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Why You Shouldn't 'Let' Your Husband Help With the Kids

Husband parenting Image via Shutterstock

I’ve had a book in the works for a while, since 2006 to be exact. I didn’t realize I was writing a book at the time, but I had two young children and a growing list of friends in need of new baby advice. E-mails became blog posts which became articles. I kept updating and sharing as the questions kept coming, and my experience taught me more. Last year, I started organizing and compiling the collection into rough chapters. Now, I wish I had it ready because women are about to collectively discover that they need new motherhood advice.

Last week, The Intern hit theaters, and this week, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book, Unfinished Business, comes out. The weeks before that, Slaughter and her husband Andrew Moravcsik published articles to prep the public for the book: "Don't worry, working moms: Just leave Dad in charge at home" and "Why I Put My Wife's Career First." Each covers how women can have it all by letting men be more involved with child care. That’s right -- letting.

The need to let men be involved with early child care has been one of the primary points of the new mom advice I’ve been sharing for almost 10 years. From a 2010 post, The Baby Timeline, 0-6 Months:

After the first milk demand, start involving your husband more with the baby.  For instance, have him watch the baby while you take a walk. Leave the house. Get out of his way. Only go for 20 minutes or so (you won’t be loaded with energy, but you will be loaded with milk — you ain’t goin’ very far for a while).  Soon call up a friend for a quick lunch and leave him for an hour. Later, go for a night out. You get the idea.

Hold your tongue about tarnished silver. If, for example, he gives the baby a bath, do not offer any comment or instruction unless he is in danger of flooding the house or drowning the baby. He will put the diaper on wrong, and it will leak. Shut up. You learned that lesson only 10 days earlier. He will likely be rougher and louder with her. This will annoy you. Shush. Learn to trust him to watch the child he would gladly die for. Do this, and the payoff will be HUGE. Be aware, though, of the difference between "Let him get a taste of how hard this is!" and "Let him get his own rhythms with Peanut." You are facilitating his bonding with his child, not launching a score keeping war. It is a little bit of mental pruning that you must do for the health of your marriage.

What has often struck me about giving this bit of advice is that it seems like it would be self-evident in the post-Second Wave world. Men of the Don Draper and earlier eras reached high career success when they had a spouse handling the homefront. For the ambitious woman to match male success, of course she would need a partner willing to do the admin duties surrounding the kids and life in general. But the advice is not self-evident. You can hear that in my tone from five years ago. This was not an exercise in advice giving, it was an exercise in persuasion. This bit of advice gets only slightly less resistance than my sex after a baby advice, which also covers the issue of husband "help":

 Again, marriage is a partnership. Do not fall into the modern trap of thinking that childbirth means you must — or can — go full domestic as soon as you get home from the hospital. True, housewifery isn’t rocket science, as the Second Wave feminists liked to berate us, but it is a practical skill…which takes practice. Nor is maternity leave a time to prove your Enjoli woman abilities.This way lies tears, exhaustion, and husbands who do not help because they think they are not allowed. It is one of modern women’s many ironies that as our mothers told us domestic chores were unintelligent drudgery we then assumed that they’d be easy to execute cold to prove our feminine powers. That we attempted this gambit while changing the preferred childrearing term from “mothering” to “parenting” is a little proof that there must be an intelligent controlling force in the universe who has a dry sense of humor.

The resistance I encountered while giving the "let dad get his own rhythms with the baby" advice actually led me to all of my writing on the mommy wars. Whether a woman is a stay at home mom or a working mom — or a national feminist organization resisting male involvement in child rearing — women on the whole do not want to give up child care, ever. Not even when the kids are out of the house (or should be). Helicopter parenting is an all-consuming job, usually performed by mothers despite the gender-neutral name. I spent a lot of time in thought, research and conversations over tea or wine to figure out why.

Image via Shutterstock Image via Shutterstock

Part of it is pure compassion and sentiment. A mother usually loves her kids and wants to be with them, and a small part of the desire is for power and control — the hand that rocks the cradle.  But so much of it is straight lack of confidence in the "have it all" world. Women have to prove that they can do it all alone.

That was some of the big advice the Second Wavers dished out to ambitious young feminists in the '70s. To succeed in the working world, they had to do everything better than men so there would be no cause for doubting the professional abilities of women. Another bit of advice told to women was “never be dependent on a man.” It seems like sound advice, but it cuts off any chance for true partnership or collaboration — precisely the kind of marriage Anne-Marie Slaughter enjoys and The Intern* wishes for.

Anne-Marie Slaughter reportedly drew a lot of elite feminist ire for her observations that women haven’t managed to have it all after 50 years of striving. They preferred to blame women’s commitment — lean in, ladies — or blame Republicans for not mandating Scandinavian family leave policies. And true, many made noise about getting men to help, but Slaughter is correct: they saw it as “help” and often resisted that help when it was offered.

Slaughter’s actual expertise is foreign policy. (I suspect it grates on her that she is better known for her thoughts on work-life balance.) She didn’t pay much attention to the lack of family-friendly work until she needed to be a caregiver. She isn’t alone. Lack of family-friendly workplaces is really a girl on girl crime. Feminists rejected the "mommy track." Female CEO’s are merciless judgers until they have children. Even on the right, we don’t often think of villages until we need them. (Heck, Rod Dreher wrote a book on that.) On the whole, women do not really think about how to raise children until the babes are in their arms. No, until then, we hold on to our assumptions about motherhood and get frazzled when we discover how naive we were. But we will accept government, hired or other women’s help (preferably our mothers’) before we will let fathers do anything but follow our explicit instructions.

The girls of the '70s and '80s took home attitudes that were so standard, we hardly realized they were feminist: if a woman gets help from a man, then the achievement doesn’t count. She’s a failure. That self-judgment is hard to stop. Slaughter might find that promoting actual partnership with fathers makes her even more of a pariah in elite feminist circles than pointing out that women couldn’t do it on their own.

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* Most of the movie The Intern promotes partnership marriage, but in the end, the marriage remains to serve the wife — what she wants and needs. For all of the thoughtful moments given to marriage, the capitulation at the end was very disappointing.