I cannot tell you how many mom friends I have spoken to or blog posts I have read or articles I’ve stumbled across that say essentially the same thing: I don’t understand how the balanced and healthy division of labor and responsibilities between my partner and I changed so drastically after having a baby. It’s not griping or whining or man-bashing and it’s especially not nagging. It just seems to be a pretty common enough occurrence. Why does the birth of a baby sometimes turn a “normal” and balanced marriage into one that occasionally seems like one big traditional gender role cliche?
Part of it seems to be a natural progression. For a mother, especially one who exclusively breastfeeds, the bulk of early newborn care falls to her. Unless she is committed to pumping and committed to shoving her partner off the bed at 2 am to go get the bottle out of the fridge (at which point she’s awake anyway), it’s mostly a one-
man woman show for a number of weeks at the beginning. For the first month or two of a baby’s life, their biggest need is FOODFOODFOOD. Second to this is SOOTHESOOTHESOOTHE (usually solved by FOODFOODFOOD). It is what it is and it mostly has to be. Yet, I knew this and I understood this and still found myself alarmingly ragey and unbelievably jealous. Shuffling over to a darkened room during the night, half-dressed, half-lucid, with a blissfully sleeping spouse—there is no scenario I can think of yet in our marriage that inspired more murderous thoughts than that. But it is what it is.
One night when Isobel was probably two or three weeks old, Brandon vowed to stay awake with me for a few night’s feedings to keep me company. He sat on the floor of Isobel’s room as I tried to wrangle her into position to try for a decent latch (something that still wasn’t perfected) and his eyes kept closing and the pets were splayed out near him, giving us both side eye for keeping them awake. I finally said, “Just go to bed. There’s no point in us both being tired in the morning.” So he left. Those moments—the ones where it is just you and your baby, your brain so foggy from sleep deprivation that you can barely speak, when you feel like you are the only person awake in the entire world—they are very lonely moments indeed.
A key problem that Brandon and I identified early on was that I tended to just do something instead of waiting for him to do it. My efficiency trumped my desire for him to assist—and then I’d blame him for it! Oh, hello! I’m falling into every parenting cliche ever, thanks! I tried to do better but it was hard. It’s such a bizarre dichotomy: I want you to help, but I don’t have the patience to let you learn. I’d get better about this and then worse. It came it fits and starts.
We laugh sometimes (sometimes) now about how quickly we fell into every cliche we swore we wouldn’t. Frankly, we still struggle with the occasional competitive “I did this, now it’s your turn” nonsense. It’s so hard not to. Even in the moment where these stupid see-saw arguments are happening, I know that it’s ridiculous and yet I can’t stop the words coming out of my mouth. Martyr diarrhea. “But I did this all week and now it’s your turn BLARGGHHHHH FIX IT GOODBYE!”
To be fair, there are some universal truths we have discovered that have made things bearable for both of us. A few months ago we had a long conversation about what we’d done wrong. We concluded that on my end, I’d get resentful but wouldn’t always ask for help when I should have. On his, he’d often step back and wait for me to make a first move because he was intimidated by how well I knew Isobel’s schedule and/or needs. If you’ve been in this vicious cycle, you know how difficult it is to break. One person has to say, “Enough!” It was hard for me to be the one to say it because it was oddly fulfilling to be the hard-working martyr. (I do not recommend doing this.) It was hard for Brandon to say enough because, damn, it’s so much easier when she takes care of everything.
I’m guessing that the thing that’s so wonderful about Mother’s Day is that someone else is making the decisions, someone else is fully invested in making sure you aren’t the only one feeding the kid(s), someone else is actively thinking about ways to make your parenting role less arduous by stepping up a little bit more boldly.
If you’re a new parent, maybe you can learn from our mistakes earlier than we did. Mom: it’s easy to take over everything because you’ve probably been the one that’s there. You know everything. You know where all the clothes are, you can find every paci in the house, you’ve got the schedule down. You know she or he likes this, but not that. You know which pile of laundry is dirty and which is clean (although they’re stacked awfully close together on the bed but that’s neither here nor there.) You’ve got this. But you don’t want to. You want someone else to get it. But you can’t let go. You can do it faster. You can do it in the time it takes to explain how. But you have to let go. You have to speak up and say, “It’s time for the baby to nap. Feed him. Put him down. I’m going to eat some cheese. See you in thirty minutes.” Walk away. Don’t explain how you do it. If you hear frantic rustling or panicked noises, do not respond. Eat your cheese. I should have spoken up more and asked for more help. I still struggle with this, although on a much, much smaller scale. But there is no dignity in quiet resentment about a task that you never asked for help with. I wish I’d learned that earlier.
Dad: Just step in. You see the baby needs something. Don’t wait to be asked if you can help. Just do it. There are, at most, maybe five possible solutions for a fussy newborn. Try them all until you find one that works. Change a diaper. Feed. Swaddle/rock. Give a paci. Distract with a walk or a book or an activity gym. You know how to do these things! You can do it as good as mom can. (Maybe better.) But what if baby is hungry and you don’t have the proper mammary equipment? This is most important: if Mom is exclusively breastfeeding and you can only help with occasional pumped feedings, you need to find a way to fill that void. If Mom is feeding baby, you do the dishes. If Mom is feeding baby, you make dinner. If Mom is feeding baby, you do the laundry. You don’t have boobs, so make yourself useful. If you aren’t sure what to do, just ask, “What can I do?” Those are some damn beautiful words. When Brandon asks me that, I see the stars, the moon. I have hearts in my eyes. Nothing sounded more romantic to me than that phrase as I rocked a crying baby for hours. What can you do? GodDAMN, I love you for asking.
Parenting is some hard shit and it wears everyone out. Be nice to each other. It makes everything seem a lot easier when your partner is nearby with a smile on their face and a cup of coffee in their hand. We’re still working on navigating our marriage through the relatively new lens of parenting, but it’s getting so much better. So there’s your last cliche for this post—it gets better. Like everyone says it will.
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