In doing a Google search on the word co-parenting, I quickly found that co-parenting is a word we reserve for divorced families, not intact ones. Isn’t it strange that in 2012 we don’t have a word—a common vocabulary—to describe mothers and fathers fully sharing in the care of raising their children? Instead our collective norm has been to become co-parents only after the love relationship has ended and the heartache and expense of divorce have transpired.
In many families both parents work outside the home but in the large majority of dual-earner families, women remain the primary family strategist and manager while men prioritize and emphasize their professional work after becoming a parent. According to research, new fathers expand their work hours while new mothers reduce theirs (post maternity leave) and fathers log longer hours at work than men without children. Sadly, tension is common all the way around for working parents. It is nearly impossible to have a conversation with a group of working mothers without some reference to their frustration at carrying the disproportionate share of the load at home. At the same time, many men dread the frequent admonishments to do more at home, struggling to imagine how they can add anymore to an already overflowing plate. They find it difficult to understand the increased professional pressure they feel after becoming a father and the conflict they experience with wanting—at the same time—to be a more involved parent.
How can parents prevent this dynamic from taking over? How can they become—and remain—co-parents through time, both staying engaged in their careers while also sharing far more equitably in the care of their children?
Through my research with professional couples who have successfully become co-parents—rather than devolving into typical gender roles after children—I have identified several factors which support this shared approach. What follows are six strategies for making co-parenting a reality before divorce, not after it. You might think of them as preventive medicine.
- Getting fathers involved from the outset. The great majority of men take off very little time after the birth of a child. In one study of approximately 1,000 fathers in managerial and professional roles, more than 75% took off less than a week and over 15% did not take off a single day. Yet this early window represents such an incredible opportunity to both bond with your child and more important, to get comfortable with being a parent. Most of us, women and men alike, experience the birth of a child as very intense and are on an extremely steep learning curve in understanding how to care for a newborn. Fathers taking more time for parental leave provides them the opportunity to learn, alongside their wives, and to cast the foundation for a long-term parenting partnership One father I interviewed described his paternity leave with his first son as an epiphany that cemented his strong desire to be a highly engaged father. Nearly 15 years later, he feels gratified by the depth of his relationships with his three sons and he credits those early days of parenting for setting him on this path.
- Recognizing that both mothers—and fathers—bring important skills and perspectives to the parenting table. As a society, we do not honor the parenting instincts and skills that men possess and we do not invite men to the parenting table as equal partners. For couples who practice co-parenting within marriage, there is far greater recognition of the vital role that each parent plays. Research shows that mothers and fathers do bring some different strengths to the complex, multifaceted job of raising children. Fathers tend to wrestle and play more actively with their children while mothers tend toward snuggling. Importantly, both approaches build vital skills with active play building confidence and self regulatory skills while snuggling promotes intimacy. One very tangible way to avoid moms automatically taking control in the parenting realm is to ensure that dads have time alone with their child (ren) on a very regular basis. Men report that it is during this time alone that they build their parenting competence and confidence. One dad I interviewed shared how uncomfortable he felt the first few times he took his infant son solo. But he quickly learned that he could endure his son being fussy or crying and soon developed his own toolbox of strategies for calming his son during these times. Like mothers, fathers develop their parenting chops, not surprisingly, by parenting.
- Investing in your relationship as a couple. The intense demands of life after becoming a parent quickly crowds out quality time and space for the couple relationship. The intense modern parenting model makes the needs of the child(ren) front and center while giving short shrift to the needs of the adults in the family. Yet the health of the marital/ partner relationship is the fuel that makes the family engine run over the long term and without some TLC, how can couples expect their relationship to stay strong and vibrant? It is not that women and men in co-parenting families don’t also struggle, sometimes mightily, to make time for themselves as a couple but there is a far greater awareness of the need to prioritize their relationship. This awareness in turn leads to effort and more frequent opportunities to bond emotionally and romantically. In my research, couples found the time away from their children helped to replenish their relationship and strengthen their foundation so as to better weather the demands of raising children.
- Safeguarding special time for each member of the couple. One of the benefits of the co-parenting model is greater flexibility in the family system for each parent to spend some time on what they individually enjoy. Women and men that I interviewed spent time on a wide range of personal interests ranging from playing a musical instrument to participating on a sports team to volunteering for a cause that was highly meaningful for them. One technique that couples have employed with great success is the time to yourself ritual. Each member of the couple has an ongoing, mostly predictable time to him or herself to do what they like—perhaps one night a week after work or an afternoon every other weekend. They might catch up on work, do a project at home, meet up with a friend or just relax and read. Life sometimes intervenes and the special time doesn’t work out as planned but the commitment to carving out this time for each member of the couple on an ongoing basis goes a long way in helping each individual to feel more rejuvenated and to keep resentment at bay. Women and men encouraging their spouses to take special time for themselves makes the other partner feel loved and valued.
- Sharing ownership of family and economic management. A key differentiator in co-parenting families is that mothers and fathers share ownership of all that needs to be accomplished to care for a family, including breadwinning responsibilities. Ownership is different from participation in that owners feel accountability and responsibility for ensuring things are handled, whether or not that person is directly involved in execution. How does shared ownership work in practice? A very concrete tactic is using weekly meetings as a vehicle to review what is coming up at home and at work. Think of it as a home management status meeting. The couple can then coordinate to make sure that all the bases are covered. They can determine how to manage if someone needs to stay later at work on particular nights, someone needs to travel for work or a child has a doctor’s appointment. Basically the goal is to identify any activities that alter the typical flow. Shared ownership also means big picture planning so as to jointly manage major segments of responsibility such as buying presents for family and friends throughout the year, planning child care during the summer for school-age children or volunteering at school. There is no right way to split up these responsibilities but ongoing conversation and joint planning reinforces the sense of being a team. One dad I interviewed remarked, “We’re team Smith.” while another said, “We pinch hit for one another.” A key benefit of shared ownership is that both members of the couple better understand all that is required to care for a family—financially and in every other way—as well as each feeling far more appreciated for their contributions.
- Taking a less gendered approach to using professional capital. The way in which women and men tend to use their professional equity is highly gendered. Women are far more likely to trade the experience and goodwill they’ve accrued in their careers to assist them in managing the demands of raising children through career and scheduling flexibility Women tend to be reluctant—before children but particularly after them—to negotiate for promotions, stretch assignments or enhanced compensation. Conversely, men are far more likely to trade their professional capital for advancement, enhanced compensation, and greater prestige. Men are highly reluctant to seek time off from work to care for a child or to seek flexibility, particularly involving reduced hours or streamlined responsibilities. Something interesting I observed in interviewing co-parents was their far less gendered approach to career and family management. With the women not having to shoulder the disproportionate home responsibilities, they had greater latitude to trade up in their careers for more responsibility and money. With the men not feeling the disproportionate weight of the provider role, they felt more comfortable in putting up boundaries at work so as to create more space in their lives for being an involved parent.
The time, energy and money you expend in learning to function as co-parents are probably the best long-term investment you can make in your marriage and in your family’s well being.