After the first few weeks in lockdown, my partner and I were stepping on each other's toes, bickering about minor infractions, and playing a constant game of tit for tat. There had to be a better way to get through this time, but we sure as hell hadn't figured it out.
I solicited the guidance of several mental health experts to learn as many tips as possible to survive this time with my husband and our two kids. And although they each offered different suggestions on how to relieve tension and resolve conflict, one piece of advice was nearly identical among all of them: we should parent in shifts.
Before we ever began sheltering in place, my husband and I were happy to divide and conquer. We discovered efficiency in splitting up: one parent would get groceries with the baby while the other took the toddler to a playdate. But save for running errands and doing ballet class dropoffs, we have always worked together with a lot of the household parenting tasks. We jointly got them up and dressed in the morning, and we'd put them to bed as a united front. Maybe he'd gripe that I was zoning out on my phone or I'd complain that he wasn't reading his fair share of bedtime stories, but – like an act of solidarity – at least we were all in the same room for the seemingly never-ending process of getting our kids to sleep. The concept of doing these exhausting routines solo, while the other parent was off relaxing in the next room, sounded unfair and unsustainable.
Still, for the sake of our marriage, we decided to give this strategy a try.
To these experts, a shifted parenting strategy is the easiest way to provide a sense of space where there isn't any.
"Giving space even under quarantine and stay-at-home orders can help alleviate tension," Dr. Jennifer Dragonette, the executive director of a mental health rehabilitation facility for teens called Newport Academy, told POPSUGAR.
Andrew Roffman, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and the director of the family studies program at the New York University Longone Child Study Center, added that space isn't just a physical need.
"It's psychological and emotional, too," he told POPSUGAR. "For parents, I would suggest this as a good opportunity for setting up some 'shifts' for dealing with kids, such that both parents don't have to be 'on-duty' all the time. Short of something drastic occurring, the on-duty parent would then be literally in loco parentis for that shift, leaving the other parent to do whatever he or she needs or wants to during that time."
Because this strategy runs the risk of breeding resentment – for instance, if one parent seems to be on-duty more than the other – experts recommend couples put a plan in place first.
"Work with your partner to put some agreements in place to that there is a little bit of built-in alone time in your daily schedule, rather than one of you feeling the need to constantly ask for this, which can add to the stress," Dragonette said.
Erin McClintock, a mental health counselor with a specialty in trauma who is the senior director at education company EverFi, suggested spending time at the beginning of each week creating a family schedule.
"Give each family member a space and include things like working hours, if they're working, kids' schedules, and essential household tasks like meals, food prep, and mutually agreed upon domestic duties," she told POPSUGAR. "From there, see what time is left, and engage in a conversation with your partner about each of your needs – time for exercise, self-care, or simply some time to be alone. Then, work together to identify open spaces in the schedule where those things can be added in . . . and add them. By having space written down in advance, you can give yourself a mental indicator of when you'll get a break, and expectations will be clear upfront."
Couples should divvy up household tasks as equally as possible.
"Make a list of chores including bedtimes, meal prep, laundry, and anything else that you feel is important to make your household run smoothly," she said. "This may mean that one partner does bedtime one night so that the other can have some self-care."
Similarly, Roffman suggested that "one parent does one meal alone with the kids each day."
The key, he said, is that the off-duty parent should "respect the authority of the on-duty parent and not criticize their parenting during that time" and that the on-duty parent needs to handle their shift independently without involving the off-duty parent.
Although adopting parenting shifts means you will be spending more time apart, remember that it's in the name of teamwork.
"After shifts, parents can talk about what worked and what needs improving," Roffman said. "An arrangement like this works best when it is collaborative and partners are mutually supportive."
Dragonette agreed. "Having flexibility, open communication, and realistic expectations can aid the whole family in adjusting to this new, but temporary, normal," she said.
And if done right, McClintock said, this concept of on- and off-duty parenting could be an asset to any marriage long-term: "Identifying your needs, recognizing the needs of your partner, and working together to address ways of meeting both is going to be crucial towards the well-being of all household members during this time – and always."
Desperate for the space to unwind and recharge, we followed the experts' advice as much as possible, and several weeks later, I can safely say that it's one of the best things we are doing right now for our marriage.
Early on, we spent several late-night hours hashing out our work obligations and our kids' needs until we began to cobble together a general schedule for our days that involved near-constant shift work. Because I've started signing on to work much earlier in the morning, my husband handles getting the kids fed and dressed in order for me to have time to do a workout video in the living room and take a quick shower before I sit down at my desk. Then, when he has his work meetings, I take the kids for a walk. He enjoys cooking, so he makes their lunches so I can quietly eat while reading in my bedroom. Then I make it up to him by navigating the digital circus that is my kid's daily Zoom preschool class.
We've divided up household chores similarly. I loathe dirty dishes, so he handles washing every last pot, pan, and spoon, every day. Praise be! In exchange, I vacuum the rugs every week, clean the bathrooms, and fold the laundry.
Bedtime was our biggest source of tension – we were both wiped out by that point of the day. So, unlike dishes or laundry, neither of us were even remotely willing to call dibs on doing it alone every night in exchange for some other free time. Instead, we divvied them up and found an every-other-night solution.
Here's what all this on-duty and off-duty time taught us, and why we plan to continue parenting in shifts long after lockdown ends:
We are quicker to speak up about our needs. Because we made our individual needs, like my goal to exercise in the mornings, known up front, it's been much easier to bubble up when things aren't working. For instance, after we accepted that our kids weren't napping, we renegotiated who'd take on that extra hour.
We are better parents. Being able to have every other night off from bedtime struggles has made me more patient and present on the nights I am putting my kids to bed. I read more chapters of a book than usual, I don't get snippy when they request that second glass of water, and I'll do shadow puppets with when the nightlight goes on – a silly activity I never had the energy for before.
We are more appreciative partners. My husband has never had a problem letting go when he's "off-duty," but I would pay keen attention to how he parented in my absence. In following Roffman's advice, I've tried my best to let go of my controlling tendencies and accept that when he is on-duty, he will do things differently. And because he does the bulk of the meal prep and cooking, I sure resist the urge to "suggest" healthier snack options. I know where my kids' bread gets buttered, and it is thankfully not by me!
We are happier people. During a time in which each day feels like the one before it, I must say that I've taken wild pleasure in the days I'm off-the-clock for bedtime. Akin to an evening out with my friends, I look forward to what those nights will bring from the moment I wake up. Maybe I'll give myself a facial, maybe I'll fire up Netflix, maybe I'll just go to bed at 8 p.m.! Whatever it is, it helps me feel more like myself.
We still make sure to come together when it matters. Parenting in shifts has certainly resulted in my husband and I spending less time together. But, these days, it's proven to be good for us. Still, we make a point to do certain things as a family, no matter what. On the weekends, we always do one or two activities as one, even if just a neighborhood walk. And we have dinner together every night. It helps us remember that, the next time we're going it alone, we're still a team.