A family riddle: Why are two parent mornings sometimes more stressful?

Last Sunday started nicely.  The boys got up at 8am and we took our time getting dressed and moving downstairs to breakfast.  But from the moment Caroline offered Wally his first ‘PBC’ (Peanut Butter-dipped Cheerio) to the time, an hour later, the four of us climbed into the car to go to church, something happened.  Instead of having ample time, we suddenly found ourselves in a rush.  Instead of enjoying each other’s Sunday morning company, we were all in each other’s ways.  By the time we backed out of the driveway, Caroline and I were both in decidedly unholy moods.

That Sunday morning experience was in stark contrast with two other morning experiences we’ve had recently.  Two Sundays ago Caroline was in Denver for the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. I took the boys to church by myself and there was nothing stressful at all about that morning.  Then, this past Saturday I left before dawn for a road race in Flint and Caroline had the boys to herself until lunchtime.  She reported afterward that there had been a few difficult moments, but that overall their time together was calm.

This is a pattern we’ve noticed before: Single parenting is often calmer than co-parenting.  It’s a counterintuitive finding- you’d think that the more adults to share the childcare load, the better- and it’s also one that feels awkward to say out loud.  Who wants to acknowledge that working together with their spouse sometimes makes things harder?

After we got back from church and the boys went into quiet time, Caroline and I talked about why parenting stress is sometimes higher when we’re together than when we’re apart.  We came up with two explanations.

The first is that Jay is more of a handful when both of us are around.  Caroline and I each find that when we have him by ourselves, we feel more connected to him (which gives us more control over him) and that it’s easier to get him marching to the desired tempo.  When both of us are parenting together, Jay seems to have a knack for finding the seam between us: He occupies this semi-lawless, no-man’s land where neither Caroline nor I have real, immediate authority over him.

When I parent by myself it’s clear to me and to Jay, regardless of whether we’re in the same room together, that I’m the one setting behavioral policy. But when Caroline and I parent together and we’re both running around trying to find the boys’ shoes, and to change Wally’s diaper, and to remember money for the offering, Jay doesn’t feel like he’s under either of our immediate prerogatives, and he exploits the opening.

The second dynamic Caroline and I have noticed is that we compound each other’s stress.  When I parent by myself and things get stressful, I vent for a moment and the stress dissipates.  When Caroline and I parent together and things get stressful, I vent for a moment and it feels like the released stress bounces back and forth between us, gaining momentum and building force as it goes.

For example, if I spill Wally’s bottle when I’m by myself and I say, “Fuck,” that’s the end of it.  But if I spill Wally’s bottle when Caroline and I are together and I say, “Fuck,” now I’m aware of how my outburst affects her.  At the same time, she starts modifying her behavior to give me more space because obviously I’m on edge.  Then I recognize that she’s giving me more space and I feel: A) guilty that she’s now having to change her behavior to accommodate me; and B) a little annoyed, thinking, like, “I don’t need accommodation!  Everything’s fine! I’m not stressed!  Just go about your business!”

Which is a long-winded way of saying that sometimes it’s easier to get through a bad mood (or a bad moment) by yourself.

This dynamic has definitely existed as long as we’ve been parents but we’ve only begun to talk about it in the last week.  And, though it’s a small sample size for sure, I’m happy to report that our recent mornings have been very tranquil.  This suggests, I think, the value of simply naming a problem.  Having now identified the ways in which we compound each other’s stress, it’s easier to take a meta-perspective in the moments when it starts to happen and laugh: “Oh, we’re doing that thing again.”

Now, if we could only get Jay to develop a meta-perspective on his own lawless behavior, then we might really be getting somewhere.

What means remembering?

This guest post comes from my twenty-year-old cousin Mara Lewis, who spent the last week up in Maine with us.  It’s about the challenge of building a relationship with a little boy she sees only a few times a year.

I first saw Jay on Sunday morning a little after 9am.  I had arrived with my mom in Maine at the house where my cousins grew up the night before, and was sad to learn that he’d gone to bed just before we’d arrived.  When I awoke the next morning, my first thought was that Jay was probably already awake, too.  I ran downstairs, only to learn that he’d left for the park down the street.  I quietly ate my cereal and waited for his return.

