Courtesy of Sarah Bunton

My Partner & I Switched Parenting Roles For A Week To See Who Has More Fun, & This Is What Happened

by Sarah Bunton

If you’re like me, you secretly wished you could have a Freaky Friday swap when you were a teenager. Maybe it was Lindsay Lohan’s pop-punk fashion choices that make me nostalgic for the early 2000s, but that movie will always hold a special place in my heart. Besides the plaid skirts and black choker necklaces, the thing I love most about the film is the ending message. Spoiler alert: mom and daughter come away more appreciative of each other having walked a mile in their shoes (combat boots and pointy stilettos, respectively). A recent viewing got me thinking about what it would be like to switch traditional parenting "roles" with my husband.

As a staunch feminist, I’d like to believe that my partner and I share equal responsibility not only in our marriage but in raising our child. If I’m being completely honest, though, we occasionally fall into some classic parental tropes. He can be the harsh dad sometimes and I tend to err on the side of cuddles. We also have a fairly traditional, yet unintentional, set up when it comes to work. My husband has an out of the house, Monday through Friday, nine-to-five job, whereas I have two jobs: a cognitive skills trainer where I work with children only a couple days of the week for a few hours, and freelance writing. Because of the nature of both of my jobs, I’m the primary caretaker of our son while my husband is at work.

To him, he’s jealous I get to stay at home and play with our son all day and to me, I’m envious that my son’s face lights up as soon as Daddy walks through the door since he’s missed him all day. There’s a downside, too. My partner can get upset when the house isn’t clean since I’ve been the one home and I get frustrated that he thinks I must spend my days lazily on the couch while dishes pile up.

The Experiment

So I figured it was high time for a Freaky Friday-esque swap to see if the grass truly was greener on the other side. The logistics were going to be tricky, though. Obviously we couldn’t switch jobs, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t switch our parenting roles. If we had to use labels, he’s the Enforcer and I’m the Pushover when it comes to our son.

So we agreed that for seven days, we’d try our best to adopt the other’s parenting styles. This also meant calling each other out if and when we slipped up. If I caught him being too firm or he caught me giving in, we’d say something. I was excited to see if we would come away from the experience with a Hollywood ending or if we’d just have one confused child.

Day 1: The “Fun” Parent

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One of the first things I couldn’t wait to do in our swap was to get the chance to really let loose. I’d often feel jealous of my husband when he got home from work and he immediately dove into a spontaneous wrestling match with our son while I went off to pee alone for the first time. It’s not that my son and I don’t have fun when we’re home alone, but there’s a certain newness and excitement there with my husband. Since he’s been gone for most of the day, and my son’s memory is about that of a goldfish, Daddy is the shiny new toy upon arriving home.

So day one, we switched it up a bit. When my husband got home from work he still spent time with us, but at a much more subdued level. After dinner and bath time, I got to be the one to run around and wrestle with our son. I’m not gonna lie. It was a blast! Allowing myself the freedom to be rough and tumble felt really liberating. For once I got to be the fun parent.

But when I asked my husband how he felt about things, I got a slightly different version. “Who said you aren’t the fun one? I mean, why can’t we both be fun?” he posited. I explained my feelings on the matter, how I felt envious of the rowdy relationship they had while I was in the background. He responded that he felt these were all restrictions I was putting on myself. “Nobody has ever said you can’t do all these things, too,” he said. “I know,” I told him, “but it felt like you already fulfilled the role of the fun parent in our son’s life; so why bother butting in?”

My husband, the philosopher he is, said, “It’s not butting in, it’s joining in.”

Day 2: Sensitivity Training

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People often say I “lucked out” with my husband. While I don’t deny that I’m fortunate to have him in my life, it’s unfair to attribute his great traits to luck. I’m told that he’s akin to a unicorn because he enjoys cooking, cleaning, and doesn’t mind babysitting. But let’s set one thing straight: It is not babysitting when it’s your own child.

While he is a wonderful husband and father, sometimes his sensitivity skills aren’t all they could be. Basically, he errs on the side of, “Oh, you’re fine,” when accidents occur. Taking full advantage of “Hey, it’s the rules of the experiment, man” defense, I really made sure my husband understood how important it was to me that he try to really listen to our son when he seemed distraught or upset. And since our son is a walking tornado, we didn’t have to wait long for that to happen.

We all went to the park one day after work, where I played the role of swing-pusher and Pirate explorer and my husband was the cautious nurturer. It was really interesting to watch him watch our son. Normally he would be right alongside him, getting into trouble together. But today he was more observant, more attentive. So when our son took a spill at the park, my husband was the one to swoop in and console him. It was a little odd for me to not be the one doing the soothing, but it was heart-warming at the same time to watch my 6-foot, 1-inch husband be sweet and quiet with our tiny tot.

Day 3: The “Enforcer”

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Besides never feeling like the fun parent, I knew I didn’t really fill the role of enforcer either. The same way I made sure to emphasize the importance of being sensitive to my husband, he reminded me that I couldn’t give in so easily if we were to take this experiment seriously. I never really like to admit I’m a pushover, but I know that I do tend to say “yes” to our son more often than I probably should. Perhaps this is part of the reason I haven’t eaten a single meal in its entirety in nearly two years.

On day three I made a concerted effort to emulate the no-nonsense characteristics of my husband’s style of parenting. It’s one thing to say “no,” but it’s another to actually follow through with it. So when my son decided to play a lively game of Throw All The Clean Laundry On The Living Room Floor, I knew I couldn’t just let it slide. Usually, I’d ask him to clean it up three or four times and then just do it myself. But not today!

