On the first year of parenting

Photo by Azrul Aziz on Unsplash

At some point during my pregnancy, I had a revelation – my husband and I were no longer equals. I don’t remember the precise moment that triggered this thought. But by the time I was in the final weeks of my pregnancy I was making peace with the fact that going forward our roles as partners would not be interchangeable – I was carrying our baby and he was not – and this was only the beginning of an imbalance in our relationship.

And it turned out that I was right. Those first few weeks after we had our baby were the hardest. We were sleep-deprived, confused, and exhausted. We were both recovering but from different things and in different ways. After six years of being spouses, we had become mother and father. Our gender had defined our roles.

For most of the first year, after we had our son, there was a disconnect between us. As if something had broken, a string, a cord that had previously held us together. We did not have time for each other. Any break meant a chance to catch up on something else – sleep, work, news, social media. Saving this time for each other seemed unnecessary. There was nothing new to catch up on in our relationship. It could wait. When we did get time to ourselves, it felt like we had trouble starting conversations. A new sense of awkwardness had crept in, like strangers at a networking event, we were making small talk. It felt forced, our lives had diverged and it felt like nothing was the same.

On particularly bad days this disconnect translated into disappointment, irritation, and anger that I was doing more for our son than he was. Not because of his unwillingness to help. Or even the lack of help. He was doing his part and so was I. Yet it felt like there was some unfairness, some disparity in what was expected of us by society and by ourselves.

My irritation might have been due to my overzealousness, my working mom guilt, my need to try and be the woman who can do it all. I might have subscribed to the idea that even with a full-time job I must also be able to manage domestic duties, that asking for help would be liking admitting defeat, it would mean that I have failed as a mother, incapable of managing work and home and childcare. Maybe I was projecting this guilt and insecurity outwards.

Or maybe it was the idea of us no longer being equals. That passing thought from my pregnancy had lodged itself in my brain, maybe I was holding on to this idea, unwilling to see that most childcare activities could be equally shared among us. All I had to do was ask for help.

It could have also been my tendency to overthink and overanalyze. To plan, to make mental checklists of things my son needs, planning menus, researching toys and parenting techniques and books. Whether this is something I took up or it just fell on me, I do not know. But it took up time and effort that only I was putting in.

Maybe it was my own availability bias. Maybe because I remember all the things I do a lot more clearly than I remember the things he does, I assumed I was doing more. Daniel Kahneman talks about this in his book, Thinking Fast And Slow. He says,

When we are asked to estimate our contributions to keeping our home tidy, we tend to overestimate or believe that our contribution is greater than that of our partner. The explanation for this is a simple availability bias: both spouses remember their efforts and contributions much more clearly than those of the other and the difference in availability leads to a difference in judged frequency. Awareness of this bias can contribute to peace in marriages.

It may not be one thing, it might be a combination of many things. A woman takes longer than six weeks to recover after childbirth. I took six months to even begin feeling like myself again. While it might be convenient to blame everything on hormones, to ignore the effect of hormones is to undermine the emotional, physical, and mental changes a woman goes through after the birth of her child.

The first year of being parents is the opposite of an equalizer. It is disruptive, it tests your relationship. And we’ve had our moments – those nights where words were exchanged and tears were shed, backs turned, our bed bearing the weight of not just our bodies but also the weight of all that was left unsaid. The first year is a slow-walk, dragging our feet through a tunnel, the light at the end getting clearer with each step. Watching our child grow is the force that keeps us trudging forward. Everything else, however, seems to suffer.

Now, a year later we are out of the tunnel. The fog has lifted. We have found a rhythm, a new way to work as a team, we have made peace with each other’s ways of parenting. I can feel our old camaraderie returning. We are friends again, prioritizing each other, we are making time for long conversations, and the words are flowing. We are rediscovering ourselves, we are rediscovering our connection, that old spark, strengthening our bond, and it feels stronger this time than ever before.

We did not become mother and father overnight. The roles grew on us and we took our own sweet time to figure things out.

I know we have a lot more hurdles ahead of us. And that things are different now compared to how things were before we had a baby. We were independent then, we could fend for ourselves. Now we have a little human who depends on us not just for food and survival, but also for attention and love. So when one person gets busy, the other person has to pick up the slack. There is no way to avoid it. We have made peace with the imbalance, with the inequality because every day is going to be different, and each day, a different person will bear larger weight.

Instead of trying to quantify and compare our loads, instead of focusing on equal division, I want to focus on finding equilibrium, a steady-state that works for us, customized for us. Because every couple is different.

Parents are like the weighing pans of a mechanical beam balance, that old school instrument that was once ubiquitous in grocery stores. Parenting starts with one of the pans bearing more weight. The reference weight is then adjusted until the pans attain a steady-state and they appear to be side by side.

To be equal partners is to acknowledge that as our son grows, as we grow, the weights on either pan will keep changing. Our goal is to keep working towards equilibrium, to keep adjusting weights on our scale. To be equal partners is to acknowledge that the scale might always be slightly tilted, one way or the other but not always the same way. In many ways we are no longer equals – we differ in our views and expectations as parents, on most days our commitments at work and elsewhere might interfere with our ability to give a hundred percent at home. But in our efforts and in our willingness to work towards this equilibrium I know that we are truly equal.

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