How Do You Practice Feminist Co-Parenting?

Hate the term, love the practice

Before we had a baby, David hated the term “co-parenting.” Living in a hippy co-op in college destroyed David’s love of both management by consensus, and anything that sounds oozingly liberal (like co-parenting, apparently). I reminded him of this recently, but he was too tired to remember his previous irritation. The truth is, as much as we both find the term co-parenting vaguely annoying, it’s pretty central to the way we try to approach raising a kid. Having an egalitarian marriage is hard work, but there are times that egalitarian parenting feels near impossible. We spend most days trying to remember that we’re supposed to be co-equal at this.

In this post, I’m going to talk about relatively gendered parenting, where one person (normally a woman) ends up being the person who carried the child and/or is the primary caregiver. If your situation is different, we’d all love to learn from you in the comments (seriously). The tricky thing is, both biology and culture lay the groundwork for things being fundamentally unequal. If you end up parents by biological means, after nine months of carrying the baby, a nursing mother is, by default, the primary caregiver. During our early weeks of parenthood, I would spend eight to ten hours a day nursing, with David providing backup support. Even now that nursing has reduced to far more manageable levels, I still have a different kind of bond with our baby than he does. In the kiddo’s mind, Dad is for play and hugs, but Mom is what provides the core stability in his life (nursing = comfort).

But it’s not just biology. We live in a world that is structured in a fundamentally unequal way, when it comes to parenthood. It’s not just that people’s judgement about us having a child in daycare falls completely on me. It’s that in the workplace, there is a near universal unspoken assumption that men have wives to back them up. It’s harder for men to leave work every day to pick up a kid from daycare. It’s harder for men to ask for the flexibility they need to serve as co-equal partners.

All together, and even with the best intentions, you can fall into patterns that you don’t want to fall into. Mom picks up baby from school, because Dad can’t get off work. Mom takes baby to the doctors, because Dad can’t get off work. Mom is the one to run and pick up baby when he falls, because baby starts screaming for mom. Mom has a hard time functioning during the day, because she’s the one up at night nursing the kid. Creating a true co-parenting situation can be damn hard. It’s more than possible, but it takes a lot of work as a couple, a lot of conversations, a few fights, and constant fine tuning. And I’m not convinced we’ll ever get it quite right, though we’ll die trying.

Recently, APW commenters asked that we compile a list of questions you should discuss as a couple before you start down the road to kids, as part of an open thread on feminist co-parenting. In my book, I was able to put together a concise starter list of questions you should ask before you get hitched, and I imagined this list would look much the same. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that asking questions isn’t exactly the right model here, though knowing how to ask questions of each other is really important. The problem with simply asking questions, is that the answers you give before you have a baby might end up being different than the answers you’d give after you have the kid. This isn’t because “parenting changes you,” but because situations change. You might decide in advance that as in interfaith family, you’ll never have a Christmas Tree. (We did.) And then when the baby is born, you might realize that emotionally, the tree is something you can’t quite give up. (Me! Sigh.) You might decide that you’ll stay home, and then your partner might lose their job, and it all goes out the window.

What’s important, is that you take the time before having a kid, to make sure your relationship is on a solid foundation. (Working on all these issues is a really good idea kids or no kids, but a potential baby really can add immediacy to a situation.) This a great time to consider visiting a couples counselor for a little tune up. All couples have a few issues that they’re working on (and might be working on till the end of time) and it’s easier to try to reach stability on these issues BEFORE you have a baby screaming in your face at one in the morning, who just. won’t. stop.

These are the areas where I’d suggest working on your foundation, before a baby (or two) arrive on the scene:

  • (Un) Equal Division of Labor. Here is where I’m going to suggest something crazy—before a baby arrives on the scene, it’s helpful for the male/non-primary partner to be pulling more than their fair share of the load. The reason that David and I have been able to survive our first year of parenting as well as we did was simply this: David was the cook, and David was the alpha on cleaning. When we added a baby into the mix, I still ended up doing significantly more than 50% of the labor. But if David hadn’t been rocking it out already, I would have been left with nearly 100%, and our marriage might have buckled under the pressure. (Time to teach them to cook!)
  • Money. Maybe, for whatever list of complex reasons, you haven’t combined your finances. I would humbly suggest that now is the time to get on that. Even if you are both returning to the work force, chances are, one of you is going to be taking a big financial hit with maternity leave. Plus, you now have combined your genes, so combining your wallets is nothing after that. That little human needs to be supported by both of you, and you now have a future that needs to be jointly planned for. You have a laundry list of potential things to plan and save for: daycare (or as we call it “private school”), a house or apartment, baby clothes, the kids food, you know, college. It’s not so much fun to say “Your turn to buy him clothes this time,” or “Can you treat me to dinner? I can’t afford it, with daycare, since I make so much less than you.” (That said: we still keep our own checking accounts for spending. Babies mean stress, and stress means you sometimes need to buy electronics without asking permission. Plus, it’s funny to go dutch on dates, and make the waitress think you don’t know each other that well yet.)
  • Sex. If there is a myth of marital bed death, that has nothing on the doom and gloom you’ll hear about never getting laid again after the kids come to town. Unsurprisingly, the reality is more complicated. Sex after kids can be hard. It can be physically hard (I thought six weeks after you were FINE. Then my OB informed me that was… less than the total truth.) Plus you’re tired, there is a new person in your house, your body is different, the works. Having laid the foundation of a good sex life can be your saving grace here.
  • Family. You know that problem you’re having with your extended family(s)? YOU know the one. That thing where you can’t say no to your mom/you’re still splitting Christmas when you don’t want to/your father-in-law is homophobic and you don’t know how to deal/etc.? You don’t have to completely sort it out now. You might never sort it out completely. But now is a really good time to make sure you can have a conversation with your partner about it. If you shut down every time your partner tries to talk to you about your mom’s emotionally manipulative behavior? Do the (shitty) emotional work to fix that situation now, before you’re fighting over how mom’s manipulative behavior is impacting the kids.
  • Career. I swear to god, that after all these years of feminism, it should not be this hard for women to get their careers taken seriously, even after they have kids. But if you find yourself justifying that your job is important, or that you earn good money, or that the work you do is really interesting? It’s time to have a long hard talk with your partner about why what you do is important, and why it will continue to be important (or not) after you have kids.
  • Religion. You have that sorted out, right? If you’re going to take your kid to church, if you as a family are going to talk about God, what it means to you to be Jewish, fill in the blank here? Good. Because if you don’t, totally, exactly, have it sorted, now is the time.
  • Dates. I saved the fun one for last. After kids, it can be really important to prioritize occasionally (or often) getting away to just be a couple. Get into a habit of making each other feel special, and do fun things together now. When people tell you to “Enjoy it, because it won’t be like this after kids,” tell them “No, we’re PRACTICING for kids.” And then go home and practice the sex one too.

So with that, I’m tossing it to you. I’m hoping that lots of you have way more ideas (and experience) with co-parenting than I do. For the parents in the house: How are you practicing feminist parenting? What questions would you suggest couples tackle together before kids? For those of you thinking about kids: What kinds of pre-kids conversations are you having? What are your concerns? For those of you not ever having kids: What is your best relationship advice for us? Let’s discuss.

Photo: Emily Takes Photos

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