Mothering Alone vs. Co-Parenting

I received this thoughtful email from a young mother with three children aged 4, 2 and 3 months:

I really enjoy all your advice and tips. You help me appreciate that all mothers go through more or less the same ups and downs and we can provide so much support for each other. I was wondering if you had thoughts on juggling being a mother and a “co-parent”. I know that is vague. I feel frustrated and am having a hard time even understanding, let alone expressing,my frustrations.

I feel like I am bonding with my kids, B’H, especially now with the break. In some ways I am growing with them and closer to them, without my husband. There is an “ima and the kids” dynamic which is fun and sometimes challenging, but it is clear that I am the one in charge, I get to be upset with them, create with them, explore, giggle, and snuggle with them, etc. and then there is the “ima and abba with the kids” dynamic, aka, our family, which is unclear to me. Who is in charge? How do things run? Can you be “co-captains” or do you “take turns”? Is it my dynamic with the kids, plus Abba?

Somehow, I seem to enjoy my time alone with the kids better than when we are all together. I keep expecting the evenings, or Fridays or  whenever my husband is home, to go more smoothly since now there are “double” the parents to help, but that is not always the case, sometimes it is less efficient and more complicated. I can’t take a step back and just let him do it either, so I am left in the middle.

This seems to lead to a feeling (on my part) of resentment, to a feeling that he is not understanding me or appreciating my experiences. This of course leads to stress on our husband-wife relationship.

My first response is that just as you have developed your relationship with your kids over time, your husband will too. But as you hinted, he needs the opportunity to let that happen, and while the baby is pretty young, it may be best for him to have time with one or both of the older ones on their own. My husband would take the kids to the pool or park on Friday, his day off. I noticed that you haven’t said what your husband’s feelings are about the situation.

Readers, suggestions?


  1. This sounds unusual to me. By the time my husband and I had 3 kids just about the ages this mother describes, we had pulled together as a team to manage our busy life.

    True, when I was home with one kid until she was 2 years old, the teamwork wasn’t there. For the next 2 years I worked full time and had 2 more babies. By that time, we both understood the demands (and rewards) of caring for young kids. I’m not sure my husband would have understood had I always been the one home alone with the kids. When I worked, sharing tasks became routine. When I decided to stay home after that, we remained partners.

    It sounds like the mother may be unconsciously shutting the father out, wanting to be central to the kids’ lives. Even if she’s not going to work, she needs some outside interest(s). Taking time for herself will also give her husband a chance to spend more time alone with the kids.

    I don’t mean to offend–if I’ve misinterpreted, I apologize.

  2. I would suggest some alone time with husband. I don’t think the issue is as much about the kids as about needing more connection between husband and wife. If you can get a third party (i.e. therapist) to help move the communications along, all the better.

    My husband bonds better with older children than with babies. There are also gender issues and personality issues – one can relate to one’s own gender better sometimes (maybe the opposite is true in some families, I don’t know). Finding ways a husband can bond that will work for him is important.

  3. This sounds like a more common phenomenon among at-home moms.

    Also, many fathers are unsure of their roles and contributions with little kids. Admittedly, this is a generalization. My husband knew far more about babies than I did before our kids were born.

    Even so, it did not take long for me to feel like I had a closer relationship with my kids, because I fully breastfed our children and remained an at home mother for years. I often felt that I understood our children better as well.

    And many of our activities were, by necessity, mother and children activities. Dad was usually at work.

    Even now that our children are older, it is challenging to find times when dad is available to play with us. Our older children also have their own activities and outside demands.

    But we do do things together, like family Star Trek night. And we are looking for other fun activities that the whole family would enjoy.

    Also, everyone looks forward to Shabbatot together (though I sometimes have to announce in advance that a particular Shabbat is an “in-Shabbat” and NO ONE is allowed to go away!!

    As parents, we try to co-parent. And we try to present a unified front, even when we don’t fully agree with each other.

    Btw, when our kids were babies, my husband had specific “jobs” that were his, that ensured that he had contact with and responsibilities for our children, such as bathing them and changing their diapers when they were home.

    The nice thing about Shabbat is that it ensures that families are together at least once a week.

  4. I have a similar setup since my husband works such long hours and travels a lot. Shabbat is really precious for us. It sounds like there are 3 issues here- the relationship between your husband and the kids; the dynamic when all five of you are together; and the relationship between the two of you, when you are together with the kids and when you are alone.

    I think it’s critical that your husband build his own connection with the kids, as you have. This can be done, as MII said, on Fridays and Shabbat, or the evenings, when his schedule allows. It’s essential that he bond on his own and that the kids have a chance to do all the things they do with you, with him.

    Second, you do have to learn to let go. Your husband will not do things exactly as you do them, and that’s ok; in fact, it’s more than ok- it allows the kids to get used to different organizational styles and teaches them flexibility. I take 5 minutes to bathe all three kids. My husband takes 30 minutes. Not as fast as I would prefer, but the important things is: I’m not doing it and the kids get clean.

    I also agree with Leora that talking to a third party about some of these issues would lessen the frustration for you and help you feel better about parenting together.

    Best of luck to you.

  5. I had years when we had the situation Abbi describes- my husband had really long hours and a lot of traveling. And I’m a stay-at-home. SO basically, you get used to doing it on your own and your kids get used to that too. Then here comes Abba, who may or may not know about kids and may or may not have a natural kid-friendly temperament. He may be better with the babies, the olders, or one at a time.

