One of the most powerful parenting lessons that I’ve had to learn, over and over again, is that 3:00 am, when your baby is screaming, is not the proper time for a conversation about navigating new parenthood as equals.
Even though my husband and I had exhausted (or so we thought) the topic of co-parenting our new son together, we kept finding the discussion needed some clarification. And we often found that the topic needed finessing during a diaper change or feeding session in the wee hours of the morning, when both the need for sleep and our emotions were running high.
Our marriage had been built on utilizing each other’s areas of gifting, so it made perfect sense that our parenting would be similarly egalitarian. After much prayer and discussion, we had concluded that the biblical view of marriage is a marriage of equals, rooted in mutual submission. Our marriage had been strengthened by submitting our lives to one another. Parenting, then, was another opportunity to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” as commanded in Ephesians 5:21. Rather than just one parent shouldering all of the responsibility for the care of our newborn, we looked forward to both of us changing our lives for our baby. In the same way that we submit one to another, we would also have to submit our desires and schedules to the needs of our son.
Despite the reality that parenting roles are more equal than they might have been in the past, mothers still take on a greater share of multitasking than fathers. For example, a December 2011 study from the American Sociological Review found that, in dual-earner families, mothers spend an average of ten more hours a week multitasking than fathers, and enjoy the juggling less than men (Offera and Schneider). Setting up a system for equally sharing parenting tasks can guard against resentment that one parent might feel with an unevenly distributed workload.
Equally-shared parenting not only strengthens our marriage and guards against resentment, we also hope that in the future it will allow our son to see a picture of the dignity and equality that we all share in the image of Christ. In fact, this picture we present to him is likely to have a stronger effect on his own view of mutual relationships than many other images that he is presented. If my husband and I truly want him to believe that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” it needs to be modeled at home.
Our son Hudson is now past infancy, and we are still learning how to share our parenting responsibilities. I’m sure that each new stage of his development, as well as the ebbs and flows of our work and ministry roles, will bring challenges in co-parenting. However, we’ve learned that a little preparation can make a difference in preparing to parent equally.
Challenge Your Assumptions
Even though I believe that my husband is perfectly capable of parenting our son as well as I am, I still find myself thinking that as the mother, I can do something better. Not only is this superior attitude wrong, it is also disrespectful and hurtful to my husband. I often find that I need to challenge my own assumptions, and recognize that even I—a passionate egalitarian—am capable of resorting to gender stereotypes rather than parenting based upon our gifts.
My husband grew up with a stay-at-home mother, while I grew up with a mother who worked outside of the home but still managed the bulk of the traditional female duties at home. Much like our families of origin shape our marriage relationship, the gender-specific roles we each saw modeled in our homes has affected our parenting. One way to combat this has been to discuss our childhoods and who was responsible for the parenting. Did your father change diapers? Who was responsible for taking the kids to doctor appointments? Was something in your home considered “women’s work”?
By challenging our underlying assumptions about parenthood, we open up the path to move past them into a mutually-satisfying parenting relationship based on gifting, rather than prescribed gender roles.
Plan Ahead for Nursing
There are some roles, of course, that a father cannot fill. If a mother is planning to breastfeed, have conversations before the child is born about dividing responsibilities equally. For my husband and me, this meant that he took a greater role in diaper duty. Breastfeeding (especially in the first month or two) takes a lot of time out of a mother’s schedule. If this is something you feel strongly about, make sure that you will divide other tasks. My husband also chose to stay up with me for middle-of-the-night feedings during his paternity leave. That was very helpful for making sure that I didn’t feel alone in feeding our son.
Every few weeks, my husband and I have a conversation about how parenting is working out for the two of us. Sometimes this has meant that one of us has to bring up something that we feel the other could do better. Honesty is important and helps to keep a marriage strong and prevent against one parent resenting the other.
Remember to Show Appreciation
There was a period of time where it seemed like I was nursing Hudson all night long. Sensing how physically exhausted I was becoming, my husband chose to rock the baby back to sleep once he had been fed. After a week or two of this, I realized that he was staying up much more that I was. I made sure to thank him for taking on this role and allowing me to rest. Gratitude goes a long way in guarding against resentment.
Have Grace for One Another
New parenthood is stressful. If you are counting diaper changes, and who has rocked the baby the most, and who is more tired, you’re probably not having grace with one another. It has been important for the two of us to realize that a grace-filled parenting relationship is often quite unequal, with good reason. As our schedules and the demands of our son shift, we find short seasons when one of us might be doing more than the other. For example, my husband is able to recognize when I might need more sleep, so he’ll take an extra shift rocking our son back to sleep. Similarly, I can recognize when he needs a break, too. The Apostle Paul reminds us in Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This is not only wonderful marital advice, but also great parenting advice.
New parenthood is a physically and emotionally exhausting time, but with a bit of preparation and communication, it can also be a time of mutual sacrifice and bonding for a husband and wife. As we have prepared to parent equally, my husband and I have discovered that, amidst the dirty diapers and midnight feedings, we have found another way to honor Christ and model grace to one another and our family.
What tips do you have for egalitarian parenting?