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Parenting as a Team

"Don't put her on the coffee table. She's going to learn she can climb on it," Lucy barked.

"It's no big deal," insisted Todd, hanging onto his newly walking daughter. "She's having fun."

Susan and I said nothing. We were visiting for the weekend, and our friends, Lucy and Todd Mark, were having another dispute on how to best raise their 1-year-old, Katie. Their power struggle had been going on since we arrived  -- constant bickering about every aspect of care for their adorable, babbling, walking wonder.

Driving back home to Ohio from Georgia, my pregnant wife and I promised to each other that we would not be like Lucy and Todd when our baby was born. We would avoid all of the squabbling and all of the arguments, we said.

We would parent as a team.

It didn't turn out quite exactly as we imagined. When our daughter Isabelle arrived, instead of being a team, it was more like my wife was the coach, and I was the waterboy. For instance, there was a lot of crying and screaming when I gave our newborn her first bath. The crying and screaming came mostly from me, which is why Susan took over  -- and even with the birth of our second daughter, Lorelei, now 6 months, my wife still takes the lead in all things related to water, not to mention food, clothing, discipline, car seats, stuffed animals, and keeping the baby albums current.

Even with a second baby in the house, Susan and I are still working on working as a team. If you're in the same situation, take comfort in knowing you're not alone and that there are ways to get your team spirit back.

 

Geoff Williams is a freelance writer in Loveland, Ohio.

Our Early Training

During my wife's teenage years, her frustrated mother tried to throw a curse on her, saying: "I hope someday you have to raise a daughter just like you." As it turns out, hex or not, my wife's parenting experiences probably will, indeed, be pretty similar to her mother's.

"How our parents influenced us as children is the underlying reason behind the way we parent," agrees Ed Christophersen, Ph.D., a professor of pediatrics at the Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, and author of six parenting books, including Parenting That Works  -- Building Skills That Last a Lifetime. "I think we have to take a real intellectual position against [parenting like our parents], because otherwise, it's like the default position on the computer  -- you just go right into it."

Which isn't to say you shouldn't parent like your own parents, but you need to be aware that you're programmed to do what they did, and that what they did is not the only way to do things. Sit down with your spouse and talk about the different ways in which you were raised and how it affects your outlook on life and parenting, suggests Rhonda Kruse Nordin, author of After the Baby: Making Sense of Marriage After Childbirth. If you're both aware of where the other is coming from, it might make it easier to compromise.

Agree On A Game Plan

Still, no matter what your background, there are some things that all parents should agree on. For instance, babies need routine, stresses Dr. Christophersen. Infants thrive on structure and repetition, he says, so make sure that you and your partner establish early on when your baby will take naps, be bathed and fed, and go to bed. The clock should become your best friend.

Abiding by the clock, however, can be tough when one parent works and the other does not. Julia Cibul Fording, a stay-at-home mom in New York City, works hard all day to ensure that her 7-month-old son, Elias, takes his naps at regular intervals and gets the sleep he needs so that he doesn't become cranky. But her husband, David, often returns home from work right at Elias's bedtime or only a half hour before. Naturally, he wants to play with his son. "He riles Elias up and keeps him up for longer than he should," complains Julia. That's why it's so important to establish a routine that works for both parents, and then stick to it. Other priorities that you should agree to agree upon may include safety provisions, the amount of involvement from your respective families, religion, and discipline.

The "What Ifs"

Of course, no matter how well you plan, sticky issues will still arise. "I think parents talk about the basics  -- like how to discipline a child  -- but they don't get into the 'what ifs,'" says Beverly Smolyansky, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. "What if your child has colic? What if your discipline tactics don't work?"

Lauri Berkenkamp, author of a series of humorous parenting books with titles such as Mom, the Toilet's Clogged: Kid Disasters and How to Fix Them, says that she and her husband didn't think about any of those "what ifs." "I really thought it would be like [an idyllic television] commercial: I would be happy, and the kid would be in the bath, smiling," says Lauri. "But it was a total nightmare. Our baby cried for three months solid. It was incredibly stressful for both of us. We would have loved to work as a team, but we had no idea how."

Though it's hard, Nordin says that the only way to parent as a team through difficult "what if" situations (like colic) is to remember that both of you are new at this. "Agree that neither of you has all the answers," she says. "Your purpose is to do the best for your child the best way you know how, and you have to trust that your partner is doing the same." Distrust breeds resentment and frustration, she adds, and will only add to your problems.

The "what ifs" also come in the form of pesky details. Although Lucy and Todd had agreed upon a bedtime for Katie, they argued over the number of books they should read to her before lights out. Lucy wanted two, but Todd wanted the freedom to go for a third, or maybe a seventh. Even the bath was a debate, from how much soap to use to the temperature of the water. "Our values are the same," says Lucy, "but we didn't agree on the day-to-day stuff."

In her research of new parents, Nordin found that the most successful couples were the ones that didn't keep track of all that day-to-day stuff. "The happiest couples don't keep mental logs of who is doing what and exactly how they're doing it," she says.

In short, don't sweat the small stuff. If Todd wants to read five books to Katie one night and Lucy sticks to just two the next, what's the big deal? With the clarity of hindsight, Lucy now says, "Pick your battles. Figure out what's important, and know that different doesn't mean bad."

The Coach And The Waterboy

From the moment our first daughter was born, I felt like the waterboy in the relationship, and I'm betting there are probably millions of dads who also feel like their wife is the coach of their family's team (maybe even the team owner!). Indeed, the coach/waterboy syndrome is one of the most common ruts new parents get stuck in, Nordin says.

"I remember telling my husband, 'We'll give the baby a bath,' when what I meant was: I'll give her the bath, and you'll hand me what I need," says Lisa Earle McLeod, author of Forget Perfect: Finding Joy, Meaning, and Satisfaction in the Life You've Already Got and the You You Already Are.

Julia believes that her and David's coach/waterboy dynamic stems from the fact that she's at home with the baby every day. "I'm changing Elias's diapers and feeding him 50 times more often than David. I've developed my own symbiosis with the baby, and on the weekends, it's almost like David is interrupting that flow."

Double-income families are not immune, though, either. Lisa remembers an overnight business trip during which she was petrified because her daughter Elizabeth was being watched by an inexperienced caregiver: her husband Bob, also known as Elizabeth's father.

Lisa spent much of her trip on the telephone. "Are the lights on?" she kept asking her next-door neighbor. "Can you see my husband? How's he doing?" When Lisa finally burst through the front door, she saw a fed and smiling Elizabeth. Bob looked proud, Elizabeth was okay, and Lisa realized that she had been micromanaging too much.

"Let the dads do their thing," Lisa now recommends. "If you set yourself up as the only one who can do it, guess what? You're the only one who can do it." So if you're a mom who feels like the captain of the team, and you have a willing player who doesn't know what to do, start coaching: Delegate baby-related tasks.

For their part, dads need to stop assuming that the mother is omnipotent just because she's the mother. Moms are learning on the job, too, and have limited energy. Says Lauri: "We want help, but we don't want to say we want help. We would like [dads] to see that the baby needs diapering, rather than waiting for us to ask them to do it." But, she says, "I learned that I needed to tell my husband what I wanted, rather than hoping he would read my mind and then feeling resentful when he didn't."

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