The Primary Parent Polka

from Thomas Wilson, printed in An Analysis of Country Dancing (London, 1822)
Our daily life feels as complicated as this polka move.  No, we can’t figure the diagram out either. (diagram by Thomas Wilson, from An Analysis of Country Dancing, London, 1822)

When we first started thinking about having kids, we started observing how other people parent.  After we finally got pregnant, we began watching not just how people interacted with their kids, but also the roles different partners in a couple played vis-à-vis the kids.  One thing we noticed over the years is that, in the vast majority of households, there is one primary parent.  (Note:  this is not the same thing as a stay-at-home parent, though we’ve yet to meet a stay-at-home parent – mom or dad – who isn’t also the primary parent.)

The primary parent is the parent most intimately familiar with the kids’ routines, schedules, and needs.  Who most actively sets and enforces the rules about eating, sleeping, and behavior.  Who knows exactly what has to be packed every time the kids leave the house – without asking.  Who appears uncannily able to predict and/or diffuse temper tantrums.  Who always knows just how much a young child has eaten and slept in the past 24 hours, and which friend or sibling an older child is fighting with that day.  Who seems to have a sixth sense of when their child is getting sick.  Whom sad, scared, or hurt kids often run to first for comfort.  Basically the dominant day-to-day, minute-to-minute parent in the kids’ lives.

Long before we actually had our own kids, we decided that we both wanted to be primary parents.  That we would share parenting 50/50.   That we would, could, and should both play that intimately familiar role in our children’s lives – fluidly shifting back and forth around the clock.

Five and a half years into parenting, we’ve finally mostly figured out how to share the primary parent role sometimes.  It’s definitely been the right decision for our family.  But it’s not been easy.  In fact, it’s been exponentially harder than either of us ever could have imagined.  We’ve discovered there are moments in our kids’ lives when sharing the primary parent role simply doesn’t work – breastfeeding, for example.  We’ve learned there are primary parent duties that one of us can handle far better than the other.  For example, B is far better at handling a screaming child at 3am.  D is much more effective at wrangling the kids out the door.  We’ve found that there are stretches when our individual personal and professional obligations or opportunities shift primary parenting more squarely onto just one of us.  However, most challenging, and surprising has been the amount of friction this type of co-parenting caused in our relationship, even though our parenting philosophies are completely aligned.

Still, neither of us would have it any other way. We relish the fact that either – or both – of us of can be primary parent at any given moment, and that our kids think that’s normal.  That when one of us – or one of the kids – is having an off day, we can respond with a quick, seamless hand-off.  That either of us can head out of town for several days with minimal disruption to the kids’ routine.  That we are true partners in studying, discussing, establishing, and enforcing household norms and rules.  That we both have the kind of deep, positive, meaningful connections with each of our kids that comes from being in the trenches of the unglamorous, day-to-day drudgery of childcare.

If you’re trying the primary parent polka in your own home – or considering it – here are a few things we’ve learned the hard way that might help your experience go more smoothly than ours:

1.  Get comfortable with constant renegotiation.  Anyone who’s had a baby knows that they change remarkably fast.  Just when you think you’ve got the parenting thing figured out – you know exactly what your kid needs, wants, can handle – they hit a developmental leap and everything changes.  Sharing primary parenting is very similar.  Only, it’s not just the kids’ needs that are constantly evolving; yours and your partner’s are, too.

Over the 5½ years we’ve been parents, we’ve had a total of 5 different full-time (and several part-time) jobs between us – each of which placed very different constraints on our time from length of commute to expected in-office hours to travel to evening and weekend obligations.  Before kids, work demands posed less of a problem.  We both were actively pursuing meaningful careers, and our partnership wasn’t debilitated by one (and, often, both) of us pulling an all-nighter, traveling last-minute, or heading into the office on a weekend.  Once kids entered the picture, everything changed.  Since we were so committed to co-parenting, one partner’s time-consuming professional opportunity was no longer all positive.  It inevitably created a significant personal and professional burden for the other partner.