About an hour later, I heard Jay’s voice in the driveway.  Then I saw him walk through the front door.  I stepped out of my chair and ran to give him a hug, but he just hid his face behind Caroline’s legs.

I tried to mask my disappointment, but inside I was crushed. I’d spent the last two months looking forward to seeing Jay again, and now here we were, reuniting with a denied hug.  I wasn’t sure how much Jay would remember me.  Six months ago, I’d spent two days with him in upstate New York for Christmas.  Our time together then still felt so recent to me, and I convinced myself that it would feel that way to Jay as well.

I moved past our unsatisfactory introduction and attempted to make Jay comfortable with me again.  The whole family went out to the backyard, but my focus was on Jay.  We picked blueberries, knocked around a plastic golf ball, and sat on a tree swing.  Within minutes I’d won him back.  He held my hand as he asked me which blueberries were ready to be eaten.  He let me hold him on the swing and let me tickle him to the ground.  He developed a fascination with a game I had on my iPhone called Draw Something, and painted me pictures of elaborate ice cream sundaes.  It was hard to believe that only 30 minutes earlier Jay had viewed me as a stranger.

Jay was filled with questions. He asked why about everything, whether or not it had an explanation.  One afternoon, Jay, Caroline, and I had planned to go sailing, but were forced back at the last minute by storm clouds on the horizon.  As we walked home from the harbor, hand in hand, Jay asked, in his typical construction, “What means storm?”  I explained a storm is when it rains and thunders, and he asked why those things were going to happen.

I did the best I could to answer him.  “Because the weather changes and sometimes it’s nice out and other times it’s not.”  Insufficient.  “Why?” he asked again.  “Because there are dark clouds in the sky and those clouds are filled with rain that will soon start to come down.”  When he asked “why,” again, I had nothing left to tell him. “That’s just the way it is,” Caroline and I said in unison.

After only three days of our vacation, I felt closer than ever with Jay—so much so that I started to miss him almost as soon as I said goodnight to him each evening.  And while I imagine this closeness meant more to me than it did to him, I think he felt it too.

One night just after Caroline had put Jay and Wally to bed, I was in the kitchen doing dishes.  All of a sudden, I heard a voice at the top of the stairs. I knew that Caroline probably wanted him asleep, but I couldn’t resist.  I left the dirty dishes on the counter and went to join Jay on the stairs.  We talked and laughed together, and I realized that I was in fact genuinely enjoying the company of a three-year-old.  We talked about our favorite parts of the day and what our dreams were going to be, a bedtime tradition that Jay keeps with Caroline and Kevin.  I told Jay I was leaving in the morning, and he gave me a big hug.

The day after I’d gotten home to New York, I called the house in Maine to say hi to my mom, who was still there (I’d had to leave early because of work obligations).  My mom came on the line and in the background I heard Jay running and talking as exuberantly as ever.

“He wants to say hi to you,” my mom told me.

“Put him on the phone!” I replied eagerly.

“Hi Mara.  I miss you,” he said.  My face lit up and I couldn’t help but smile.  Although this was just a day after I’d left, it gave me hope that when I run to hug him at Thanksgiving, he’ll run to hug me back.

An early morning sail

Jay and Caroline the previous afternoon.

This morning just past dawn my brother-in-law Andrew, Jay, and I crept out of our house in South Freeport for an early morning sail.  We brought life jackets, toast with peanut butter, a bilge pump, and a thermos of coffee.  The sun was coming up over the pine trees that line Wolfe’s Neck as Andrew pulled the cord on the two-stroke outboard and we headed for the mooring, the water like glass, the air inauspiciously calm given what we proposed to do.

This was Jay’s second sail of our New England vacation, which included a week on Martha’s Vineyard with Caroline’s parents and now a week in Maine at the house where I grew up.  The first sail, yesterday, hadn’t faired so well.  No wind and the main wouldn’t raise.  As we neared the mooring Jay declared to me and Andrew, “Sailing is hard.”  I hoped he’d be singing a different tune by the time we returned to the harbor later that morning.

