Doing things by halves

Amanda Reid-Young sings the praises of shared parenting.

Last week I took our youngest daughter to the park where she likes to slide on the skateboard ramp. We have a rule that they are only allowed to do this if no-one wants to skateboard. We were halfway up the hill to the ramp when some boys started roller-blading on it. Without a word, she turned back and burst into tears, then turned on me accusingly: "Daddy's better than you, he'd ask them to let me slide."

I took a deep breath, sat down with her until she'd stopped crying, then we set off up the hill again. While the roller-bladers were having a breather, I asked if they'd mind Katie sliding on the ramp. They politely agreed and she had her fifteen minutes of climbing and sliding until she was ready to move on.

The way my daughter challenged me to match her father made me laugh, but it also hit a nerve and made me think about how we share our parenting.

Although I have worked a bit (in the earning money sense) ever since our first daughter was born, I am lucky enough to have a job that I can mostly do at home. When the kids were small and Peter was working all hours, we had a wonderful baby-sitter who would come and play with them while I was working in another room. Then two years ago I started to work contracts that required me to spend a few days a week "on-site" at my clients' offices, as well as putting in some hours at home. As two of our daughters were already at school, and the third at preschool every morning, Peter decided that he could reduce his working hours and take care of them himself on the days I commute. He had always been a good nappy-changer, cook (in a limited way) and playmate, but this was the first time I had just walked out the door and left him to it. No grandparents to help. No meals prepared and waiting. I pack the school lunches, put out their clothes and leave at 7 a.m. Peter gives them breakfast, gets them to the school train, goes to the school for reading and excursions, collects them in the afternoon, shops, cooks (an ever-broadening repertoire), washes clothes, bathes the children, takes them to dance classes, plays games, arranges for friends to play. On the days when I work at home, I do all those things, or we share them, depending on our respective workloads.

Peter loves it. He gets a break from the cerebral work he usually does and gets a buzz from the children appreciating his company and his cooking. I love it, because I can go to work and enjoy the renewed self-esteem of doing a job I enjoy, that is appreciated and that is well paid. Most importantly, I can do that without feeling stressed by the restrictive timetable that looking after children imposes, where you always have to be on time to collect the children, relieve the baby-sitter and still get the shopping on the way home. I know that the children are happy in their own home with the only person they trust and love as much as me.

But all this mutual satisfaction is only possible because I agreed to hand over the reins of family control, and did it as whole-heartedly as I could. Until that turning point, I was the "primary carer" for our children and our household. I was the only person who knew where the clean t-shirts were, or that the children absolutely had to have new ballet tights by Saturday, or the address of the person who does our ironing, or how much we owed for the vegetables. Peter would occasionally cook, but I would shop for the food. I was the contact point for parents arranging play times.

Even though looking after small children full time can drive you crazy, there is a certain compensating pleasure in the control that you have over that domestic world, and in the way you are the centre of the children's universe. I clearly remember the reluctance with which I would leave my children with anyone, even their father, as babies and toddlers, because no-one else had the umbilical connection to them that I did. No-one else was so attuned to their cries and silences, would remember to be on time every day for the end of preschool and to meet the school train. I worried that Peter could become absorbed in his work in a way that I never can if I know I am also responsible for the children. Before handing the children over completely to his care, I had to decide that I didn't want to be the centre of the universe any more. I had to accept that he was equally responsible, equally important.

A couple of years down the line, there are two clear signs that the way we are sharing parenting is successful. One is that the children always remark on the absence of either of us, and say they miss us. The other is that on some days I come home from work and Peter says to me: "The children were absolutely horrible all afternoon, you can have them." And then they behave beautifully for me.

Here are some suggestions for making it easier for your partner to participate equally in parenting, and for you to accept it.

10 hints for handing over half the parenting

1. Don't criticise (especially not at first). If it's not done your way, it doesn't matter: at least you don't have to do it.

2. Keep things in the same (logical) places. It's very stress-reducing to have the socks always in the same drawer, the clean sheets on the top shelf, and the soy sauce next to the cooker.

3. Make sure the children know where to find their own belongings. Children can be quite orderly if they are encouraged to be so, and usually have memories like elephants. They also love being able to tell an adult how to do something or where to find the paintbrushes.

4. Don't spoon-feed your partner. It'll only give them an excuse to act pathetic and leave anything difficult for you to deal with.

5. Let them get on with it their own way, so they won't feel like your substitute, and the children won't continue to refer to you for the last word. They'll soon develop their own favourite meals and shopping lists.

6. If something annoys you, ask (very politely) for change. Don't sigh and hang out the forgotten washing or clean the playdough up, it'll only make you both feel resentful.

7. Share information. Have a calendar with all the family engagements written on it and let your partner know of any changed plans.

8. Talk together about any problems that arise with the children, so that you don't inadvertently contradict each other.

9. Appreciate the things you can't do yourself. If acrobatics, singing rounds or mud pies aren't your forte, be glad that the children are enjoying these activities with someone else. You can do other things you enjoy in your time with the children.

10. Let family and friends know that you share the responsibilities and pleasures of parenting by acknowledging your partner's contribution in their presence (with appreciation).

And then ... celebrate not being the centre of the universe any more by going out to a movie and dinner with a friend instead of rushing home from work.

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