I read this article from the New York Times and let me first acknowledge all of the really great things the author writes about as a new Momma: the need she has to ask her partner for more help, the attempts she makes to encourage her partner to show up and participate as a new Dad, and the example she sets in leaving her 3-month-old with her husband for a much-needed break, which in turn, gave her partner invaluable confidence in his own parenting abilities.
These are all things that I talk about with expecting and new parenting families in my Childbirth Preparation and Becoming Us Parenting classes as valuable and important ways to make the transition of becoming a family easier for everybody!
Really, the big issue I have with the article is its title: “How I Trained My Husband to Be A Dad.”
The title bugs me, and I’ll tell you why… I keep getting stuck on that word trained. Language messes with me sometimes. I feel words have a lot more power than we think. And when I run into a word that stops me in my tracks, I have to circle back and figure out why.
I’m not going to assume anything about the author or her intentions, but when I read that title I thought, “If I were an expecting or new Dad, that would feel so condescending to me!” (Which I’ll admit is hugely triggering for me on a personal level! I hate condescension.)
And if I were an expecting or new Momma, that title might suggest I should assume the role of “Parenting Expert” and teach my partner all they need to know to be successful as a new parent. No, thank you! I don’t want that responsibility at all.
But there are some of you who will click and read and come back to tell me, “She’s right! I had to train MY partner, too! Otherwise, I’d STILL be doing all the work of parenting, and he’d just be sitting around watching me do it!” And still others of you who might say, “I WISH I had trained him years ago, because it’s too late now, and I’m stuck with all the responsibility of raising our children!” But before you come to that conclusion, I’d like to ask you to consider a few things first.
• Parenting is hard, hard work.
None of us — Mommas, Dads, Parents — are born knowing how to do this thing. Parenting is something that every single one of us learns a little bit more about every single day. And even if you’ve been a professional nanny for the past decade, it’s not the same thing as parenting your own baby 24/7. You want — you need — an equal parenting partner to help you in this work.*
When you use a word like trained, you’ve put yourself in the unenviable position of having to act as though you already know ALL THE THINGS and that can make for a lot of pressure on yourself and a very strange (and unequal) parenting partner relationship.
• Pregnant folks have a 9-month head start when it comes to the actual parenting.
Many non-pregnant parents (if they’re honest with themselves) will report that the baby remains a theoretical idea until the baby is actually out of the pregnant person’s belly and in the world. So, while birthing parents hit the ground running following the birth of their baby, at least from a mental state –“I’ve been consciously aware almost every second of every day for close to a year that a baby is coming” – many new Dads and partner parents are like, “Whoa! There really WAS a baby inside of you this whole time!” And they don’t feel like they’ve become a parent until the exact moment of the baby’s birth.
• Not being physically pregnant can put Dads and partner parents at a disadvantage in some ways.
They’re playing catch-up from an emotional/mental aspect and are trying to make sense of what just happened to them! And yes, as the author states in this article, many new Dads and partner parents feel really, really helpless — at least initially.
This can be compounded by the breastfeeding relationship. Because, until the milk is flowing and feeding is going well (which could take at least 3-4 weeks or longer depending on the circumstances) they can feel a little bit like a third wheel to the new feeding/soothing dyad that exists between birthing parent and baby.
Now, I know LOTS of new breastfeeding folks that would gladly give their partner at least one of their lactating breasts, if it meant that they would get a break from the all-consuming task of feeding their newborn! Breastfeeding can feel like a full-time job, and putting the baby to the breast happens so, so often in the beginning that many Dads and partner parents feel like their own contribution to the care of their new baby is insignificant, in comparison.
• They just watched you KILL IT as a laboring/birthing person!
No matter how your baby came into the world, vaginally or by Cesarean, partners are usually in awe (and maybe a little bit afraid?) of your power. They might be lulled into thinking that you’re capable of doing it all on your own. That you really are the myth, the legend, “SuperHuman!” in the flesh — and that you don’t need their help. In fact, they might think you don’t need anybody’s help. Some might also feel this way about themselves after they’ve given birth to their baby. It’s a pretty cool thing to realize just what you’re capable of, and just how strong you really are.
But don’t fool yourselves. You can not do this all on your own. You can’t. And the more you try, the harder it gets.
So, I agree 100% with the author that you absolutely need to ask your partner for help. But please stop thinking that you have to train them to be a good parent.
Instead, acknowledge that they might be feeling really out of their element. If your partner is a man, pregnancy and birth are so inherently female — most nurses, doulas, midwives and providers — are women. Not to be too gender-specific, but the birth might be the first time they’ve ever been in a room where they’re the only man (and they’re acutely aware of this dynamic, even if they never speak about it).
Listen — all the people that I know and work with want to be really good parents! This doesn’t happen by accident. There’s a lot of on-the-job training (done by watching and learning from each other, but mostly from the baby!) There are a lot of screw-ups. There are days when nothing goes right and everything goes wrong. For both parents.
But if you get to to be the parent who gets at least a little more parental leave than your partner does (don’t get me started on that particular rant…) and you’re at home with your newborn for 8+ hours a day while the other parent is working to support the family financially, you get much more “practice” in all of the parenting skills that are required.
And that’s primarily what makes the difference between confident parenting and insecure parenting… time and practice. These are two things that all of us need in order to get really good at anything!
Instead of training your partner to be a good parent, how about welcoming them into their new role as a parent? And while we’re at it, why don’t you ask them to welcome you into your new role as a parent at the same time?
Allow yourselves to be vulnerable with one another. Take a risk and let each other know when you’re feeling helpless or overwhelmed by this huge life transition of becoming parents. Admit to not knowing how to do this thing… No new parent (or experienced parent, for that matter) knows how to parent the “right” way, because in parenting, there’s rarely is an absolute right way to do any of it. There’s just the way that works for you and your family.
Asking for help lets your partner know just how much you need them. When they accept your help (and NOT your training) they realize just how much they need you, too.
Knowing that you’re needed and your help is necessary can be the best motivation for jumping in and doing the hard work of parenting. Your partner doesn’t need to be trained. They just need the time, space and trust from you that they’ll learn how to do this, in their own way.
Figure this parenting gig out together. Be curious learners. Drop the title of expert. Be patient. You might have different strengths and skills. You might need more time and practice in certain areas.
But remember: this is not a race. This is a lifelong commitment to raising the next generation.
And you’ll need a partner who’s eager, enthusiastic, confident and feels up to that monumental task. When your partner is self-motivated, when they’ve discovered their own way of doing things and are not just responding to being told how, when and why to do something (i.e., “training”) they can blow you away with their mad parenting skills. Bonus — You don’t end up having to act like “SuperHuman!”
Bottom Line? You can have a partner who is an amazing parent, better than you could have ever hoped for — and no training is needed.
*(Shout-out to all of those AMAZING single parents out there, getting this hard, hard work done, day in and day out, on your own. I sincerely hope you have found the support of family and friends to help you in this intense work. I’m in awe of you. For real.)