A mum of two, Rachel Rabkin Peachman realised that as she holds down the metaphorical fort in her family – she’s the one who books dental appointments, remembers to pack jazz shoes, and knows exactly where the snow pants are stored if anyone asks – her husband gets to be the “fun parent”, the one who builds literal forts with the kids. She unpacks the disparity in her essay “Sharing the Parenting Spotlight”, explaining how easily mums and dads get locked into distinct (and often gendered) parenting roles, and how unfair that is for everyone.
There’s the fun vs. serious parent. The capable vs. the clueless one. And of course, the classic “good cop” vs. “bad cop” dynamic, which in extreme cases, can have lasting negative effects on a kid’s health.
It’s true that different parenting styles can benefit children. But parents sometimes evolve into caricatures of themselves when they feel they must compensate for what they think the other parent is failing to do, or if the other parent paints them that way. A mother who won’t let the kids watch Star Wars on a school night suddenly becomes Super Strict Tiger Mum. A father who works late and isn’t aware that Cora likes her meatballs separated from her spaghetti becomes Inept Dad. Here are some ways to get out of these traps, and share all the wonderful and terrible aspects of parenting more equitably.
Share the ‘Mental Load’ of Chores
In an online discussion about the topic, one mother wrote, “To be the fun parent, you have to be able to ‘live in the moment’ and ignore the dishes in the sink, the laundry in the hamper, and the stains in the bathroom. You have to be able to forget that everyone is going to need to eat in _ minutes and not wonder what’s in the fridge. So … the parent who manages all the crap is never the fun parent because their head’s always buzzing with survival nonsense.”
As Peachman points out in her piece, research shows that “mothers handle the majority of household chores and child care – and the mental burden of organising it all – even when they work the same hours as their husbands at a job”. Lifehacker writer Nick Douglas offers some ways that men to can help carry the load, and share this “invisible management job”. (No. 1: Anticipate needs.)
Switch Roles as an Experiment
Remember in Modern Family when Claire and Phil trade discipline roles for a day and she gets to do the fun stuff while he oversees the bathroom cleaning? Some marriage therapists recommend that co-parents try this so they can build confidence in themselves – and each other. Dr Samantha Rodman, a clinical psychologist in Maryland, gives this assignment to a mum who says she does the “majority of punishing” while her husband “sits there not saying a word”:
Implement a new rule: Your husband does all the discipline when he’s home for a period of one week. And you back him up. This can allow you to see which of your daughter’s behaviours actually bother him enough to react. It may be eye opening how different your views are on what requires discipline. It also may allow you to see that there are different ways to skin a cat; maybe your husband’s approach (whatever it is, even ignoring her) will work with your child.
While you’re at it, switch up your duties, too. You may have fallen into certain roles simply because of the parenting tasks you do. Try alternating who does what, whether it’s getting the kids dressed, driving them to school, doing bath time, cooking dinner, or reading bedtime stories.
‘You See It, You Deal With It’
As clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore tells The Mother Company, these should be the words to live by – not “Wait until your mum/dad gets home.” If you see Max squeeze glue into his sister’s hair, do something now, as handing off discipline only solidifies the “good cop” vs. “bad-cop” dynamic.
For bigger decisions, you can always use the keyword “yet,” says Julia Simens, author of Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child. She gives the example: “We have not decided if you get the money to go to the movies – yet.”
Rules can always be revisited and revised later, but what’s important is that parents present a united front. That takes a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations, and trust in your co-parent’s abilities. Kids need consistency and stability, and they need to know their parents are both in charge.