Bridging the Great Mom/Dad Divide
Babyproofing Your Marriage: How to Laugh More, Argue Less, and Communicate Better as Your Family Grows by Stacie Cockrell, Cathy O'Neill, Julia Stone.
“It’s like my husband wants to coach the team to victory, but he doesn’t want to attend practice in the rain. He means well, but he just doesn’t get it.”
—Jennifer, married 9 years, 3 kids
“My wife’s maternal instincts whiplash the whole family. I feel like I spend half my time depressurizing her. It’s just too much.”
—Toby, married 9 years, 2 kids
Men and women can react to parenthood so differently. We are all thrilled with our beautiful babies, but becoming parents can change us, and our spouses, in some unexpected and occasionally incomprehensible ways. The once charming and delightfully witty wife morphs into a control-freak, bottle-wielding shrew. The once perfect and ever-so-helpful husband often seems to be looking for the nearest escape hatch. It can start to feel like you are gazing at each other across a great chasm, rather than bonding over the experience of raising your child!
But take heart, because many of your spouse’s new and incomprehensible behaviors are normal. In fact, there are plenty of good reasons behind them -- like the small matter of the propagation of the species. It’s instinct, pure and simple. When we become parents our most basic nurturer/provider instincts rise to the surface. And at times, these hardwired biological impulses can seem to push you and your spouse in different directions.
Understanding the Great Divide
What happens to women. Most women we spoke to said the transition to motherhood was mind-blowing and life-altering. There’s no avoiding the power of the maternal instinct. Whether we work or stay home, when we have a baby, a nurturing domestic gene is activated. It’s as if a Mommy Chip is implanted in our brain. Once triggered, this chip hums 24/7. It drives, what men refer to as, “Crazy Mom Behavior” (you know -- researching colic/strollers/pre-schools at 3 o’clock in the morning, or bringing the baby’s blanket to work with us so we can smell it during the day.) The Chip contains a Worst Case Scenario program that feeds a mother’s fears (“let me just make sure the baby is breathing”) and is plugged into a Guilt Circuit that makes us constantly question whether or not we are doing enough for our children. The Mommy Chip is a good thing, biologically speaking, but a bad thing in the sense that it can make us compulsive about doing everything just right.
“I feel like a different person. I think and act differently because of the new responsibilities I have. It’s like I have to reconfigure the whole picture of myself. And it definitely changed what I wanted from Matthew. Before the baby, I was unfazed by his long hours. Suddenly, I want him home now. And it bothers me that he doesn’t seem as interested in Jack as I am.
—Erica, married 4 years, 1 kid
What happens to men. In many respects upon becoming fathers, men don’t feel all that differently than women. They, too, feel great love and fear. They, too, want to do their best for their children. But they don’t have a Mommy Chip, so they don’t get obsessed.
What they do feel, however, is a sort of Provider Panic. Even if they are one-half of a dual-income household, most men told us they believe that providing for the financial well-being and stability of the family is their responsibility. Not because they are closet chauvinists who are threatened by their wives’ earning power or self-sufficiency, but because they just can’t help it.
“I would stand over the crib and the first thought that would come into my head was: I better go make more money.”
—Jack, married 7 years, 1 kid
This phenomenon often sparks a laser-like focus on work. Career and financial success become more important than ever. Men’s compelling drive to provide can compromise their ability to see what needs doing (and sometimes even to enjoy what’s happening) on the home front. There’s no mental room for noticing the bottles need washing because the male brain is already in high gear calculating college tuition payments.
What this all means for the two of you. These different and not always complementary instincts can set the stage for some serious conflict. Women get upset because their husbands seem to be one step removed from the work and are not nearly as focused on the baby as they are. Meanwhile, many a new dad, caught in the grips of Provider Panic, gets frustrated when his wife tells him he’s not doing enough on the homefront because he feels like he’s working harder than ever at his job. Furthermore, a lot of men feel ignored by wives who are obsessed with the baby. In their minds, their wives create unnecessary work and stress by trying to meet ridiculous standards of parenting perfection.
“What happened to the woman I married? She’s turned into a complete control freak.”
—Vic, married 9 years, 1 kid
“I feel like the old dog and my wife just got a new puppy.”
—Brent, married 7 years, 1 kid
Suggestions for Women
Don’t Expect Your Husband to Act Like a Woman. He’s not wired the way you are. He doesn’t have a Mommy Chip. Don’t worry if your partner doesn’t share your interest in the baby paraphenalia, or that he’s not as baby ga-ga as you are. His love for his child is no less than yours, even though he might not notice that the baby has a new tooth. Recalibrate your expectations. Wanting your husband to do his fair share (and maybe, just maybe, to “see what needs to be done” and do it without being asked) is a perfectly reasonable expectation. Wanting him to respond on cue to every emotional nuance you feel and match you coo for coo is probably an unreasonable expectation, given that he is, in fact, a man.
Give Him a Training Weekend. If, however, your husband is one of those men who just doesn’t get it, or he makes comments like “Why is this so hard for you?” it might be time to give him a Training Weekend. Take off for 48 hours and let him man the kid and house ropes on his own. No backup. No sitters. No dialing 1-800-Grandma. After two days and nights of solo parent duty, never again will you hear him say, “What’s the big deal about taking care of a baby?” It also helps you realize you can let go of the reins.