Family Matters

Dad Helping with the Kids? Moms: Expect Conflict, Not Cooperation

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We women talk a good game about wanting our partners to step up and parent alongside us — to change diapers, cut off crusts for pint-size picky eaters, handle the bedtime routine — but a new study has found that when dads do that, it doesn’t necessarily spark domestic bliss.

Rather, it inspires conflict, with Mom and Dad sniping at each other over how best to handle a task, according to a Ohio State study published in the journal Developmental Psychology last month.

Researchers looked at 112 Midwestern families with preschool-age kids when the children were 4 and again a year later. Here’s the good news: when fathers were more involved in playing with their children — think Legos and playing chase — the quality of the co-parenting relationship between the parents was warmer and cooperative with fewer disagreements. (More on Time.com: Five Ways to Stop Stressing)

But when dads reported more frequent involvement in caregiving — supervising baths, helping kids brush their teeth, preparing meals — the parents’ relationship a year after the first assessment was not as good. They were more likely to undermine each other’s parenting edicts and more apt to engage in verbal tug-of-war, with Dad saying, Let’s do it this way, and Mom saying, Let’s not.

Researchers know this because they videotaped parents in a lab where they were asked to build a Lincoln Logs structure and draw a family portrait with their partner and child.

Are moms power-hungry? Or are they just stuck in their ways, which for ages have placed the mother at the center of the home, as the primary caregiver and molder of children? (More on Time.comWhy Parents Should Play Video Games With Their Daughters)

“So many couples say they really want to share parenting equally, but it doesn’t happen,” says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, co-author of the study and associate professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University. “For many couples, the reality doesn’t match up to their expectations.”

Of course, shared parenting might not be for everyone. But it would be helpful for parents to discuss child-rearing approaches before baby arrives on the scene. What might help is basic parenting education, suggests Schoppe-Sullivan. It is pretty strange that there’s no training required to be a mom or dad. Considering that having a baby rocks a couple’s world in ways both good and bad, it might be a wise idea for expectant parents to undergo pre-parental counseling and learn how to sidestep potential pitfalls.

Researchers did not attempt to draw conclusions about any effect on the children of their parents’ less-than-harmonious behavior, though it is worth noting that previous research by Schoppe-Sullivan found that co-parenting difficulties can eventually lead to marital dissatisfaction, which can lead to divorce. In other words, disagreement over parenting philosophies and duties is “more than just an annoyance,” says Schoppe-Sullivan. “It’s a big deal.” (More on Time.comThe ‘Tiger Mother’ Debate: Are Chinese Moms Really So Different?)

“It’s hard to break out of more traditional gender roles,” she says. “When you have two parents highly invested in caregiving, there’s an opportunity to step on each other’s toes.”

Maybe some mothers are not completely comfortable with fathers being involved with the nitty-gritty of child care. Maybe some fathers resent having to wipe tushies and fold onesies. And maybe we’re in this position in the first place because we have no real role models. Since moms have historically ruled the roost, this is the first generation where women commonly expect men to help raise baby.

In The New York Times, Amy and Marc Vachon, who espouse equally shared parenting so vociferously that they wrote a book about it, point out that:

Task sharing is, in fact, a mere sliver of the greater goal of equality between two parents and a balanced life for each partner — something that must also include a vital but little discussed element: power-sharing. Sharing the vomit-cleaning and toilet-training duties while sticking with a mom-knows-best stance can lead to boss-subordinate dissatisfaction.

But who says you have to equally share all the parenting duties? I do the laundry; my husband more often presides over bathtime. I am the homework guru; he packs the lunches. Recently, after bemoaning the difficulty of getting dinner ready for our brood, we worked together to devise a menu plan so that we could make sure we had the necessary ingredients on-hand before the daily witching hour — which coincidentally leads right up to dinnertime — chimes. Monday night was quesadillas: he made sure we had black beans on hand and chopped up the kale ahead of time; I sautéed the aforementioned greens, cooked the squash and slapped the quesadillas together. If we tried to share everything equally, it would never work — at least for us.

That said, it still falls to me, as the work-from-home parent, to shuffle my schedule when a child gets sick, or snow falls, or the kids are released early, as they will be today. It makes my life infinitely more complicated and considerably more exhausting, but it also allows me to be the one who’s home to smile at my daughter’s squeals of excitement as she greets the American Girl doll that arrived for her birthday.

Alpha mom? Guilty as charged. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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1 comments
VirginiaColin
VirginiaColin

The study mentioned in this article had only 112 families, each with a 4-year-old. Conclusions about parental harmony appear to be based on interactions while playing with the child with Lincoln Logs and drawing a family picture. Those interactions may not be good indicators of how harmoniously the parents share child-rearing responsibilities and fun in everyday life. 

One study like this with only 112 families should not get anyone too worried. In my experience, each family is unique, and what works well in one family will not work well in another. Like serious disagreements about money or sex, serious disagreements about how to raise children and who will do the work involved can, if unresolved, lead to divorce. 

I like the author’s solution. It sounds as if what she and her husband are doing will work well for their family.