My son’s cries wound themselves around my heart and pulled me to the door of his room. I was having a particularly difficult time getting him to settle for his nap and, out of exhaustion, I agreed to my husband’s request to do it ‘his way,’ which involved allowing my son to cry for awhile. It had worked for his other kids, and this was the way to do it if I didn’t want to be a slave to nap time.
But it wasn’t the way to do it, not for me, and I instantly regretted it. My husband shooed me away from the doorway a couple of times, but the maternal pull was too strong. I couldn’t let my baby cry when (to me) he so obviously needed help getting settled. Little did my poor husband know that he was about to experience a wild-eyed, unstoppable mama bear. I might even have growled as I forcefully pushed him aside and went in to soothe my son.
The above anecdote is not intended to vilify my husband, nor a particular method of sleep-training, but it illustrates just how different our approaches were to this particular parenting issue. It was also the first time I really, somewhat aggressively, stood up for what I believed in my core was the right thing to do for my son. I acted on primal instinct. From then on, I started to find my footing as a first-time parent. Unfortunately, my newfound confidence was the catalyst for a huge amount of conflict with my husband.
Families Are Changing
Whereas this was my first experience of parenthood, my husband had already raised two children in his first marriage. Our circumstances are hardly unique: in 2015 the Pew Research Center reported that less than half of the children in the United States (46%) lived in a “traditional family” (with two parents who are in their first marriage). This is a significant trend downward from 1960 (73%) and 1980 (61%).
As family structures evolve to include an increasing number of remarriages, cohabitation, and blending, it is reasonable to expect new relationship challenges surrounding parenting. But we were unprepared for just how emotionally charged and difficult it would be.
We Know Better; We Should Strive for Better
In the beginning, I deferred to my husband’s expertise, relieved that one of us knew what they were doing with this fragile, impossibly tiny little human. He confidently led the way through the first diaper changes, baths, and gas pains. He kept a calm and level head during a horrifying aspirated spit-up episode. My husband is a pragmatic person, and if he sees something that needs to be ‘fixed,’ he fixes it, only stopping to think about it later. On the flip side, he doesn’t see a need to change things that ‘work.’
Knowledge around baby safety and development is continually advancing and my husband raised his first babies over 17 years ago. Sometimes the best practice information I learned from postpartum nurses and other reputable sources didn’t mesh with his parenting modus operandi. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is very clear that babies are safest sleeping on their backs, whereas my husband didn’t see any problem with propping our little guy up on his side to sleep, because this is what he did with his other kids and “they were fine.” I felt like a lot of my concerns over safety were brushed aside.
I strive for a responsive, authoritative style of parenting (no doubt reflecting my experience as a teacher), whereas my husband’s style often defaults towards authoritarian. Many couples have differing parenting styles, and it is certainly possible to find common ground and parent as a team. Plus, as psychologist Peggy Drexler points out, children of parents who take divergent approaches to child-rearing may be better prepared for adapting to and working with different kinds of people later in life. But, my husband and I were entrenched in positions at opposite ends of a very long spectrum.
Because I lacked actual parenting experience, it seemed like my opinions and instincts held no weight. I felt that my voice as a mother was being silenced before it had time to fully develop, constantly trumped by my husband’s experience. However, just as in the nap time incident, I could not stay silent; instead, I became anxious, fiercely protective, and resentful.
We got to the point where something as insignificant as a wardrobe choice would spark an emotional argument. Fortunately, we both acknowledged that we needed some kind of external mediation in order to learn to communicate again, so we enlisted the help of a relationship counselor.
Different Parenting Styles: Communicating Through Conflict
Although conflict is a natural part of any healthy relationship, we reacted to it in ways that undermined our connection. These natural, but totally unhelpful, responses are what The Gottman Institute dubs The Four Horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Just as the name suggests, the recurring presence of these behaviors in a relationship heralds its impending disintegration.
Our counselor helped us to clarify our emotion-ridden communication, getting to the core of what we each needed. She supported us in learning to empathize with each other’s experience. For example, I hadn’t considered that expressing concern about some of my husband’s parenting habits made him feel criticized, micromanaged, and as if his hard-earned experience was meaningless. He didn’t feel free to use his own judgement. Stonewalling me or contemptuously shutting down my requests was his way of dealing with the pain that caused.
Simultaneously, my husband understood that I needed to know my opinions were important and that I was an equal parent, even though I lacked experience. He agreed that it does make sense to evolve our practices as dependable new information comes to light, and I believe he now appreciates that a mother’s instinct can be an overwhelming force. I’m grateful that we found a female counselor who is also a mom, because even though she is professional and objective, she understands. Hearing her say that my feelings and concerns are normal and valid was hugely important for me.
Middle Ground, Mindfulness, and Gratitude
Slowly, but surely, we have found middle ground by identifying what we agree on: we love our son and want him to be safe and happy. We may sometimes have different parenting styles, but if we keep core similarities in mind, it is easier to give each other the space we need to be the parents we want to be. When conflicts do arise, we have learned how to mindfully tune into our physiological states in order to assess whether we are in a constructive space for communicating or not. Saying, “I need a few minutes” is a great strategy if we find ourselves triggered. Taking time to calm down helps us to communicate from a place of intellectual reason and connection, making it much easier to find compromises.
Each evening we practice gratitude for each other, recognizing and validating what we each bring to parenting our son. Naming and celebrating each other’s strengths and contributions helps us be more patient and tolerant.
Although our parenting conflict nearly drove us apart, what we’ve learned from it has brought us closer together. We now feel like equal parents, and see each other as allies instead of adversaries. Our connection is now stronger than it was pre-conflict, and I am confident that we can maintain the skills necessary to keep our relationship on track. For me, this whole experience has also been a rite of passage that has helped me to finally step firmly and confidently into the big shoes of motherhood.