I have spent much of my time on this blog talking about the vertical aspects of parenting — that is the interaction between parent and child. I think I should give more attention to the horizontal– which is how Mommy and Daddy work together to raise the little ones. There are many aspects of a successful partnership–backing each other up, being unified and consistent in rules, similar tolerance for risk–but perhaps the most important thing to have is a spouse who senses when you need a break. Without a break from the kids, the difficult aspects of parenting seem impossible. The pure enjoyment you get out of watching your kids develop and learn is lost if you feel like you are in the middle of a relentless, tear-filled marathon.
I should know because most of my worst parenting moments occur not when my kids are tired but when I am tired.
When I was working fulltime, I sometimes looked forward to Mondays because the office was a welcome break from the kids. Luckily for me (and my kids), my wife has an acute antennae that senses when Daddy’s gas tank is running on low and the time has come for her to take the kids to the playground, shopping mall, or to a movie. Her attentiveness to my need for chill time makes it much easier for me to reciprocate and do the same for her.
Perhaps the best person I have seen perform this crucial function is my brother. He and his wife have three kids and live about 2 miles from my house. His children are young — 4, 2, and one– and so it is difficult for his wife to be triple-teamed Monday to Friday with three kids who are still a bit too young to reasoned with. My brother is very good about taking his kids out for long walks, to the playground, to our house, to parks, and everywhere else to ensure that his stay-at-home wife have enough time to recuperate.
The best arrangement of all, though, is the one my family has done for going on 11 years now. That is, we live three generations under one roof. My mother-in-law moved in with my wife and I eleven years ago when our first son was born. Three years later, my parents moved into our finished attic and have been with us for eight years. This cozy, but fun arrangement has made it much easier for my wife and I to have four kids and never worry about being overwhelmed emotionally or financially. We have three adults at home on weekdays and five on weekends, so everyone is well looked after, including my brother’s three who spend most weekday mornings and many weekends at our house. I have long said that raising kids is like fighting a guerrilla war; you need to have the enemy outnumbered if you are to have any chance of victory. In our case, the adults outnumber the five to four.
This arrangement, obviously, is not for everyone and has its downsides. When I explain our living arrangement to acquaintances I get one of two reactions: 1) I could never live with my mother (or mother-in-law) or 2) that is so awesome I wish I could do the same. Once at the end of a long flight, an AOL executive told me she was going to get off the plane and go straight to a pay phone to call her in-laws to ask them to move in. It has worked brilliantly for us. Each of the five adults in the house plays an important role in raising the kids and that still leave plenty of time for us adults to take turns exercising, watching football games from start to finish, taking naps, going out to dinner without calling a babysitter, reading a book, and sleeping in in the morning as often as necessary.
With all these advantages, being an attentive and loving parent is easy.