09/05/2012 03:29 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

The Truth I Didn't Want to Acknowledge About My Parenting

Last Sunday morning was a disaster. My wife and I got our two young boys (Jay, 3, and Oscar, 1) out of bed on time, but then things went downhill. Jay kept beating up his brother. Wally smeared peanut butter through his hair then pooped in his fresh diaper. By the time we made it into the car to go to church, my wife, Caroline, and I were both in decidedly unholy moods.

That morning was stressful -- in fact, much more stressful than two recent mornings when Caroline and I had each parented alone. Two Sundays ago, she was out of town for work and I brought the boys to church by myself. A week later, I left before dawn for a road race and my wife had the boys to herself until lunchtime. In both cases, our time with our kids was easier than usual.

This is a pattern we've noticed before: Single parenting is often calmer than co-parenting. It's a counterintuitive finding -- you'd think that the more adults there are to share the child care load, the better. It also feels awkward to say this out loud. Who wants to acknowledge that working together with their spouse sometimes makes things harder?

After church, my wife and I talked about why parenting stress is sometimes higher when we're together than when we're apart. We came up with two explanations.

The first is that our oldest son is more of a handful when both of us are around. Caroline and I each find that when we have him by ourselves, we feel more connected to him (which gives us more control over him) and that it's easier to get him marching to the desired tempo. When both of us are parenting together, Jay has a knack for finding the seam between us: He occupies this semi-lawless, no-man's land where neither Caroline nor I have real, immediate authority over him.

The second dynamic Caroline and I have noticed is that we compound each other's stress. When I parent by myself and things get stressful, I vent for a moment and the stress dissipates. When Caroline and I parent together and things get stressful, I vent for a moment and the released stress bounces between us, gaining momentum as it goes.

For example, if I spill Wally's bottle when I'm by myself and I say, "Fuck," that's the end of it. But if I spill Wally's bottle when Caroline and I are together and say, "Fuck," now I'm aware of how my outburst affects her. At the same time, she starts modifying her behavior to give me more space because obviously I'm on edge. Then I recognize that she's giving me more space and I feel: A) guilty that she's now having to change her behavior to accommodate me; and B) a little annoyed, thinking, like, "I don't need accommodation! Everything's fine! I'm not stressed! Just go about your business!"

This dynamic has definitely existed as long as we've been parents but we've only begun to talk about it in the last week. And, though it's a small sample size for sure, I'm happy to report that our recent mornings have been very tranquil. This suggests, I think, the value of simply naming a problem. Having identified the ways in which we compound each other's stress, it's easier to laugh at ourselves: "Oh, we're doing that thing again."

Now, if we could only get Jay to develop a meta-perspective on his own lawless behavior, then we might really be getting somewhere.