Dads, Diapers and the Dangers of Default Parenting
The earliest memories I have as a new parent are an odd mixture of foggy and visceral. In between the unclear bits of going through the motions and trying to meet everyone’s needs, I have a few clear memories that stand out. I remember light, insufficient sleep, warm, cheesy meals that tasted like a dream and feelings of being overwhelmed by both anxiety and love.
I also ruefully recall the funny thought that struck me as I changed my daughter’s diaper when she was a few days old. I stopped and looked up at my husband, pointing out how much of the diaper needed to be folded down to make room for her little healing belly button. I had noticed the diaper he previously had put on her was a bit too high for my taste. I remember feeling that I expressed this in a calm and polite tone, but his face conveyed a very different reality.
Realizing I was probably a bit critical, I made a comment to try to soften the moment. “You know, it’s funny. I was expecting her first diapers to be so messy, but these have been very mild.” When I looked up again at him, his face had not softened much. I asked him what was on his mind, and he raised an eyebrow, asking me how many diapers I thought he had changed in the previous few days. It was then I sheepishly realized that my husband, wishing to let me rest as much as possible, had taken on every single disgusting meconium diaper, painstakingly removing the sticky, tar-like mess from our daughter’s tiny little bottom all hours of the night. He’d not mentioned it, of course, because he was simply caring for his child and his wife, but it clearly stung that the first mention I’d made of his diaper changing was a criticism, borne of the assumption he needed the benefit of my experience in order to provide this basic-care task.
It was our first real tense exchange after our girl arrived and served to highlight, for each of us, that communication after baby was only going to get more important just as it got more complex. Sensing her timing was perfect, the sweet, blue-eyed darling in my lap began to scream loudly, curtailing all conversation and leaving us with wide eyes and simmering frustration.
Time passed and through each mundane moment, good and bad, my husband and I have learned how to communicate frankly, constructively and kindly while navigating the beautiful mess that is parenthood. We’re nearly a decade in as I approach the birth of our third child, leading me to plenty of introspection.
Falling Into Default Parenting
As I look back, I see time and again that I inserted myself, with the best of intentions, into moments when he was present and capable of handling whatever may have arisen with our girls. Without meaning to, I’d given a thousand little cuts here and there, preventing him from fully being the amazing dad he has ever been, while also making myself the “default parent,” a role I grew to despise. By “deputizing” their father and lessening his, for lack of a better term, unsupervised guidance of our children, I’d relegated myself to the crushing and unrealistic role that many mothers find themselves filling.
I stayed at home with the children, keeping track of doctor’s appointments, clothing sizes, skill development, car seat installation procedures and milestones. Disconnected from most details of their daily reality, he often had to consult me before even simple decisions, a reality that I ignored for years thinking he preferred it this way. He resented this, of course, as did I. This was not the way we wanted it to be. And there seemed, at first, to be no way out.
Gratefully, through some hard conversations and intentional shifts to routine, we find ourselves now at a more equitable place. We respectfully and good-humoredly share the load, leaving lines of communication open for all of the little moments and feelings so we don’t find ourselves facing a mountain of resentment again.
A Better Way
It is from this place, on the other side of our folly, that I invite all parents, especially those with infants and small children, to hear the moral of our very common little tale: Parenting is a partnership. Let your words be affirming and honest and your actions be continual offerings of grace and trust.
In the earliest days and thereafter, making space for your spouse to perform caregiving roles with your children without oversight, comment or criticism will keep a balance that preserves peace for all. Stepping back and accepting that my husband’s methods may differ from mine but are no less valid allowed me to relax and breathe, just as it fostered in him pride and purpose as he met his family’s needs. Through all of this, we were watched by tiny, sparkling little eyes. Our girls were learning that home was peaceful, that Mama and Daddy were capable and that relationships are worth the work. Even if that work involves persuading an eight-pound person to relax and let you remove unspeakable goo from their tiny, tiny bottom.
Alicia is an Early Childhood Educator who works with young toddlers. She finds joy and inspiration to write in their cheeky shenanigans, as well as those of her two daughters.