If you're raising a child with someone, you know that you both have to put in a lot of work to get the job done and help each other out. Still, there may be times when there's an imbalance in responsibilities, so it's helpful to know how to ask your partner to parent more actively, and how to do it without starting a fight.
In parenthood, feelings of inequity can quickly grow into something much larger. Clinical psychologist Venus Mahmoodi, Ph.D., tells Romper that when a parent feels like things "are unfair and overwhelming," it can lead to "increased conflict, increased resentment, and increased disappointment." This will, in turn, create a disconnect between the two of you. This disconnect could result in a situation where "you don’t show up for each other," wellness expert Sophie Jaffe tells Romper, and you feel that "you're not on the same team," which impacts not only your partnership, but your child(ren) as well.
Getting to the root of the problem could be as simple as getting a good, full night of sleep. In her practice, pediatrician Dyan Hes, M.D., tells Romper that she most often sees parents "bickering" as a result of sleep deprivation and exhaustion, and it's not exactly easy to see the weight your partner is pulling when you're going through five cups of coffee to function at a base level. However, not all problems can be solved with a little rest and relaxation; sometimes it's a bit more complicated.
In order to rectify an equity problem, there needs to be an open line of communication between you and your partner where you truly hear each other. Experts say the following tips will help you say what you need to without sparking an argument.
1. Express Clear Expectations
Enter the conversation assuming your partner has no idea they are doing something wrong by you, because they probably don't. Dr. Mahmoodi explains, "Often we are vague... or unclear" with expectations in parenting. Being unclear can lead to further problems, because it sets one person up for failure, and the other for disappointment.
Dr. Hes agrees: "Communication is key to any relationship and setting up realistic expectations of parenting responsibilities can prevent future unhappiness."
If expectations haven't already been clearly laid out, approach the conversation with that in mind. Express your exhaustion or overwhelm and then recommend you work together to find a way to more evenly distribute responsibilities or time with the kids.
2. Focus On Structure & Specificity
If expectations have been set but things still aren't feeling fair, discuss ways to come up with a rational, structured system that works for both of you. Dr. Hes recommends parents develop a schedule to ensure they both get what they need. For example, she says, "If I see a breastfeeding mom who is just wiped out from feeding every 2-3 hours, I may recommend that she pump her breast milk for one overnight feed and let the other parent feed the baby that middle of the night feed. Then perhaps she can get a 5-6 hour stretch".
If it's not something a schedule can remedy, Dr. Mahmoodi says specificity is key. She explains that if one partner "notices roles being skewed in one way or another, it's helpful to stop and think about what specifically they'd like to see differently." Once you sit down and have an open conversation about roles and responsibilities, you may find that your partner is doing things you didn't realize. She notes that one partner may be taking on the "bulk of childcare" but the other is doing things around the house, like dishes or the laundry.
3. Remember You Love Each Other
One of the best ways to approach a difficult, touchy subject like this is to do it while remembering how much you love your partner (even if you don't really like them very much in the moment). Dr. Mahmoodi explains, "We have to approach our partners from the stance of love. If we dictate to them what they are doing wrong constantly, it will not be helpful at all."
Jaffe agrees that "everything should come from a place of love" and not "a place of negativity or blame." In doing this, you will likely find the conversation to be more constructive and effective.
4. Be Realistic & Let Go Of Perfection
In order to avoid an argument, go into the conversation with the understanding that parents have to re-calibrate their roles regularly, because things are constantly evolving. Jaffe explains that "outside aspects [will] grow and transform" just as much, and as quickly, as a child does. When that happens, she says parents need to understand that "responsibilities shift as well."
If you're starting from scratch, Dr. Mahmoodi advises parents to be realistic in setting these roles. She advises parents to each "take on the roles [they] want done in a very specific way." For everything else, even if you may approach the task or responsibility differently, just accept a job well done from your partner, rather than a job perfectly done. Dr. Mahmoodi explains, "If you expect perfection, you're not going to get it and you'll be disappointed. Expect balance and good enough and it will take loads off your shoulders."
5. Be Mindful Of Your Language
Anyone will get naturally defensive if their partner starts listing off all the things they are doing wrong. Once that defense comes up, the conversation starts to transform into a conflict and it likely won't be productive.
To avoid this situation, it's important to be mindful of the language you're using when you're expressing how you feel. Jaffe suggests to "always explain your request in an 'I' format and put the responsibility back on yourself. For example, you can say, 'I love when you spend one on one time with our kids, it’s beautiful to witness you connect in that way. I’d love if you would do it more often so I can also take some more time for myself.'" Phrasing the request in a complimentary way like this is going to get a much more compassionate response. "By using 'I' language you’re focusing on your needs instead of what the other parent is doing 'wrong,'" says Jaffe.
6. Go Into The Discussion With A Clear Head
You can go into a conversation like this as lovingly, compassionately, and mindfully as possible and still have it blow up in your face if either you or your partner don't have a clear head because of external factors. To ensure this isn't an issue, Dr. Mahmoodi advises you to make sure "that you are not exhausted, hungry, overwhelmed, angry" before you even approach the topic.
"When we're activated, we can't think as clearly and will not be able to think objectively," she explains. So, control as much of those outside factors as possible before having the discussion to set you and your partner up for a successful, conflict-free conversation.
Asking your partner to step up their parenting (or just step up as a partner) isn't easy, and it needs to be handled delicately to avoid hurt, anger, or resentment on either side. The best thing you can do is to go into the conversation remembering that you and your partner are in it together. If conflict does arise, Jaffe encourages you to respond based on if you would "rather be right or... rather be happy" because "it's so much easier to face the challenges of parenthood together" than as opponents.
Dyan Hes, M.D., Medical Director of Gramercy Pediatrics
Venus Mahmoodi, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist Khalil Center