In the decades that have passed since I was a working mother of young children, not much has changed in the division of parental duties. Both parents love their kids. Both parents work outside the home. Both parents are tired at the end of the day and on the weekends. Nevertheless, it seems it is always the female parent who is doing a greater portion of the child wrangling.
In an effort to understand this phenomenon, I volunteered to have my 23-month-old grandson stay at our house for an extended period of time: from 1 pm on Friday until 7 pm on Saturday. My son’s company was moving and he asked if I could help out because he knew he would have to work very late on Friday and then most of Saturday. We decided to have Little O sleep over.
I discussed this with my husband, aka Zayde (Yiddish for grandfather). “Sounds great,” he said. “You’ll help, right?” I asked. “Of course I will,” he replied. He is a real partner and beyond in household chores, being the chief grocery shopper and meal maker. He usually does the dry cleaning run and other assorted errands. I had no reason to doubt his willingness to participate in the Toddler-A-Thon.
I was on patrol for the usual Friday afternoon visit, except that on this particular Friday, my grandson had had his nap in the morning and was not likely to take another one. I did try, but after about 45 minutes, it was clear he was having none of it. So we played with the water table and the magnetic toys and Cookie Monster. Of course, we had lunch and many snacks.
When Zayde came home from work, we went to IHOP for dinner. I felt Little O was old enough to sit in the booth instead of in the high chair, so he sat next to me, while Zayde was across from us. This meant that I was trying to restrain Little O from his desire to stand up on the seat, look over the divider and scream from time to time, as I ate with one hand. He enjoyed his little pancakes and looked at the books I brought. We colored with the IHOP crayons, which he dropped on the floor several hundred times and I fetched with my very agile toes. Meanwhile, Zayde enjoyed his meal unfettered. The beginnings of my archeological study had begun.
When we got home, it was time for bed, and both Zayde and I took Little O upstairs. I washed his face and hands, and then started to put on his pajamas. Zayde said, “Well, I have to go feed the dogs,” and scooted downstairs. EXCUSE ME? The dogs? Were they really about to waste away?
I summoned him back upstairs because I realized that I did not have a clean diaper handy. Then I discovered that my grandson had removed the sheet from the mattress during the abortive nap, so I needed some Zayde assistance holding the baby while I fixed the sheet.
We went downstairs and Little O began to loudly express his displeasure with bedtime. After about 15 minutes, I turned to Zayde and said, “I would like you to go upstairs and settle him down. I am really tired and it’s your turn to help.” He looked panic-stricken. I explained some settling-down techniques, advised him not to pick up the baby or take him out of the bed, but just to explain it was sleepy time and here were his many blankets and toys. This would interrupt the screaming and make him feel secure and with luck, he would lie down and sleep. When Zayde returned, he told me how sweet it was when Little O put his head on his chest. He felt really good about that.
When Little O woke up at 4 am, I got up with him. We played until about 8 am, and then we both napped for several hours. After that, the 3 of us went to Brooksvale Park, looked at the chickens and goats and Zayde and I enjoyed watching our grandson play on the slide and the swing. By this time, I was pretty worn out, to my dismay (I don’t know how you all do it, day in and day out!), but my son was still at work. I asked Zayde to take over baby patrol for a little while, just to be able to not be on constant alert for DANGER (I wasn’t going anywhere) and his testy reaction was, “I GUESS I JUST HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING!” Hahaha. No, I didn’t kill him.
While I was indulging in not being in red alert mode for those few minutes, I had a flash of insight. Most people, and especially men, don’t like to do things about which they do not feel confident. That look of panic told me that my husband had NO IDEA what he was supposed to do at any given moment in terms of taking care of baby! His swift departure the night before was his way of substituting something he could do well (feed the dogs) for something he feared he could not do well (undress the baby, put on his pajamas, and get him ready for bed). For a dad, baby wrangling must feel like coming up from the minor leagues to instantly be the starting pitcher in the World Series.
So here’s my gratuitous advice, gleaned from my archeological observations:
- Be really specific about what steps your partner should take to accomplish the task. Just because we know how to do something doesn’t mean everyone does.
- Remind him to notice the rewards (little head on his chest, little hand in his hand, the ability to make his child stop crying, etc.).
- PRAISE your dog – oh, sorry, that was what I learned at obedience school with my dog Roscoe. But even though your husband might not respond to Pupperoni, I think the general advice still works. Take the time to express your sincere gratitude when your partner is a true partner. The best compliment, I have found, is when you say with genuine wonder, “How did you do that? I didn’t think she would EVER stop crying/whining/puking.” Instead of feeling second best to your Mother Wonderful, Dad will feel great about his own special talents. It’s really worth it and everyone wins, especially the kids.