I spouted off a whole lot of stuff about parenting and kids before I had a child; I now recognize like 97 percent of that stuff as ideological garbage. But acting like you know everything is a great coping mechanism for when you’re about to enter into an arena you’re a little terrified of, and I’m not alone in my pre-parent (somewhat misguided, but deeply felt) ideas about how I would parent.
Here is the truth, though: This is how two peacenik pacifist parents end up with a seven-year-old who loves pretending to shoot everyone and blow things up (and who has mastered making a machine gun sound with his tongue, but is not remotely interested in turning that skill into fluent Spanish). It turns out that actually having a kid changes everything you thought you knew, and that most of us are spending a lot of our pre-kid lives asking the wrong questions about what parenthood is.
Since we had our kid several years before most of our friends started even thinking about babies, we’re now experiencing the parenthood of our friends through a different lens: that of the somewhat-experienced parent. Don’t get me wrong—we’re not experts; we’re only through year seven of this parenting program. On top of that, we’re experienced with only our child—my child at two isn’t your child at two, and he’s certainly not your child at two plus your new baby combined. I might have advice that worked for me, but it doesn’t mean it will work for you.
You want an example of the kind of questions that don’t really matter? Before our son was born, I remember having numerous discussions about whether or not we would make our own baby food, whether or not our child would co-sleep (trust me, co-sleeping has nothing to do with how independent your child is or isn’t), what nicknames were okay for our kid (who cares?), and what we would absolutely forbid our family from calling him (…). You know, things that aren’t wildly important in the grand scheme of things, because it turns out you don’t have much to do with what food your kid likes, co-sleeping is a lifestyle choice, and nicknames? I don’t even care. You know what I do care a whole lot more about? Having a partner who is truly one hundred percent invested in all aspects of this parenting thing. That is at the top of my list.
So today, I’m offering up the questions we should have asked a lot earlier. These are the conversations that I recommend my friends who are thinking about kids really get down and dirty in discussing with their partners. Because no, you can’t solve problems before you have them. But yes, you can set yourself up for more sanity further down the line.
Will Your Partner take on 50 PERCENT of the RESPONSIBILITY?
Until I had a child, I never understood what it was like to share my body and mind so fully with someone else, nor did I understand how fully one could really need another adult around just to get an hour or two to totally clock out. While I know that not all partners can drop their careers when a baby happens, I also know that all partners need to be prepared to be as available as the parent doing the primary caregiving. For a lot of people (I’m looking at you, dudes), that’s a hard thing to commit to. Doing this often takes serious compromises (like slowing down your career track, or working a punishing second shift to help make ends meet). But you know what else takes serious compromises? Raising a kid.
It doesn’t matter if one of you is working out of the house and one of you is home with the baby: you are both human beings. You are both working. You are both equally valuable and you both need to be at your best to perform. My husband and I didn’t arrive at our version of what 50 percent responsibility looks like easily, and I have had to wage many a battle and instigate many a discussion to get here (and I haven’t always been right every single time). I’ve had to point out, time and time again, the many ways women are expected to default to doing All The Things with little to no assistance from their partners—aka the people who also live in their houses.
My husband and I didn’t have these conversations before we became parents, but we should have. We should have sat down together and said, “You know what? It doesn’t matter what color co-sleeper we get. It does matter that we both are fully invested in being there for each other as partners and as parents, and for our child.” And then we should have figured out what the hell we meant by that.
Do You Both Know How To give (And RECEIVE) Emotional Support?
One of the most important things you need to do before a child ever sets a tiny toe in your home is to establish emotional support in your relationship. Maybe your husband doesn’t express his feels that often, or maybe your wife isn’t into labeling her own emotions, but whatever, I don’t care. When you’re new to parenthood, waking up in the middle of the night to feed a baby is an emotional experience unto itself. Holding a screaming one-year-old while his molars cut through means everybody’s crying. The first time your kid has a fever over 103 degrees you’re going to freak out. What do you need to get through that? Figure out how to have those emotional conversations now (hell, bring in a therapist, or some good books to help you if you need to). Because if you’re trying to figure out emotional communication on extreme sleep deprivation, you might not be at your best.
