. But for me, I am SO much happier working outside the home and having a more equal balance. I think every set of parents is different, and finding that sweet spot is not only a challenge but a constantly changing, dynamic process – relationships are always in motion.

    But yeah, I can imagine how incredibly frustrating it must be to be looking at all these resources and wanting to share them with him so you’re on the same page, and he doesn’t seem to step up to the plate.

  7. Really interesting to me and i have to chime in even though I guess I don’t really fit. We don’t have children but we both work fulltime. Currently we both work full time in telecommuting roles. And yet, I am still responsible for everything except taking the garbage out. If I don’t do the laundry there isn’t anything clean, which doesn’t bother my husband. If I don’t clean the house, well again I’m the only one that’s bothered. Dinner not cooked? He’ll go get fast food… You can’t change the division of labor with someone who doesn’t think any of these things need to be done.

  8. Is part of the issue that his primary time is probably always going to be frustrating? Would he enjoy taking on an evening task like bathtime? My husband does baths with both kids and no matter how frustrated they were with each other earlier in the day, they always have fun at bath. When do Mi.Vida and Isa have fun time together?

  9. I took a sabbatical and a leave of absence that ultimately led to my leaving my academic post when I was trying to conceive. I can’t say that I imagined being a stay-at-home mom. I had mostly models of people I knew who were academic couples, Many of them writers in small mountain towns and their lives seems idyllic to me. I didn’t really imagine what life would be like being married to a lawyer, a man who ran his own firm and needed to put in many hours in order to make it work. He has never complained once about my staying home and in fact has encouraged it. He will often say that he could never do what it is that I do and I have needed him to say that over the 3 1/2 years since Z has arrived. I have changed all the diapers, been in charge of almost all of the bedtimes, all of the meals, all of the appointments, almost every thing that could be considered child rearing has fallen to me without exception. I have come to understand that this is my job. I am not always good at it… I am not as meticulous as I could be, and the places where he and I have different standards he does step up… He loads the dishwasher and cleans the kitchen very often at night unless has a busy week at work. I do the laundry and flatten it out in a giant pile and he folds it. He will often go to the grocery at night with our son who is 13… He does most of the ferrying back and forth to school and hockey and lacrosse events for our son. We just had an exchange recently where he said I could never do what you do and of course we acknowledged that I also could never earn the wage that he provides.

    I have to say that I am not very good at claiming time which I need to do if I want to have it. I need to actively say that I am leaving the house for X amount of time.

    I truly have not even an hour to myself. I wake up with her the morning I fall asleep with her at night and there’s no time I do not have her with me during the day. We have not gone out to dinner in two years. I have not seen a movie in a theater in four years. Currently I am trying to see if I could set my alarm and wake up at 5:30 in order to exercise. I just can’t bear the thought. Our situation is exacerbated by the fact that we have very little family support.

    I look back on the life I thought I would’ve had and it does make me smile a rueful little smile. I have no idea how I thought it was that I would be able to write.

    I find what I do rewarding, I think of it as a practice as you would a Buddhist practice. I have grown but not in the ways that I would’ve imagined.

    Sorry this response is so long!


  10. I wish my husband wanted to take more of an interest, but he just doesn’t. I work sporadically on weekends and am a SAHM the rest of the time. I like Courtney tried to do it all, but I’ve realized, even with me being home 90% of the time I still can’t do it all. My husband “tries” and sometimes he really does get some things done, but for the most part the house, the cleaning, most of the cooking, most of the child care, and so on falls on me. My husband does a good deal of the cooking on the grill, but otherwise it’s up to me. We’ve worked out he does bath time and generally puts her to bed. Of course, this again all falls on me when he travels which happens about 2-2.5 weeks a month. Co-parenting sounds like a fantastic thing, but in my reality, it’s just not possible. When my husband leaves the house at 5:30AM and doesn’t always make it home before dinner, and sometimes even bed time, it’s really hard for the splitting of responsibilities just can’t happen. I like you don’t know how to better our situation, but I do know how to make the best of the situation. You’re definitely not alone here….not at all…

  11. I had to laugh that Mi. Vida said he couldn’t read the book immediately after talking about being frustrated about his own explosive child. I shook my head because I could imagine my husband doing the same.

    I feel for you. Because right now I’m feeling slightly put upon, taking on extra responsibilities for things I do well, but which are causing me significant stress. It would be so much more difficult to have a child and another on the way. (Though we wouldn’t be doing what we’re about to do if we were in that position).

  12. I am very lucky to have a husband who is stereotypically German, and thus obsessed with tidiness. He does the dishes. He picks up the toys. He cleans the toilets. BUT, along with that “luck”, I also have a husband whose stress over messes infuses the air with a vibration of anger, stress, disappointment, etc.

    So yes, he does a fair amount of work in our house, but he doesn’t seem to see the amount of work that I do as well. He comes home and sees me plop the kids in front of the tv so I can have some quiet time reading or sewing or whatever, while he cleans. He actually got really angry the other day when he came home to a mess, after I’d had a hellatious day with the boys, about how he comes home from work and basically cleans and cleans and cleans. So, after I pointed out that while he was cleaning, I was making dinner, doing laundry, bathing the boys, dressing them for bed, brushing teeth, gathering the various sippy cups from here and there, giving bedtime medicine/vitamins, and then spending close to an hour nursing them to sleep, I think he sort of realized that there is a LOT that goes in to running our house.

