Why does Alec Baldwin fall back in love with ex-wife, Meryl Streep, in the new movie "It's Complicated?" All the problems (AKA, three kids) are now gone, she's no longer stressed out -- and that's very sexy. It turns out you can have a much simpler life -- and a much better husband than the cad Baldwin plays -- and still have the sense that parenthood is messing up your marriage.
And don't imagine it was all easier when the roles of men and women were more traditional and clear cut. A landmark study from the 1950's said that 83 percent of new parents faced a crisis in their marriage. Today, only two thirds of us say that there's a significant drop in marital quality in the first three years of parenthood. And if we want better statistics on marital stress, more of us need to learn to share the day to day work of parenthood more amicably.
Current research says couples are more likely stay married and enjoy marriage if their daily lives remain more similar -- with both parents earning a living and caring for kids.
But co-piloting as a parent is an acquired skill. And many of us give up on trying to be equal parents because the very environment of early parenthood is forbidding -- a stormy sea of broken sleep and amped up emotion. Unrelenting waves of feeding, crying, baby ailments you'd never imagined -- with a ration of smiles from your child that keep you going. "We've rounded the Tierra del Fuego of marriage," I told my husband when our daughter turned three, feeling we'd passed through enough rocky shoals and gale-force winds to rival sailors at South America's tip.
Our two kids are healthy and good-natured, but like most parents, we've had our share of cortisol spikes. Stuck in a rainy traffic jam 40 miles from home one evening, I got a call from my husband -- our toddler son was doubled over in pain and bound for the ER (appendicitis? hernia?) and our four-month old daughter was being left at home with a sitter. "Just please don't remove any organs before I get there" was all I could think, imagining a bevy of hyperactive doctors deconstructing my son. My fear escaped my lips and stung my husband with the barb of maternal second guessing. Then, I felt guilty, he felt mad.
With little kids, so many small things seem like life-and-death decisions. And thanks to sleep deprivation, your fight-and-flight brain sometimes seems to be all that's operating -- and the instincts to fight or flee are often triggered mostly by your spouse, the only other person who cares as much about your offspring. Our two kids are now eight and five -- they no longer wake us at odd hours, they dress and feed themselves and do their homework and chores with moderate (OK, sometimes very large) amounts of nudging. It's much easier to share parenting in the balmier waters of grade school.
Interviewing parents for our book, Getting to 50/50, we find that people have two gut reactions to the idea of men and women as equally engaged parents. Either "that's obvious -- why would you do it any other way?" or "that's impossible." Our view is that it's neither a slam-dunk nor a pipe dream -- what's required is some easy steps that anyone can take. The hard part: repeating those steps over and over for years.
Here are a few tips from the many we heard from the hundreds of couples we talked to:
Let go. Jamie, is a former NFL player and business executive. When he retired to spend more time with their children, Jamie's wife Sara would call him from the office with lists of things she wanted him to do -- he had to push back and say, "I have my own way I do things."
"Having the right mindset is really important. A lot of women say 'Well, my husband helps' What does that mean 'help?' ... If we tell men they have to do it our way or correct them all the time that's not going to work," said Sara. When mothers truly let dads cast half the votes at home -- when we are willing to imagine that male methods in home life might be as valid as female ones -- families win a lot. In Sara's case, her willingness to let go gave her kids two highly engaged parents -- it allowed her to pursue jobs she loved (and become a CEO).
By any means necessary. Many couples told us how they threw out the rules of "what's normal" and proudly invented wild new ways of sharing parenthood. An ambulance nurse described the gymnastics required for her to breastfeed despite a very short maternity leave. When she returned to active duty, they guys on her EMT team gave her some privacy in the back of the ambulance to pump, and made pitstops at her home so her husband could run out and get the milk supply for the evening.
Other husbands and wives pointed out how much easier it is to make your work schedule fit family when both parents have skin in the flexibility game -- when both mom AND dad feel responsible for kids (and even if they work for largely inflexible employers). A journalist at a big paper was married to a technology entrepreneur -- she asked to work the graveyard shift so she could spend her days with their infant. And her husband got home from work and served as evening parent. Another couple -- both teachers at the same school -- went to their principal and asked for staggered schedules. Until their children went to preschool, they traded shifts literally handing off the kids in the hallway at school (where they still work over a decade later).