The way we’ve worked through this is negotiating.  And when things change, as they often do, negotiating again.  We negotiate and renegotiate the “big rocks” – whose professional opportunities will take precedence this week, month, or year; what city will we live in?  We negotiate and renegotiate regular routines – who does preschool drop-off/pick-up which days of the week; who plans and cooks meals; who plans vacations.  We even negotiate and renegotiate the mundane minutia of life – who takes the dog out for his pre-bed potty break; who re-fills the kitchen soap dispenser?

At the end of the day, nothing is static.  The kids needs aren’t static.  Our needs aren’t static.  Even the dog’s needs aren’t static.  As everyone in the family’s needs change, as our work changes, as the personal and professional opportunities that open to us change, the one constant has been negotiation.  We now know that it is time for renegotiation when we find ourselves repeating the same arguments over and over.  Which brings us to our second tip….

2. 50/50 overall is not 50/50 every day (or week or even month).  “Your turn to change the diaper.  I changed the last 3.”  “But I changed all the diapers yesterday.” “Well I couldn’t change diapers yesterday, I was at work.” “Well so was I, but I had to leave early because the kid got sick and you couldn’t reschedule your meetings.  So not only did I change a dozen diapers, but after taking care of a sick kid all day, I also had to work until 2am to catch up.” “So what?  I changed all the diapers and had to skip a long-planned guys’ night out when you went out of town for two days.”

For years we repeated some variation of this pointless argument week after week.  Underlying it was heat-of-the-moment resentment that one of us was shouldering an unfair amount of the primary parent burden.  Yet, on the few occasions we pulled ourselves out of the moment to reflect on how co-parenting was going, we agreed that we were each pulling our weight overall.  What was going on?

There’s an old truism about caring for a baby:  the days go unbelievably slowly, but the weeks fly by.  It applies to sharing primary parenting, too:  the days can be wildly out of balance, but the months even out.  Basically, the pendulum is constantly swinging.  In any given hour, day, week, or month, one of us is likely to shoulder more of the burden of primary parenting than the other.  We both travel for work, and enjoy the work that we do.  We both have hobbies that take us away from home.  We both want to spend grown-up time with our friends.  Each of those things frequently impinges on our ability to be primary parent.  Still, we both want to do, and want the other to be able to do, all of those things.

Over time, we realized that our resentment was caused not by the other partner getting to do their non-parent things, but at our misperceptions in the heat of the moment – exacerbated by exhaustion, stress, and crying babies – about who was regularly pulling the most parenting weight.  So now we periodically check in with each other to recalibrate and renegotiate the division of responsibilities.  The result – a lot more harmony at home.  The added bonus: it’s made it easier for us to truly enjoy both the moments we’re focusing on being parents and the moments we’re not.

3. 50/50 overall does not have to mean 50/50 on everything.  When we started out, we thought that sharing the primary parent role meant that we should split all parenting duties and joys straight down the line.  So when our first child was born, we both participated in every feeding, every diaper change.  The routine went something like this:  D picked her up and changed her diaper.  B fed her.  D burped her.  B changed her diaper.  D swaddled her.  B put her back down.  The whole process took at least an hour.  And, since she had trouble breastfeeding, we were doing this routine 12x a day.  You do the math.  After only a few weeks, we were not blissful co-parents sharing in the delight of caring for 10 tiny fingers and 10 tiny toes, but two sleep-deprived zombies angrily circling each other, pressing every advantage to grasp just a few extra precious seconds alone.  Yikes!

Over time, we figured out that, so long as we both knew HOW to do all parenting activities, we didn’t both have to actually DO them all every time to feel that we were fairly sharing primary parenting.  We discovered that each of us preferred certain primary parent duties over others, and also that certain duties fit better with each of our own interests, needs, and schedules.  So we negotiated what we did accordingly.  For example, B liked making the kids’ baby food.  D did daycare drop-offs most mornings.  B handles most middle-of-the-night and early-morning wake-ups.  D puts in many more volunteer hours at the kids’ schools.  You get the picture.  Actively choosing together, and frequently renegotiating, who handles most of what has helped make our shared parenting go much more smoothly.


One thing we are sure of is that sharing primary parenting requires both a philosophical and practical commitment from both partners.  Making it work has been an ongoing process, and a hard one at that.  Still, as challenging as it’s been, we can’t imagine parenting any other way.

How do you and your partner split parenting responsibilities?  Got any tips you can share with us?

5 thoughts on “The Primary Parent Polka

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