I have a young baby, and I spend a lot of time talking with other people who also have young babies. The vast majority of those people are partnered, and are coparenting with their partners. And there’s one topic that comes up pretty much all the time. Who does what? Which parent takes on which role? And why? And more importantly than all of those questions, who is doing more? Who is resentful? Who is Burnt out and at their wit’s end?
Most of the time, most people seem to agree that the answer to that question is “moms.”
But it is a hell of a lot more complicated than that.
I recently read an advice column on this very topic. Both the letter writer and the columnist are (apparently) heterosexual women married to men. Both identify as mothers. In both cases, the mother’s husband appears to also be the child’s father and the mother’s coparent. I spell that out because, while most parenting writing on the internet (or like, everywhere) will treat those details as obvious, they aren’t actually. And that’s a little bit of why I’m writing this and what we’re going to get into with this. I’m going to encourage you to click through and read the actual column, because I actually think there’s some good stuff in there.
But if you don’t, here’s a really inadequate summary:
Q: My husband and I agreed to split childcare 50/50, but I always do more!
A: That is really hard and it happened to me too. You have to keep working at it, and make sure it isn’t you who is defaulting to doing more.
There’s also a really good bit in there about running your parenting relationship like a socialist country. That was my favorite part. But I think it doesn’t go far enough, and I think the heteronormative nature of both the question and the answer get in the way of discussing real equity.
So now, without further ado, I bring to you…
The Postnuclear Guide To Equity In Coparenting Land
How to parent with another person (or persons!) without getting screwed
1. Recognize that you are a coparent.
Knowing is half the battle. If you aren’t a single parent, you’re a coparent.
You have a coparent, or possibly several coparents (you lucky duck…). When we are talking about your parenting relationship with another human being, we need to remember to frame it that way. We are talking about coparenting. You may think this sounds obvious and I’m just repeating myself, but this is so important. We often have more than one connection to many people in our lives. It may be that you are romantically involved, cohabitating, and legally married to your coparent! That’s cool, and that probably makes your life a fraction easier since that’s basically what society expects. But we’re not talking about those things. Unless, that is, you want to.
But if what you want is to talk about how you parent together and how you can make it more equitable, the first step is going to be thinking about it in those terms. As soon as you frame it as “my husband is a feminist and he’s so nice, but he never gives the baby a bath!” or “my partner just defaults to letting me clip our daughter’s fingernails because she’s scared to do it.” You’re on the wrong track. I’m not saying you can never refer to your spouse that way while talking about parenting, but I am saying that we would all probably benefit from not conflating roles.
2. Use Socialism as much as it works for you.
Each according to their needs, each according to their abilities. This is probably a your mileage may vary type situation, but in my family, we just run our entire family as a collective. We are a three member collective. One of those members (it’s the baby) has a whole lot of needs and not a lot of abilities, and that’s ok. The other two members have needs and abilities that vary. I have the ability to breastfeed, whereas our kid’s other mom does not. I also have the need for a really ridiculous amount of food to sustain all the breastfeeding I am doing. So guess what my coparent does? That’s right, she feeds me. She doesn’t do all of the cooking, shopping, or meal prep in our family, but she does do a lot, because that is a way she can support the thing that she cannot do (the breastfeeding).
Other families may have different ways of working with similar issues. I know of families who made the choice to bottle feed precisely for this reason. You do you, but thinking about making sure that each of us gets our needs met really does help.
3. Fifty/fifty (or thirty-three/thirty-three/thirty-three!) is an overall measure, it’s not necessarily about individual chore items or individual days.
I mean that’s the thing, right? When does it balance out? There could potentially be a lot of different ways to make that work. Children don’t have the same needs throughout all of their childhood, and parents don’t have the same needs and abilities throughout all of their parenting lives. So really sit down and hash this stuff out with your partner/s. If, for example, you are taking time off work to stay home with a baby and breastfeed, what does it take to balance that out? Your partner might not be able to balance it out right now, and pretending that they can just by doing “their share” in their little bit of time off from work will make you both miserable. But in some families, it makes sense to take turns. One parent might take two years off from their career for child related duties, but after that time, the second parent steps up (and thus, steps down from work).
You need to be thinking big picture if you want to achieve actual equity.
4. Make space to talk about it, have a fucking meeting.
I’m so serious about this. Meetings are what make our family GO. If you don’t schedule time to talk about these issues, than it’s always up to the coparent who feels slighted to bring these things up and make space for the conversation… which is even more labor! If you’re stuck doing 80% of the childcare when you agreed to 50%, but you’re afraid to bring it up because it will start a fight or hurt someone’s feelings, that is doubley unfair.