The sailboat is a 22-foot Cape Dory Typhoon, a legendarily sturdy boat with a full keel that, my stepfather informed us all when he bought it last year, could take you all the way to England.  That guarantee doesn’t apply to the boat’s outboard, however.  We started the motor, cast off from the mooring, but as soon as we were loose the motor died.  We were nearly adrift as I reached over the gunwale and grabbed the mooring ball with the outgoing tide ripping us away.  There was some cursing and jumping about before we managed to reattach a line, after which we deduced the problem with the motor as a closed valve on the gas can.  Jay, who has a good sense for when things aren’t as they’re supposed to be, was nearly in tears amidst the commotion.  Eventually we reassured him that the boat was working fine and that no one was going to crash, and we got back underway.

We motored out of quiet Freeport Harbor, through lobster pots and sleeping sailboats, with Jay at the tiller.  Andrew explained to him that you push to the left to turn to the right and pull to the right to turn to the left, and he understood what we were saying even if his precision was off, so that we jerked to and fro through the channel like a sailor stumbling home from the wharf-front bars.  We eased past Pound of Tea at the mouth of the harbor and emerged into the early morning splendor of Casco Bay, where we cut the engine, the world suddenly and improbably transformed into silence.

Except for the inexhaustible Jay, who wanted to know where the seals were and what the birds were eating and what the distant lobstermen were doing, and why, for the love of God, weren’t we going any faster.  With the sails slack along the mast, Andrew climbed out of the beseeching cockpit and laid out on the boat’s narrow foredeck.  I passed Jay up to him and then came up onto the deck myself.  The sun was bright and warm against my face and I leaned back on my arms.  Jay asked me why we’d moved, would our legs reach into the water, weren’t we going to crash if no one steered the boat.  I told him, “shhh,” and explained that one of the best parts of sailing is not saying anything at all.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot with Jay on our New England vacation, how there are two kinds of learning: The learning you do when an adult tells you things, and the learning you do when you let go just enough to sink into a new experience.

The first time I had this thought was two Tuesdays ago, when I was reading Jay a story from Frog and Toad as we lay beside each other on the bottom bunk at the house on Martha’s Vineyard.  We were reading “The Spring,” a funny story where Frog tricks Toad into thinking it’s May instead of April so that Toad will give up hibernating and get out of bed to play.  It’s a story we’ve read nearly every night for the last several weeks, and as I read it to Jay that night I peppered him with questions, asking him why Toad didn’t want to get out of bed, and what kind of trick Frog was going to play, and prompting him to anticipate the end of sentences I knew he’d already memorized.

I asked Jay these questions because I wanted to push him to think harder about the book we were reading, but in the middle of the story, it occurred to me also that the cost, as it were, of asking Jay all those questions and trying deliberately to build his reading comprehension skills, is that he lost the chance to be immersed in the story, to be born away into the world of Frog and Toad, and to wake the next morning with his blood still thick with the tale he’d gone to sleep by.  When I realized that, I stopped asking Jay questions about the book and just read to him.

There is a place, of course, for both deliberate instruction and experiential learning, but parenting culture today skews towards the former.  It’s easier to see the value in teaching a kid to make predictions about a book than it is to quantify the benefit of giving a child the experience of falling in love with a story.

So too, this morning, as I sat beside Jay on the deck of the boat, I thought about how there were any number of lessons he might take way from our morning sail, including but not limited to the fallibility of his elders, the fickleness of the wind, the difference  between the jib and the main, and the amount of time that a seal can hold its breath underwater

But maybe what I most wanted him to get out of the morning was an understanding of what it feels like to be sitting on a sailboat on a sunny August morning in Maine with his dad by his side and the glory of the Atlantic spreading out before him.  I wanted Jay to know that feeling for its own sake, and for the lesson he could draw from it in time, which is that there are many ways to feel in the world, and that figuring out which ways you like best, and which experiences give rise to those feelings, is far more essential knowledge than anything I or anyone else might have told him that morning.