By Sarah Hamaker for The Washington Post
I recently made plans to attend a national writer’s conference, leaving my husband, Christian, in charge of our four kids (boys ages 7 and 8, and girls ages 11 and 12). The children would be in school most of the day, and our seventh-grader could watch her younger siblings after school until my husband came home from work, making the scheduling not as arduous as it would have been a few years ago.
Then I remembered Naomi would be turning 13 around the same time — and she wanted a sleepover birthday. A quick glance at our calendar revealed the weekend I would be gone as the only feasible Friday night for our daughter’s birthday sleepover. That meant Christian would have to be the on-premises adult during the birthday festivities.
I put the question to my husband: Would he be willing to handle the sleepover? He readily agreed.
When I mentioned the upcoming trip and birthday party to friends, the reaction was shock and astonishment. It wasn’t that these women never left their kids in dad’s charge — it was rather that monitoring a sleepover birthday party for seventh graders was somehow asking too much of a father.
Sure, not every dad would absolutely love to play host to a houseful of hyper-excited girls, but the attitude that he wouldn’t be able — or willing — is one that’s pervasive in our culture. Some mothers have told me they can’t leave the kids with their husbands at all (can’t is the word often used). Other moms laughingly admit to leaving a detailed list of instructions (one mom likened hers to a quartermaster’s logistical spreadsheet). Some mothers only allow fathers to ferry the kids to prescribed activities. A few mothers throw caution entirely to the wind and exit the house sans kids on a regular basis.
Why do we mothers have such a hard time releasing our little ones (no matter how old the child) into dad’s care? I’ve heard mothers talk about how disastrous it was when dad took care of the munchkins for a morning. Horror stories of kids being allowed out in public without snacks, sunscreen and matching outfits abound. In any moms group, you often hear about the time dad let little Mikey eat dirt or forgot to brush Suzy’s hair. What’s interesting is that by and large, these incidents didn’t put the children in danger or cross the line into truly hair-raising territory. We act as if giving kids Cheetos for lunch is as bad as allowing toddlers to play in the street.
Most dads are ready and willing to be in charge of the children, but it’s hard for them to find their way when mom corrects their every move. “Don’t do it that way, do it MY way,” is the message we send dads. We somehow think that if we don’t constantly supervise dad with our kids, he will get it wrong — but wrong means not the way we do things.
We forget that while dad’s way might be different, it’s usually more relaxed than the way we parent — and that contrast is good for kids. For example, when my husband takes the kids for an outing, he is more apt to charge out the door, sometimes not bringing what I would deem “essential” items. But the children have always come back in one piece, usually with a funny story of their adventures with dad.
How can mothers be more generous in giving fathers the time and space to forge their own parenting? Here are five ways I’ve learned to let go and let my husband come into his own as a father.
1. Remember that he’s the parent too. We sometimes forget that the father has an important part in the upbringing of our children. Yes, most moms carried the baby for nine months and if we nursed, we had that extra closeness as well. But dads bring their own perspective, and letting them be in charge of the kids often is vital to his relationship with them.
For me, this means not jumping in when he’s telling the children to do something or modifying the discipline he decides on. I’ve also learned to appreciate his parenting strengths, which often balance out my own parenting weaknesses, making us a better parenting team.
2. Everyone makes mistakes. We act as if any mistake dad makes is worse than our own. Mothers develop convenient amnesia when it comes to the near-misses or outright disasters with our kids. My husband might have left the kids in the gym nursery one time (he remembered to go get them after pulling into our driveway!), but I’ve accidentally shut the fingers of one as a toddler in a car door and forgotten to bring sunscreen during sunny expedition. I felt helpless as I watched a couple of them burn.
3. There’s right, and then there’s fine. Your way isn’t the only way. When our firstborn was little, I had to stop myself from correcting my husband’s way of diapering or dressing the baby. He might have put on some outfits backward but the baby was always clean and dry in his care. That taught me that fine was good enough.
4. Let him find his own way. Fathers relate to their kids in different ways than mothers, and that’s a good thing. We need to let dad figure out how to be a parent without our instructions or comments. I often tell new moms to leave the baby with their husbands for short periods as soon as possible, even if it’s for a walk around the block or a trip to Starbucks. This helps new dads get used to handling babies on their own.
When I was pregnant with our first child, I was nearing the end of my graduate degree program. I signed up for an evening class for the fall semester, even though I was due in late September. That meant my husband would watch the baby when I returned to class. That alone time with baby gave my husband the confidence he could handle this parenting thing. My confidence in his untested ability as a new father to figure things out provided the foundation for his willingness to step up with the children in the years since.
5. Give him space to form his own memories with the kids. Moms, especially those of us who stay home with our children, have tons of opportunities to forge special bonds with our children apart from dad. We need to provide opportunities to allow fathers to have experiences with our kids without us.
For example, Christian started taking our children to the National Book Festival. In the early days of this event, I usually had a book club meeting that day (I know, the irony of missing a book festival to have a book club meeting…) and he had kid duty. So he would schlep them downtown and herd them through the crowds to see authors, gather festival goodies and get their pictures taken with costumed cartoon characters. These days, even though I could go with them, I don’t. The book festival become a special event with dad.
The bottom line is that dads are perfectly capable of being as good a parent as moms. Sure, they might not notice the outfit’s on backward, might not bring boots for a trip to the farm after a rainy week or might leave for a day trip with only one diaper, but they will learn to make do, handle tired kids and messy meltdowns, and develop a deeper bond with their children in the process.
And just how did the birthday sleepover go? The eight giggling girls plus our two daughters had a wonderful time. Everything went smoothly, no moms felt compelled to stay to “help,” the birthday girl had a fabulous time and my husband and two boys survived just fine. It couldn’t have gone better if I had been there myself.