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Opinion I Learning to be partners in parenting

Couples often drift apart over parenting ideologies and practices. Here is a simple to-do list of how to come together as a team.

Couples need to appreciate one another’s strengths and compensate for the other’s weakness. Photo: iStock
Couples need to appreciate one another’s strengths and compensate for the other’s weakness. Photo: iStock (iStock)

One Monday morning, a couple called in for an emergency counselling session. This was nothing unusual—weekends are ‘high-risk zones’ for conflicting couples. I waited for them after finishing my usual appointments and wondered what this could be about: was it infidelity, or possibly one set of in-laws visiting without notice. Whatever it, I was certain that I had seen it before in my other counselling sessions. Soon after the couple was ushered in. The husband was a young man in a starched, ironed shirt, hair parted into two neat sides, and the wife—even before I could assimilate my observations about her—had already complained about my tiny cabin. I asked her to take a seat and if a cup of coffee could make up for the lack of space. She declined. Finally, I had time to take her appearance in. She hadn’t really combed her hair, which was knotted up in an untidy bun. Her skin was dehydrated and she had very tired eyes. Her clothes looked ill-fitted and mismatched. She was wearing a necklace as if to satisfy herself that she had dressed up. The lady reminded me of the time when I had delivered my second child, and used to mindlessly pull out clothes from piles, unable to remember what coordinating shirt with pants meant.

As the man pulled out a notebook from his pocket and put it in his lap, she rolled her eyes, and pulled herself in a crossed-leg position on the sofa. She dumped the cushion onto her lap, mirroring his actions with the notebook and started speaking. She had had a baby 5 months ago and was “exhausted with this man", as he had been insisting on a name for their son that she simply didn’t like. “Is it fair that I carry the baby, go through the pain and he wants to pick the name?" she asked.

Shwetambara Sabharwal
Shwetambara Sabharwal

I must confess that it took me a few moments to get my bearings right as I scribbled on my notepad that the conflict was over the name of their infant. She continued to recount many details from the past, when she had found “this man" inconsiderate, selfish and heartless.

After a long pause, she looked at him impatiently and asked if he was going to utter a word at all or she would have to do that too all by herself. To which he said, “See, this is what I have to live with. Always accusing and complaining. I am tired of this woman in my life." He continued to systematically list his grievances, accumulated over four years of their marriage. By the time he got to the point of why his name was better for the baby, the lady was fuming, crying, yelling and demanding for separation. I could see the husband sitting, unmoved about his stance. (I really wanted to know what the name options were but refrained from asking).

While understandably urgent, I could see this was not just about the name of the child. The couple were such a stark image of new parents in a conflicted relationship. Couples often fall apart over parenting ideologies and practices. We witness a breakdown of intellect, empathy and functionality in the face of such urgent and loaded “baby decisions". These arise from mash-ups of one’s past baggage, perceptions, rigidities in the personality, poor communication styles and inability to make concessions. These creep into parenting struggles, which is sad because that is the time when the two individuals need to be rock solid as a team. And the most important thing for a team is to appreciate one another’s strengths and compensate for the other’s weakness.

Here are some simple ways that couples can work together, accommodating for each other’s personality traits:

1. Recognise that you are carrying a lot of your own past into parenting.

2. Solving problems is a skill we need to learn without getting emotionally attached to every problem. This needs consistent practice.

3. Stay in the present. Do not slip into discussing the past or prophesying.

4. The “provider" chip on the shoulder doesn’t help. Please also give the martyrdom argument a break. It won’t help to always talk about “I do so much." Find your role in the process and celebrate it. Let’s be honest about what we are able to do, do it and let the other do their bit.

5. Ask for help! “I would like it if you.." statements help more than “you did or did not".

6. See this as an opportunity to get therapy and stick it out. While time consuming, it is absolutely imperative if you are experiencing any kind of stress, not just for the sake of the baby, or your relationships but also for yourself.

Meanwhile, the wife came for some more sessions, but no matter how many times I tried to gently steer the conversation towards existing perceptions, the discussions inevitably focused on urgent parenting questions, flash cards and lactation. As she gained confidence as a mother, she stopped coming.

This is a common frustration in therapy. While we would like to address the core concern, we have to help with fire-fighting first. Years later, we see relationships bleed away due to tiny abrasions that could have been prevented or treated in time, by working on the self.

Nevertheless, I often wonder if baby-no-name got gentle, loving tickles and massages from his parents, did they lie down together on the floor with him and smile, looking into his eyes? Did they fuss over his first smile or miss it as they fought? Did they hug each other as they watched him take his first steps, value each other’s passion and use it to give the baby a solid foundation in the formative years? Wonder what his name is...

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