This summer, our family conducted a Freaky Friday, reverse Leave it to Beaver type of experiment.
My husband had the summer off just as my work schedule ramped up so off he went to the cottage with our two daughters and two dogs for six whole weeks. During that time, I flitted in and out like Ward Cleaver.
“Everything good here? Yes? Super. Now someone fetch my slippers and pour me a scotch.”
My husband has always been pretty hands-on but this summer he took it to a new level: fun activities, play dates, healthy snacks, carpools and firm bedtimes were the norm. When our oldest started playing soccer he took her shopping for gear, coached her through her first game anxieties and FaceTimed me from the field.
Let me be clear: I am not applauding my husband for being a good parent and functioning human. And I don’t think so little of him that I need to celebrate every minor accomplishment. But since we became parents, most of the domestic stuff has been my responsibility, including child-care. I’ve never been in the army (I’m sure this shocks you), but I imagine my husband’s experience was similar to basic training in that he needed total immersion to “get it”, to find his groove.
When I arrived for my first “visit”, it was nearly two weeks into their solo mission. I expected to find a sink full of dirty dishes, feral dogs and the girls running down our dirt road in their underpants. I expected my husband to high-five me on his way out the door and to not see him for several hours, possibly days.
But none of this was the case and over the next several weeks I had the opportunity to sit back and watch what happens when you and your partner switch roles. Every day was Freaky Friday and honestly, it was the best thing that could have happened to us.
Being the primary caregiver means your life is made up of invisible, almost indefinable rhythms and routines. We learn to act on instinct, anticipate mine fields and triage crises without even knowing we’re doing it. Having distance from the daily grind, with only a low-maintenance cat to look after, gave me the chance to decompress, to take a break and (eventually) miss my kids. It allowed me to press reset on my mental health, to escape the minutiae of momhood that can make us all go a little insane after awhile.
Some of the best parenting advice I ever received was to let my husband parent his own way. To accept that I won’t agree with everything he says and does but to let him do it anyway. Yes, consistency is important but so is not critiquing, redirecting and contradicting. Most of us find it hard to see any criticism as “constructive” when it applies to something we take very personally, like parenting. I’ve learned to weigh the pro’s and con’s of offering my opinion because it’s just that: an opinion, and most of the time the situation is benign so there’s nothing to be gained from suggesting a different route. For most people a comment like “I think you should do it this way,” or “I think you should have said this” is akin to saying “you’re doing it wrong.”
If my husband wanted to let our girls jump off a mountain in flying squirrel suits I would absolutely and emphatically object, but most of the decisions we make are not life and death. They are a matter of opinion and preference and the reality is that no one needs my input to survive, as much as I might like to think otherwise.
As it turns out, I’m quite happy to sit back and watch him plan a day or oversee the bedtime routine. I’m also excellent at lying on the couch with a book and a glass of wine while he talks to our youngest daughter about an argument she had with a friend. Stepping back and letting him own it has been great for both of us. It even taught me a few things.
Previously, I might have described my husband as “too strict.” But watching him set boundaries and stick to his guns, watching him tackle the issues I’m often too tired to fight with the kids about, has given me a new perspective on discipline. He’s less affirming and less nurturing but our kids respond more positively than I would have thought. Watching him explain and implement consequences has made me more confident in my own approach. I don’t second-guess myself as much as I used to and knowing he’s going to have my back makes it easier.
For me, this experience was about stepping back and remembering to trust. For him, it was about understanding why I make the decisions I do, why I approach things the way I do. He’s become more patient, flexible and empathetic, which makes him better attuned to our daughters’ wants and needs.
Our Leave it to Beaver summer was not a case of good cop learning to be bad cop, or bad cop learning to be good cop. It was about taking tag-team, play to your strengths parenting to another level where we actually learned from our partner’s contributions; and I’m pretty sure this will serve us well in the teen years when “stop feeding the dog meatloaf under the table” is replaced by “stop coming home two hours late.” When the problems, like the kids, have grown it will be even more important that we trust each other and work together.
Now where are those slippers?