And another thing? Emotionally supporting one another doesn’t all of a sudden become important if you have kids—it matters all the time. The onus of responsibility isn’t only on one of you, and each of you needs to know the other is there. I think tending to our emotions is just as important as tending to our bodies, if not more.
Do You Fully Trust Your Partner? (If Not, Why?)
Additionally, you need to figure out how much you actually trust your partner. I know! Since you married them, you’re going to tell me “I trust them a hundred percent!” But then when I ask you if they’re always on point when it comes to safety, or if they always nail it when it comes to getting the right groceries from the store… you might well say no. And then you need to work on it if you find out the amount you trust them is not very much, or if your trust varies based on the situation.
When it comes to your baby, your child, you need to make sure you’re comfortable with your partner handling parenting without you. I don’t mean in a tragic way; I just mean that sometimes you’re going to need or want to be somewhere besides where your kid is, and sometimes your partner will be the one with the kid. This is a good thing! Ask your partner to have an equal role in feeding and/or diapering your kid, or to alternate taking your kid to doctors’ appointments—with or without both of you there. If there are two parents involved at home, there can be two parents involved at the doctor, at school—wherever your kid goes.
Similarly, if you can’t handle the idea of your partner watching the baby for a few hours while you’re not there, you need to sit down and figure out what the issue is. As someone who stressed about that last one for a few months before realizing how ridiculous I was being, let me tell you this: The relationship my son and my husband have is beautiful, but it only became beautiful once I backed off and let them actually have it. Being Mom doesn’t mean you’re always right or you know best, whatever your hormones and the Internet may tell you. Sometimes that feeling you get that tells you the baby will be scarred forever if he or she doesn’t see you for three hours? That feeling is lying to you. If you want a supportive partner who is also a compassionate, on-point coparent, treat him or her accordingly.
Are You (Both!) Willing To hire help when you need it?
You know something else you should probably talk about? Whether or not you want to hire help once you have a kid, and what kind of help. An au pair? A housekeeper? A once-a-week nanny? A night nurse? ALL OF IT IS FINE. I’m of the opinion that if you can afford it and you’re paying a living wage, you should go out and hire all the help you need. There is zero shame in hiring someone to do the night feeds in your house, so you can wake up rested and be a better parent/employee/spouse/human. There’s no fault in hiring someone to clean up your house because you’re so damn busy. There’s nothing wrong with using meal delivery services because you work forty to fifty hours a week, or using them because you’re home with the kid(s) all day every day.
If there is one gift I would go back and give myself (besides the ability to recognize that any birth is magical, no matter what it looks like), it would be the knowledge that it was totally fine that I paid a babysitter to come watch my child in addition to enrolling him in half days at preschool five days a week so I could get work done. Because it was. Whatever that looks like for you, do that. Don’t question it, and don’t listen to anyone who says you should. You can always un-hire help if it turns out you don’t need it, right? So go for it, and don’t let anyone (especially not your most progressive friends, since they can, surprisingly, come out the hardest against this) subject you to any moral tirades for doing so.
Again: livable wage? Check. Good working conditions? Check. Do it.
this will look different for everyone
Okay, now take everything I said above, swish it around, and throw it away. I mean, consider it, but also know this: What works for me, in my household with my husband and my child and my life experiences, probably isn’t going to work for you. But I do encourage you to take what I’ve said and figure out how it translates to your life. It’s not realistic to expect that every household can have two partners with work schedules that make it possible for them to both be with the kid(s) the same amount of time—I get that. It’s not even desirable for everyone. That’s cool.
Another thing? When it comes to parenting, I don’t know most things. But I do know that staying sane, loving my partner, and having the mental capacity to legitimately enjoy life are all profoundly important to me, and I know that those things came much more easily after having a series of long, hard discussions with my husband.
The days in which women did everything at home and men did everything outside the home (and the idea that anything that happens outside the home is infinitely more important, harder, and more intense than anything that happens inside it) are gone. They’re finished; they’re done. It’s not radical to establish equality in your parenting relationship, so… go for it. Demand it. Make it happen, and reap the hell out of those benefits.
If you have kids, what parenting advice do you regularly dish out? If you don’t have kids but think you might one day, what are you totally freaking out about?