He parents one way, you parent another. Is there a right way?
We're in the car driving a sunset stretch of Central Oregon on what feels like the longest road-trip ever. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? When are we going to be there?
Back in the day, my husband and I once cannonballed straight through from Oregon to Ohio in a 36-hour marathon that felt shorter by days than this quick trip over the mountains. Roxie, our six-year-old, is finally sleeping, but three-year-old Lila is out-of-control whining in her car seat.
"I want to get OUT of this car," she says. Over and over, she's practically screaming when Sam pulls onto the gravel shoulder, gets out and grabs her from the car seat. I want to punch him. I hear the refrain of my childhood "I'll pull this car over right now and leave you here if you don't stop this minute."
Whatever he's doing, I'm sure it's wrong. He's going to make it worse and it's going to scar our daughter for life. Minutes later he snaps a smiling Lila back into her seat, and we're back on the road.
"What the hell?" I say. "How did you do that?"
"I just asked if she wanted to jump up and down for a few minutes to get her whines out," he said. "And I told her we're almost there."
Voila. Not even close to how I'd handle the situation. And it was perfect.
Seven years earlier when I was pregnant with our older daughter, my midwife told me she believes the greatest benefit of having two parents is the way it teaches a child there is no single right way. Different people do things differently. And that's okay. Better than okay, it's good.
Realizing that diversity in parenting is a good thing is easy—putting it into practice is not.
Seven years later, my big fat head still cannot accept that Sam's approach is not "wrong" every time he does something differently than I might have. More often than not, his way works just as well—or better, even—than anything I would have done. Sometimes it's just a total crap shoot.
That getting out of the car thing could easily have backfired, but it didn't, and it had much better odds of succeeding than my hold-her-hand-and-reason-with-her approach. We already knew that was tanking. Why not try something else?
Truth is, my midwife was right. The big lesson in co-parenting is to loosen your ideas about right and wrong. Throw them right out the window. Recognize each other's strengths, and let your partner handle the things she or he does better.
With Sam and me, there are the obvious gender differences in parenting styles. Like most dads he'll let the girls climb higher into a tree, ride further down the block alone and get a little more frustrated before jumping in to help. The dad way is: Let them spread their wings and fly. Like most moms, I'm right under the monkey bars while they climb and I'm up at the first sound of distress. The mom way is: protect, protect, protect.
But we have differences that have nothing to do with gender, too. Knowing them and navigating them well makes us a fantastic team on the days we get it right.
Sam's a natural teacher. He's more patient, a better explainer and is more nurturing in his instructions, so he handles homework and helps the girls master new skills. He makes it fun. Me, I am not a fun teacher. But I am a sensitive listener and a confidant. Even at three and six, my girls can talk to me not just about what they're doing, but why they are doing it. When someone's behavior suddenly explodes my girls and I can get to the why of it and figure out how best to heal it.
In the past seven years of being a mom, I've tried everyday to remind myself that my midwife was right. The true blessing of a child being raised by more than one adult is seeing different people do it their own particular way—learning there is more than one way to build a fire.
What I have learned is this: mostly, the "right" approach is the middle way. It's built on constant communication and keeping a single united front, being consistent on boundaries, expectations and consequences. And letting go of the rest.
Three whining hours into a road trip when the toys and books and crayons scattered all over the back seat are boring, and the kids are hungry but not for any of the food you've packed, its good to have a little empathy. But, sometimes it's even better to just get out of the car and jump around.