    But still. I think Courtney is right. They don’t really get it until they live it. My intention has been to leave town for a weekend sometime this summer, so that H could have the boys full-time, and get some sort of idea of what goes into taking care of them. He is like your B, too, in that he likes to “dump” his stress onto me, and he gets really pouty if I tell him that I can’t handle his stress in addition to mine (he actually used this as an excuse for why he had an online affair when the boys were around 18 mos old… apparently, my comments that I couldn’t “support” his mental health while my own sanity was deteriorating meant that it was okay for him to seek outside “support” in the form of pornographic conversations with some skanky stranger… not that I’m still bitter about it or anything…).

    And yeah, if I give feedback on the way he handles the boys, he completely overreacts and tells me that he’s just going to stop doing ANYTHING because NOTHING he does is right. I just want him to spend a weekend alone with them and do so without raising his voice, and with forcing himself to have an endless well of patience for their antics, and still supporting and guiding them, and keeping them fed, and clean, and reasonably happy, AND keeping the house from becoming a complete cesspit. (And then, I want to come home, and stomp about and pout when the house isn’t spotless, or sigh heavily as I vacuum or fold laundry or whatever…)

  13. My spouse is the primary caregiver, mostly for the kid but also some for Little Monster (ages 5 and 4 months, respectively). I am currently doing more baby care than not. We split dinners about 4 a week are the spouse’s and 3 are mine. I do the dishes and most of the laundry, the spouse is supposed to fold the laundry and take out the trash. It’s a nice idea. Our division of labor has been out of desperation because I’ve been so tied up with school (but it will be over eventually!). The timeline on which I think things should be done and the timeline on which the spouse does them do not match at all, and I get really unhappy about it… We are working on our work-credit system for job allocation today and I’ll post about how it goes (in work-credit, nasty jobs that take an hour get more than 1 hour’s worth of credit because they are unpleasant or something while easy/fun jobs that take an hour get less than 1 hour’s worth of credit). Hopefully hashing out what each task is worth and then balancing things that way will help it feel more equal. I find that my standards of cleanliness are vastly different from the spouse’s, so we wind up with things either not happening if I don’t do them or me taking over jobs that aren’t supposed to be mine (or mine alone).

    I will say that having a primary caregiver helps because it eliminates discussion about every little thing. Does it matter if the kid has dessert or gets another story? Do we need to discuss it every time for 1 or 2 minutes? No. It saves us some time in discussion and that helps us feel less stressed. Lately we roll with supporting whoever answered first (so I say no dessert, and even if the spouse would have said yes, because I answered first, I get support and we discuss later).

  14. I read this the other day and was at the height of my frustration with this very issue. Reading the comments, I realize SO many of us struggle with this. I hate being a nag, but I feel like this is what I am so much of the time to get any help at all. It’s so maddening. We had a huge fight in the middle of the night (over who was going to pick up the screaming baby) but ended up hashing out a lot of things, and the last few days have been really good. We’ll see how long it lasts….

  15. I am very intrigued by this post, of all the different family dynamics. I have a couple that I hold up as my ‘they got it all figured out’ example. They both work long hours, over 40 a week to be sure, she works more than him, but his commute is longer so maybe it ends up being about equal that they are away. With the big things, deep cleaning bathrooms, steam cleaning the carpets, landscaping and car repair, they are pretty stereotypical with her doing the in the house stuff and him doing the outside things. On the day to day things, vacuuming, dishes, bath time, putting to bed routine, they split up pretty equally. (They do order dinner out a lot.) I don’t see either one of them sitting down and watching tv without the other, he’s doing bath, she’s dong dishes, etc. They discuss it and agree upon it and generally keep the schedule going. I watch in amazement. I think it helps he was a single dad for a couple years before they got together, so when they had a child together, he was more nurturing and understanding of what raising a child entails than maybe most men would be.

    As for J and I, I’m a stay at home mom, so we are fairly stereotypical in our division of labor; he brings home the bacon, I cook it up and try to figure out how to put it in tortillas for breakfast burritos without tearing them all to crap. (It’s a work in progress.) I do all things in the house, and he does the car repair, and upkeep on 50 acres of land. It helps hugely that he is a pretty clean person. So while I’m in charge of keeping the house clean, I’m not following behind him having to clean up his messes. He hangs up his towel, puts his clothes in the laundry hamper, wipes up any messes left on the bathroom counter, rinses his dirty dishes out. I am very thankful for that.

    With G, their relationship is not nearly as easy as hers and mine is. I worked with troubled kids for 10 years, so essentially I’ve been a stay at home mom my entire adult life, they just weren’t my kids, I’m better equipped to handle things. He supports my exercise needs, taking G when she can’t be involved, he does bathe her sometimes. But I generally am the one who fulfills her daily needs. I am absolutely fine with this, but I do wish they were closer, and could interact better with me present. They do fine when I’m not around, but when I’m there, she shows me a great deal more favoritism which I know hurts his feelings. Hopefully as she grows emotionally she’ll come to appreciate him more.

  16. These are tough issues, ones that I’m hearing more and more couples talking about lately. It’s so hard to find a balance. In our home, my husband works full-time and I work part-time. The point of this is for me to have more time with our daughter and for me to take care of most of the cooking, cleaning, etc. Except that I don’t at all. I don’t know why, but I’m so slow at these tasky things. I’m not lazy. I feel like I’m always doing something. I’m just inefficient or overly perfectionistic or something. My husband is the exact opposite. He can get a million things done in a short amount of time, so he usually ends up doing…almost everything. In some ways, it’s super nice, and in other ways, it makes me feel like crap. He does the finances, handles issues with the cars, does a lot of the cleaning, cooking, etc, and also manages to spend time with our daughter. I wish I could be more effective in that way…I have tried. I really have.

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