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.