Feeling in control of our lives can drive our sense of empowerment, confidence, and self-efficacy. But when it comes to raising children, many of us suffer the downside of the desire for control and become the victims of our inability to share responsibility with our partner (and others). This can breed resentment, loneliness, and a sense of impossible burden.
Doing it all is valorized in our culture, and women are particularly susceptible to viewing the “supermom” image as something desirable and achievable. We may even have internalized gendered ideas about parenting that cause us to view our partner’s participation as “help,” and possibly, even further, thinking that asking for “help” proves ourselves less capable. But more is not more when it comes to our parental loads – here’s wisdom on how to give up some control.
What To Do (Bites)
Challenge your positive identification with “doing it all”
Striving to be involved and in control of everything in your life is (at least in part) fear-based. Fear of not being good enough, smart enough, caring enough…the list goes on. Many of these fears are rooted in cultural ideas that can shape us in positive ways but can also be oppressive and deeply internalized. The superparent image is awe-inspiring, yes, but aiming for it comes with less internal freedom than you might otherwise have, because of the constant and deep worry over not measuring up. Challenge your positive identification with doing it all: you are enough. You will be enough if you do less. You will be more than enough if you do less. You will actually be better if you do less.
Giving up control sharpens your partner’s skills
Doing it all cuts partners off from being equal or equal-ish and from figuring out their style of parenting. By loosening the reins, you give them the opportunity to hone their skills, show you how capable they are, and relieve you of responsibility. That doesn’t mean you can’t still influence their approach to childcare.
For example, you might continue to be inspired to be aware of your child’s nutrition, but instead of cooking your child’s meals and breastfeeding your baby around the clock, you can make meal suggestions to your partner and let him/her execute. Or you might share an article about balanced toddler meals with your partner or childcare provider and have them follow through without being the one to buy and prep everything. Then you can laugh together about your assumptions that toddlers will eat what you serve them! But at least you tried – together.
Moms: stop equating control with competence
Research done with heterosexual couples with children, suggests that increased involvement from dad, especially when he is considered skilled, can actually decrease mom’s sense of competence. Sigh. This doesn’t go in the other direction – as in, dads don’t feel threatened by their child’s highly competent mom.
We can surmise that the psychology behind this is “if he is doing this and is good at it, I must not be,” a kind of reasoning that comes from zero-sum thinking or a belief that one person’s competence must mean the other person’s lack. This is a mental trap that keeps moms from positively experiencing others’ involvement and gaining support that we need and deserve. If you feel this thinking sneak up on you, try to remind yourself that it is a bias of your thinking rather than a fact.
I used to resent when people commented on how great of a dad my husband was – as if that made me any less of a mom. I think that’s why I held onto breastfeeding for so long – because it was something only I could do. It took having another baby to see this for the positive it is – my kids have two dedicated, highly capable parents. How lucky are we? – a Sophia
It’s perfectly normal – in fact we are biologically wired – to worry about our kids, which is why we may struggle to give up control of their care. But, in a given situation, ask yourself if it poses true risk. Track the worst consequence associated with ceding control of it (assuming you see your partner’s ability to manage as imperfect!) Does having a nutritionally imbalanced dinner two nights a week pose true risk? Does having baby’s hair a little tangled pose true risk? How about a slightly shrunken onesie? The benefits of sharing these loads may well outweigh the risks and putting images and words to the worst-case-scenarios can help us see the relative importance of each instance.
If you’re having a particularly hard time giving up control, you might want to practice sitting through a controlling impulse without taking action. The ability to sit through these feelings and not act, though often very uncomfortable, gives us some experience of making it through and actually allows us to feel less anxious in the future, because we saw the world didn’t fall apart. You don’t have to stay hands off the entire time if it feels impossible but try to gradually increase the time you don’t intervene.
For example, if you see your child crying, and your partner is trying to soothe her, watch and wait. Start with a minute, or two, or three—whatever you can handle. It might not be your way, but your partner needs to develop their own way to soothe the kiddo! Yes, you may wind up jumping in after five minutes, but your partner may have successfully soothed your little one by then and you’ll have had the positive experience of making it through your impulse and maybe even seeing that your partner is capable enough.
Start the conversation, formally. Making clear that you are struggling to share responsibilities is an important part of opening the doors to ongoing, healthy conversation in your home that will help you to repattern who takes on what. Please note that this suggestion assumes a willing partner. If you have a partner who is truly unwilling to, well, partner with you, this needs to be addressed separately. We do find that ignorance or in some cases, a history of lack of involvement masquerades as unwillingness. So when you’re ready, it’s up to you to bring up the topic, own it as your challenge and bring your partner into the picture with a future-focused, solutions-oriented approach.
I never thought about asking my husband to get the kids dressed. It’s something I owned when my first was a baby and never dropped, even though it made mornings so rushed. Two kids later, I broke down one day and just asked. The next morning, not only were 2 out of 3 kids dressed and having breakfast by the time I came down, the dishwasher had also been emptied. Best. Day. Ever. Why did I wait so long? The Sophia Project Participant