    I think it takes planning- actually sitting down and saying, “OK- here’s how I handle this. What do you think?” And also post-action recap. “I had a hard time with your bedtime system- I didn’t understand it”. He may just know less than you about the routine, and about kids in general. Some men have to be taught how to relate to kids. Or he may have great perspectives, but all change is hard in the beginning.

    I’d say to set up Abba with each of the older kids, one at a time. Point out activities that child enjoys, as well as your absolutes- she goes crazy with candy after 4, she must be in beg by 7. Then let him do his own thing while you retain control over the others. Also, take an hour out each week (if possible) and leave him with everyone while you do something for yourself. It’s good to let go, and it puts him in your shoes for a bit. You both win.

  6. When our children were the ages of the ones mentioned above my husband was not only working long hours, sometimes 6 days a week, but going to college 4 nights a week. By the time he came home the children were long asleep. Our answer was Shabbos.

    First, Friday night dinner and Shabbos day lunch was our chance as a full family to connect. And I basically let my hubby set the agenda with just some “cheerleading” from the sidelines occasionally. Honestly? I was thankful to let someone else “be in charge” for a while. Shabbos afternoon I took a nap and my husband had the kids all to himself, baby and all. They developed some activities that were just for the 4 of them. Yes, I knew what they were doing, because they told me, but I zipped my mouth and said nothing except “how wonderful.”

    Maybe it was a bit easier because I always considered them as “our” kids rather than “my” kids. That I spent more time with them didn’t change that basic fact.

  7. This is not an answer to the question, but rather another question.

    What is this mother doing for herself?

    If she is attempting to be present (and also in charge) for her children 24/7, what is she doing for herself? I only have 2 small kids, but they can be exhausting, and I will 100% cop to needing time and space to be not-mom for a little while.

    Before I moved I was in two book clubs (one of them starting from when my 5 yo was just over a year old) and once the kids were 4 and 2 (i.e., the 2 year old could handle not nursing the second he awoke) I started running about 3 mornings a week. I didn’t miss the send off to school or anything, but there were many times I missed reveille and came home to everyone eating breakfast.

    Anyway, I am just concerned with how this woman, who I am sure has the best *mothering* intentions, is feeding her own needs as a whole person. I know it makes me a better wife/mother when I feel like I have multiple facets.

  8. Best thing this young Mom can do is discuss with her husband! Ongoing discussions about the kind of marriage partners and parents we want to be can help a couple feel closer and learn to work together better. It takes a long time, and things are changing all the time, while we figure these things out.

    There are certain exercises that can help us start to straighten things out a bit. Once we understand more clearly what is bothering us and what help we might want, we can ask…

    To young Mom or anyone interested, I suggest clearing 10-15 minutes a day, over a number of days, and try writing about it. Try answering questions like: what am I happy about, or thankful for? What do I wish was different? Is there something I would like to ask my husband for?

    Another interesting thing to do is to imagine the husband’s answers, and then work out my own responses to those.

    If a woman is more inclined to drama than to writing, try speaking the imagined interaction out loud (probably behind a closed door…): I say this, then he says…, then I say, etc.

    These kind of exercises can help calm the spirit and clarify what it is I am after. Subsequent conversations are likely to be less stressful and more helpful.

    Wishing you patience, simcha and hazlacha!

  9. We have struggled with this. My husband and I are not good at teamwork; we do better when one person takes sole responsibility for a task. So we have had this kind of tension surrounding co-parenting. I can’t say we found solutions, but things have improved. Some of the things people already mentioned helped.

    Other things we/I do: We started a weekly “talking night” several years ago to air marital issues. It has been helpful and important.

    Of course, I encourage connection between my kids and my husband. When I used to tuck in my kids, I would often ask them if they wanted my husband to come kiss them goodnight, and of course they would say yes. So then I would tell my husband that the kids wanted him to kiss them goodnight and he would gladly come. Sneaky me. I also would make sure to have the kids tell him about our day or tell him myself — bearing in mind that he just won’t be interested in the level of detail I might wish he were.

    I try to stay out of interactions between my kids and my husband. When my kids were younger, they would sometimes complain to me about some interaction between them and their father. I would tell them to talk with him. They were intimidated at first, but gradually they learned to do it. Sometimes I would also speak with him privately about the issue without my children knowing I had done it. I did draw certain parenting “red lines”, but besides these I kept my mouth closed a lot and tried to be very supportive of my husband, especially around the kids.

    I show my husband respect and let my kids know that they are expected to as well. My husband appreciates it. I emphasize for them how much he loves them and cares about them, and how important his role is, including the role of breadwinner.

    I have had to give up my ideal of co-parenting. We parent differently and like different activities and it just hasn’t happened. I try to be grateful for the things my husband does do and not take them for granted. I place a very high value on kids having their parents happily married to each other. I think the father’s role is very very important — even when it looks to me like he’s not doing much of anything. So if I end up doing more solo parenting than I would like or think I “should”, I try to just accept it and adjust. It sounds kind of sad, but it isn’t so much in reality.

  10. “It sounds like the mother may be unconsciously shutting the father out, wanting to be central to the kids’ lives.”

    Tesyaa, I understand where you’re coming from with this comment, but one of the most frustrating sentiments I’ve heard as a SAHM is that my husband is not more attached to the children because of my strong connection with them.

    As women we get blamed for too much, especially when it comes to parenting. At some point it is the responsibility of the father to take charge of his relationship with his children and wife and children to form that vital attachment. Both quantity and quality time count.

  11. Maya — I agree with what you write. IF this is what’s happening (and upon rereading the original note, I’m not even sure if this mother is a SAHM), the father is also allowing it to happen.