Also? When parenting gets rough, when you really really need to both/all feel supported, that is when you will not be able to find time to talk about this stuff. Meetings may seem annoying, but meetings mean almost never having to say “we need to talk” when you are both exhausted and the baby won’t sleep. In my family, we have a regularly scheduled weekly meeting. Sometimes we miss it! The weeks we miss it are, without fail, the most frustrating for everyone. No matter how much we needed that hour for something else at the time, I always always always regret missing family meetings.
5. Fight against the cultural forces that destroy equity.
This is going to be really different depending on your family structure, but our culture encourages an attitude of “default parenting.” Basically, we’re operating under the (disastrous) premise that no matter how many parents a child has, there is always one parent who does the bulk of the parenting, and who is the default for all kinds of parenting tasks. If you were raised in this culture (like I was) you can’t just say “we believe in equality” and expecting that default parenting will not take over your life, you have to actively fight against it. It sucks, but so does working against any kind of injustice. Here are a few things that might qualify a parent as the default parent:
Being the parent who gave birth to the child.
Being the parent who breastfed/breastfeeds the child.
Being a woman, especially if parenting with a man.
Identifying as a mother, especially as parenting with a man.
Not working outside the home.
Not working as many hours outside the home as your coparent/s.
Not making as much money as your coparent/s.
If you have read my rantings about nuclear families, you are probably noticing something right about now. That’s right! Although nuclear families hold a place of privilege as the “norm” in our society, the more nuclear your family is, the more likely you are to be pushed into default roles. So if you are a woman, who is married to and coparenting with one man, who gave birth to your child and are staying home with them to breastfeed… guess what? Our culture is going to try to make you the default parent. That doesn’t mean that your family structure is bad! It does mean that you have to push back.
What do I mean by the forces that destroy equity? It’s the stuff both inside and outside of your coparenting relationship that constantly reinforces the notion that one parent is the primary parent. When your mother in law says “that’s just the way it is, babies prefer their mothers” tell her she is wrong and hand the baby to your coparent. When you catch yourself saying “I just can’t calm her down like you can!” remember that there are lots of ways to calm a distressed child and it is actually difficult for all parents a lot of the time… and then get back in there.
My kid has two moms, which makes this stuff a little bit easier, but it is still a struggle. I’m still the one who gave birth to him, I’m still breastfeeding him, and I’m the parent who is home with him most days. Some people like to treat my coparent like she’s a “dad” or some other kind of a part-time parent, and we have to be really really clear that that is not the fucking case. Standing up to others, and repeatedly affirming what our actual parenting division of labor is, helps to remind us and keep us on track.
6. Hold yourself accountable for your assumptions.
This is related to the last one. But look, there are going to be times when you fall into stupid assumptions. Regardless of what side of this you are on, you’re going to find yourself slipping into the default sometimes. That’s ok, it doesn’t make you bad, it’s just part of the reality of living in this culture. Holding yourself accountable for those assumptions can be humbling, but it’s also necessary and pretty simple. You just have to acknowledge it. I like to say “I’m sorry… I don’t know why I was assuming that?” and then my wife and I smile because we both know damn well why. And then I stop assuming that it’s my job to pack the diaper bag or whatever.
7. Expect your coparent/s to do the same, and don’t be afraid to hold them accountable if they aren’t holding themselves accountable.
Sometimes, your coparent/s, who are also human, will be the one making stupid assumptions. Call them out. It doesn’t make you a jerk, and it definitely doesn’t make you a nag (hello, sexist trope designed to keep women in their place!). Remember that you both/all want this relationship to be equitable, and you want them to call you out sometimes too.
“Remember that we agreed that when we are both with the baby, we both have to check in before leaving to do something else? I don’t just walk out of the room and leave you alone with our child for an undetermined amount of time, and I expect the same respect and courtesy from you.”
8. If you want it, don’t be afraid to force it.
When it’s been a long ass week, and everyone is burned out (my kid just cut two teeth, I feel you!) and those parenting scales start to tip… whatever you do, do not imagine that it’s inevitable. Do not sigh and say “well, this is the best I can hope for!” You, and your coparent/s, and your child/ren, deserve better than that. Equity is worth the trouble. Hopefully everyone in your coparenting arrangement thinks that it is worth the trouble.