Telepathy is over-rated -- ask for what you need. "It has been a big part of my personal development to ask for help," says Mary, a lawyer, about her husband Craig (an investment banker when their kids were born). "I used to wonder 'Is he going to notice that I need help?' What I've learned is, no, he's not going to notice. I just have to ask."
In my own case, it wasn't clear to me that my husband, Steve, sensed all challenges I'd face when I returned to work -- the skepticism working moms often see in the eyes of their colleagues and the need to prove you really are still as good at your job. I told Steve I needed him to take a paternity leave after I returned to work so I could have a clear head and know our son was going to be fine. Steve said "no" -- he was starting his own company. But what we got from those conversations was a clear understanding that I was very nervous and that I needed air cover. Steve came up with an alternate plan and said "how about you just pretend I'm on leave -- I'll be the one to get up at night, be in charge of all the doctors visits, childcare disruptions -- you just get back in the game."
Be open-minded. Fifty-fifty, men and women equal sharing the ups and downs career and family, does not require a calculator or spreadsheet. It's simply a way of looking at the world that says men need their kids as much as women do -- and moms need their jobs as much as men do. The parenting work load can be split 60/40 or 90/10 for a while -- but not so long it throws either parent permanently off course. So being flexible day to day is really important. Grace, a partner at an ad firm, talked about how she and her husband Jerry managed getting up at night with their babies. "One night we heard our daughter crying, and I rolled over and said 'hey, I'm pitching to the CEO of Sony tomorrow morning," said Grace. Jerry replied "Yeah, well I'm doing brain surgery at 9AM." Grace got out of bed.
Talking with parents around the country, we continue to hear the wonderfully inventive ways we are making things work: One parent becoming Tsar-for-the-year of some parenting fiefdom -- birthday parties or family dinner, or dentist appointments. Family meetings where kids learn what it takes to run a family -- and kindergarteners volunteer to pack their own lunches and plan dinner (caveat: "pasta" may come to cover all four food groups). Moms who never nag -- one just bought a kitchen whiteboard where she wrote the myriad things that needed doing ("fix bathroom lights," "call plumber," "get garbage bags") with no judgment or expectation about who was going to do them -- and found her husband was happy to silently pick things off the list and cross them off.
But perhaps the best tips of all came from a TV writer who told us about Baby Boot Camp -- a program any couple can put themselves on whether they have a new born or a six year old -- to get dads fully into the parenting act (and yank mom off stage).
1. Leave Dad alone with your child. Lots of research says men do their part at home when women get out of the way. So many of us have been raised to doubt male competence with kids ("men can't multitask," "they aren't intuitive") -- but psychologists have long shown that men, left to their own devices, match women as caregivers. The easiest way to jump start the process is for moms to exit -- go out for a walk, movie or visit your sister for a weekend. (Note: Moms can't leave directives or proxies -- no cheating with mother-in-laws or sitters).
2. Start small. If it's too much to imagine leaving the house, just go to another room and shut the door firmly for as many hours as you can handle. One mom told us her husband was traveling during the week but agreed to cover Friday nights. So at six PM , he'd walk in the door, she'd hand of the baby, take dinner in her room, read and get some sleep until 10 AM on Saturday -- dad slept in the guest room next to their infant. And both parents got up the next day feeling they'd accomplished something.
3. Never to late to enroll. While boot camp is most useful the earlier you can start, it's open to parents of any vintage. Couples told us how a dad stepped in -- took time off between jobs, when a mom's parents were ill -- and were amazed to find how good they were at the job. "I called my husband from across the country and he was crying," the wife of a busy lawyer told us. "He said 'I didn't know I could do this job. I thought the kids wouldn't respond to me like they do to you.'" Other dads told us the pride they felt when, after putting mom on leave, their kids ran to them -- rather than their wives -- when they fell and scraped their knees.
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