I didn’t exactly get him to clean up the whole mess – because he’s a toddler and doesn’t really do anything for more than a few minutes – but I did get him to do most of it. He mostly seemed annoyed with my newfound sternness. Yet it didn’t faze me like I thought it would. My sister jokes that when I’m older I’ll be like Amy Poehler in Mean Girls, wanting to be more of a friend and less of a rule-enforcer. But when it comes down to it, it felt pretty empowering getting my son to actually follow through on something.

Day 4: Out And About

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For the next few days, my husband and I wanted to put our parental role-swapping skills to the test by going outside of our comfort zone. On day four we decided the beach would be the perfect way to ease into things. The park had been a dry run, but we really wanted to see what it would be like in the more unpredictable setting of the beach. Our son is on the shy side, so the beach also worked for us since we could be a little more secluded if we wanted to be.

Having just finished swim lessons, our son is more adventurous when it comes to water now. He loves jumping into the pool and would probably splash around for hours if we let him. The unruly ocean is a slightly different story, though. The crashing waves and strong pull of the current can definitely be scary for anyone, especially a small child. Usually my husband will just scoop him up and play around with him, but today he took a more thoughtful approach.

We walked with our sun towards the water, his eyes wide and fixed on the waves. My husband bent down next to him and actually talked to him about it. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually quite poignant. I’ve told my husband since our son was an infant that I think babies can understand what we say even if they can’t talk. My husband has consistently scoffed at the idea. So when he took the time to speak to him, attempted to calm his fears, and reassured him we’d be right there with him, it showed that he cared on a different level.

Day 5: Fun Mom Strikes Again!

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Continuing our out-and-about adventures, we stopped at Best Buy for some shopping and fun. While my husband went off to peruse the latest Blu-ray releases, I decided we’d have a little fun of our own. I don’t typically enjoy wandering the aisles of electronic stores, but I was all in for this experiment. That meant forgoing boring shopping cart strolls in favor of interactive gaming demos.

While we keep things gender neutral in our house, our son does like a few things that some people would classify as traditionally male. He may only be a tot, but he already loves video games. One of his favorite things to do is use my husband’s game controller (without batteries) and play right along with Daddy. So I was stoked to get the chance to share in his adoration of all things digital.

As soon as we rounded the corner and he saw the giant screen with colorful characters zooming around, he could barely contain his excitement. Rather than distract him or remind him to walk slowly, I ran with him to the demo. Even though he didn’t really seem to understand how the game worked or what he was doing, that didn’t matter. He was having the time of his life and I got to be a part of it.

Day 6: Daddy Bear

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Everyone knows the terms “Momma Bear” and “Tiger Mom,” but dads can be just as fiercely protective of their cubs, too. Although my husband hates confrontation more than when I make him watch Project Runway with me, he will gladly step up to defend his baby boy. So when we went to the kid’s play area at the mall — also known as the fifth ring in Dante’s Inferno — my husband was keen to find the balance between protector and nurturer.

While the two are not mutually exclusive, he wanted to make sure he was really tuned in to the role I normally play in this scenario. I don’t excessively hover, but I’m always within earshot in case of tumbles or mischief. And if you’ve ever been to any kind of children’s play place, you know that chaos and calamity run rampant. In between the screams and squeals, we found a mellow area to chill in for a bit.

I absolutely loved seeing the similar expressions on their faces. They both quietly took the rambunctious scene in and hung towards the back. Thankfully there were no bullies in the kid zone that day, but Papa Bear was on the lookout. When one child, slightly bigger and more energetic than our son, got in his personal space, my husband definitely did strike a great balance by calmly intervening in a caring manner. After that, our son was definitely over it and ready to go – and we were happy to oblige.

Day 7: Two Halves

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Throughout most of the experiment, my husband and I kind of took turns being in the spotlight. One day, I was front and center being the spontaneous parent and on another day, it was my husband getting the opportunity to shine as the sensitive caregiver. For our final day we decided to share the focus. After all, equality seemed to be the overarching theme of the challenge anyways. So on day seven we ran a casual day of errands while maintaining our switched parental roles.

On our first stop, we went to pick up bread from Panera. A simple task, but not necessarily so with a squirmy toddler. I let my husband be the one to chase our son around while I placed the order and gave the stern face if he got too crazy. Next we went to the grocery store where we got the opportunity to see each other in action and appreciate the different perspective. He got to feel what it’s like to constantly be on herding-duty and I got to experience the pressure of implementing the rules without giving in.

At the end of the day, both my husband and I were not only physically exhausted from running errands, but emotionally spent from walking many miles in each other’s shoes. Our son, on the other hand, was perfectly content with his free balloon.

Was The Grass Greener On The Other Side?

When all was said and done, my husband and I surprisingly learned the most not from each other, but from our son. He didn’t freak out when Mommy was rowdy or when Daddy was sensitive. And he wasn’t confused or resistant to the switch either. I realized some of the hang ups I had going in to the experiment were issues I had constructed myself. Society has come a long way, but there still seem to be certain binary structures in place. Thankfully our child doesn’t know that yet and hopefully won’t ever have to.

Our son taught us that it didn’t matter who he got the discipline and the love from so long as he got it. He could have two dads, two moms, a single parent, adoptive parents, grandparents, or some other type of guardian, and he would still have a healthy, happy childhood so long as he received a full spectrum of care. So I’m thankful that my husband can offer the yin to my parenting yang. And I’m extra thankful I got the Freaky Friday ending I was hoping for.

Images Courtesy of Sarah Bunton (8)