Surprise mom and dad, your parenting differences can actually be your strength

by Sandi Kahn Shelton
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First, we have a little bit of bad news. Studies show that married people start getting unhappy in their marriages when they have kids. And more bad news: This dissatisfaction continues for the next 14 years.

That’s a long time to be miserable, we know. But don’t despair. Now two esteemed parenting professionals — who happen to be married to each other, and raising two young children together — are saying it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. They agree that parenting is difficult, but they claim that with some planning and careful discussions, couples can remain happy and strong throughout those tumultuous years.

Kyle Pruett, a nationally renowned author and an eminent child psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center, and his wife, Marsha Kline Pruett, a professor at Smith College of Social Work, who has done landmark research on co-parenting, have together written “Partnership Parenting: How Men and Women Parent Differently — Why It Helps Your Kids and Can Strengthen Your Marriage,” Da Capo Lifelong Books, $15.95.

Most books about co-parenting, the Pruetts say, are all about how to share parenting responsibilities after divorce. They thought it was time to write a book that might even help couples prevent divorce, a book that, as described by Kyle Pruett, is a duet between the paternal and maternal voices.

The solutions to avoiding the slippery slope: Take care of each other. Help each other out. And talk about things.

“We’ve noticed that most new parents have spent more time choosing the color scheme for the nursery than they have dealing with the big questions,” says Kyle Pruett. “Most people don’t sit down and talk about whether they want their kids to sleep with them, if the mom is going to breastfeed and for how long, how they’re going to handle crying, when it’s OK to have the first night away from the baby. These are just some of the nuts and bolts that we encourage parents to talk about.”

Marsha Kline Pruett agrees. “What drives men and women apart is not that they differ in how to respond to children, but they get upset that the other parent isn’t supporting them or backing them up. It’s when they feel discounted or discredited that they feel dissatisfied in the marriage.”

The book contains case histories, interviews, questionnaires and strategies for understanding both oneself and one’s partner, and valuing what each brings to the children and to the partnership.

 

There are myriad ways that working at being parents can divide a couple, both say. “A lot of women can’t stop themselves from micro-managing,” says Marsha. “In our experience, you don’t have to agree about everything, and it’s good that children get different things from different parents. But when the parents trust each other and both have input and make decisions together, it works better.”

Kyle advises parents to get rid of the “shoulds” right from the beginning: you should be always on the same page, you should make sure you both treat the children the same way, you should always agree. “Parents can’t be clones of each other,” he says. “And conflict arises when partners do things differently, and the conclusion drawn is that one of them is wrong, or a loser, or is incompetent. That’s when it becomes a marital issue.”

Marsha says that studies of divorced parents have shown that mothers typically blame the divorce for the differences in the ways the children react to their fathers. “We hear mothers say that the child can’t go with her father on Sundays because she comes home too revved up, and that’s bad,” she says. “But all the research shows that babies, from about 6 weeks of age, recognize that their fathers rev them up more. When a mom approaches, the babies get calm, ready to be cuddled. When fathers enter, though, their whole nervous system gets excited, they open their eyes wide and start kicking their legs. Dads play with children more than mothers do. And here it gets blamed on divorce, when really it’s just a difference in the way men and women parent. And it’s a good thing.”

Dana Hilmer of Madison is the mother of three boys and the editor of “Blindsided by a Diaper: Over 30 Men and Women Reveal How Parenthood Changes a Relationship,” Three Rivers Press, $14.95. (Full disclosure: This reporter has an essay included in that collection.) Hilmer and her husband, Dave, were together as a couple for 15 years before they had their first child — and couldn’t have been more surprised by the new facets they discovered in each other once they started co-parenting.

Now that their sons are 9 1/2, 8 and 5, they’ve learned to navigate — and even appreciate — the differences in their parenting styles, she says. But it takes trust.

“I’m the soft one — and although he’s not ‘tough,’ he is the one who knows how to lay down the rules,” she says. “He definitely challenges them more, and speaks more strongly than I ever would. It’s a great balance. I notice if we’re all playing Monopoly, that Dave isn’t playing down to a lower level. He puts them on their toes and makes them think. His mindset is all about helping them grow, and mine is, ‘Ohhh, but they’re so little!’ Somehow, it all works.”

That’s what the Pruetts say works best of all. “We’re continually reminding parents that what children really need is the benefit of two people who love them the most and who are thinking about their well-being,” says Kyle Pruett.

Contact Sandi Kahn Shelton, author of “Kissing Games of the World,” at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and check out her blog at www.sandishelton.com/blog.