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Giving Up the Role of Being The Primary Parent

Joyful Musings--a weekly blog

Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. Topics include communication, having difficult conversations, having constructive conversations, chores, routines, family meetings,  I teach parent education and parenting classes because parenting is a skill—not something we are born knowing. Get the parenting skills you need today!

Giving Up the Role of Being The Primary Parent

Elisabeth Stitt

Feeling that you are the primary parent is a significant challenge that seems to fall mostly to moms— even today.    Part of that is still a vestige of time when women being in the workforce was the exception not the rule. And part of it is that the role of perfect mother has so been put on a pedestal that women feel enormous pressure to be responsible for everything in their family—even when they have full responsibilities at work.

Feeling like or being the primary parent adds tremendous stress to already stressed families, and it is worth it to find more balance in taking responsibility for the running of the family and household.

When I work with clients on this issue, I walk them through a process of doing a careful analysis of all the tasks done in the home.  I have couples start by making as comprehensive a list as possible of everything that gets done.  I urge them to include things like keeping track of how much toilet paper is left, scheduling social events, writing thank you notes for presents, calling in-laws on their birthdays, cleaning out the junk drawer in the kitchen, scheduling childcare the week it is closed in the summer,  chaperoning on field trips (and posting the pictures afterwards), cleaning out the gutters, putting up the screens for summer, etc, etc, etc.  I even encourage the primary parent to keep track of how often she has to be the one to bring up things like the gutters (even if it is Dad who climbs the ladder and does the actual work).  Creating this list can happen over weeks; people will keep thinking of things to add.

The list usually has two benefits:  1.  Couples give themself credit for how much does actually get done, and 2.  Each person is reminded of how much the other person does without really focusing in on it.  Not to go along sexist lines here, but one client of mine realized she hadn’t changed the oil in her car since the day she met her husband.  It was valuable to her to see that there really were tasks she took for granted.  

Once the list is made, couples can begin to have conversations about how it can be divided.  While it is nice to do things together—rather than spending still more time apart while getting through the to do list—sometimes it really is more efficient to have one person in charge.  

Again, while I have no desire to stereotype people, I find that moms are both more likely to take over a task and also more likely to assume that their way is the superior way to get something done.  This doesn’t make very much room for someone else to take the task on as their own.  

Once couples agree on who is going to do what, the other person really has to relinquish decision making control of the task.  Let’s say, for example, that a couple has agreed to let Dad be in charge of arranging all childcare outside of school hours.  Of course, both parents have to feel comfortable with the solutions, but Mom cannot rule out an idea just because, say, Dad has decided to rely on the after school care provided on site as opposed to arranging for their child to go to the in-home care where freshly made organic snacks are served every day.  Of course big issues have to be talked through, but if the care provided right at school is generally fine and being there means not having to find transportation to the in-home child care, staying at school is a legitimate choice for a parent to make. Getting to make the decision will leave the parent in charge more invested in and paying attention to the rightness of that decision as time goes on.   

At the end of the day, it is much more efficient for one parent to drive the decision.  This works as long as parents have spent enough time agreeing on their biggest concerns.  And as long as each parent is willing to give the other parent the benefit of the doubt until there is really evidence of a problem, it takes a lot of stress of your shoulders to know that the other person has his eye on the situation.

If you are assuming that your partner cannot handle his agreed to tasks on his own, I remind you that your partner probably has a job outside the home where he takes all kinds of responsibility for tasks, and he does a good job, too.  If you don’t trust your partner’s decisions, he is going to feel like you don’t respect him (which is incredibly demotivating).

Here’s one more step I strongly recommend to parents:  Start teaching your children young to help out.  Set the expectation that they will be there along side you to help out as you declutter a room, fold the laundry, do the grocery shopping (even if you do it online!).  Yes, it takes more time to prep dinner if at the same time you are teaching your child how to hold the carrot peeler.  I advise doing it any way. Over time, your kids will learn how to take tasks on and will do them with a great deal of pride.  

Imagine your eight year old stir frying the broccoli while you deal with the the pasta.  Sound too dangerous?  Not if you have trained him step by step to be safe.  That creates happy, connected family time in the kitchen rather than parents scrambling to get dinner while the kids whine for their iPads.  

Handing over a task fully and letting the other person takes responsibility (and suffer the consequences) when it doesn’t get done is what ultimately allows the Primary Parent to step down from the role.