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.


9 thoughts on “A family riddle: Why are two parent mornings sometimes more stressful?

  1. Kevin and Caroline: The fact that you two pause to analyze what is going on in your interactions with the boys and generate a change in behavior for yourselves or aimed at them is deeply impressive. You are really awesome parents! Jay and Wally are so lucky.

    • Caroline is never going to forgive you for introducing me to this whiteboard approach. We’re getting one this weekend! And that whole post is terrific, too.

    • Hmmm. I’d say no. I think there were times that we compounded each other’s stress as early as the first month we were parents.

  2. The important thing here is that you’ve managed to identify the issues, talk about them without shelling blame on each other, or taking things personally. Very simply, the dialogue you’ve begun can be applied to other aspects of your life as parents, your marriage, and other stresses that come into play with family life. Good Job!

  3. This post hits home for our family. I would venture a few other possible explanations:

    1) When my wife and I are both getting ready to go out with our two daughters, it\’s often unclear who is doing what tasks. In theory we could discuss who will do which tasks, but in practice that often doesn\’t happen, and next thing you know we are running late and one person it upset that X hasn\’t been done even though it was never clear how X was was going to get done while I was completing Y and my wife was focusing on Z.

    2) This delegation problem is compounded by the fact that when we are both watching the kids, somehow there is false sense of stability and calm. I feel more comfortable lingering over a cup of coffee and the newspaper, content that the kids are in the other room with my wife enjoying themselves. Next thing I know a cranky kid comes in and I haven\’t made breakfast and my wife is annoyed that she was watching both kids while trying finish some chore. Or vice-versa, I\’m making breakfast and watching two kids, one of whom has grabbed a knife off the counter and I over-react and shout at her, which sends her running to her mom and I start fuming- why am I making breakfast and watching both kids while my wife is surfing online in the living room?

    If I have both kids for a morning, neither of these complications occurs. I plan X, Y, and Z from the start, and I don\’t linger too long over coffee and the newspaper. And things run smoother.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Nate. Points 1 and 2 totally describe what’s going on when we’re co-parenting and things melt down. I basically never drift over to the Internet while watching the kids by myself but often I try to sneak 5 minutes online when my wife and I are both home. And invariably something goes wrong during that time, leaving me trying to pretend that I hadn’t just been AWOL. Thanks for posting!

  4. So true! Also, with both parents around, it’s unclear which is moving from their comfortable couch position to get the child a snack.

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