NICK was trying to cut a piece of squid with a butter knife in his right hand as he rocked our baby to sleep with his left while seated in a self-consciously hip tapas joint during a recent family vacation in Spain.
“This is harder with a baby,” he said.
“What is?” I said. “Life?”
“Yes, dear.” I nodded. “It is.”
“But we’re getting pretty good at it,” he said.
“We’re definitely getting better,” I said.
These days my husband is a good dad. A really good dad. I knew he would be—or rather, could be.
We spent more than a year before the birth of our son discussing how we’d have an equal partnership once Charlie came along. We were a team, we insisted. We’ll split our parenting duties right down the middle.
Well, after I spent 36 hours in labor, partly with a failed epidural, that 50-50 thing went straight to hell. My husband wanted to be helpful. His intentions were in the best of places, but the truth is that he had absolutely no clue how to do that. And that made him feel helpless.
In the dead of night, about three weeks after we became parents, I waddled to the bathroom clutching our wailing son to my leaking breast. I was begging him to eat as he beat at my nipples with his tiny hands. I cried as I tried to lower myself onto the toilet because my perineum tear still throbbed if I did more than lie on my back. Suddenly my husband was in the doorway, rubbing his eyes.
“Why aren’t you helping me?” I cried.
“You didn’t ask me to.”
It was true. I hadn’t asked him to. I’d wanted his help to come naturally. I’d wanted him to read my mind, to know when to take the baby from me, to send me out of the house to get some fresh air, to take a shower, to eat food with a fork instead of my fingers. That was where I failed. My husband needed me to tell him what to do.
It made me uncomfortable at first because asking for help, especially from men, doesn’t come naturally to me. But I forced myself to do it. I made myself ask for help. I said it over and over again, day in and day out: “Help me pick him up. Help me walk down the stairs. Help me get the stroller into the car. Help me. Help me. Help me.”
I asked him to try to pick the baby up before he started to cry, to be the one to try to get him to eat at 3 in the morning, to clean out my breast pump parts with hot water, to empty the Diaper Genie before it started to smell, to make sure we had spit towels in all of the strategic locations where a baby might vomit. I asked him to anticipate what the baby may need before he even knows he needs it.
“I can’t read his mind,” Nick said once, in the middle of the night. I gave him a hard look. “We don’t have a choice,” I said. “He can’t ask for help.”
There were nights when I pretended to be deeply asleep—so asleep that I couldn’t hear Charlie crying—so Nick would have to be the first one to get up. In order to help him feel less helpless, I had to be a little helpless—something else that didn’t come naturally. I like being good at things. Very good at things. But I needed to make Nick feel like a damn champion at being a dad.
In the early days of parenting I pretended to be confounded by swaddling. I overcomplimented Nick’s ace abilities to wrap our baby like a burrito. This paid off in spades. His confidence in swaddling led to his dominance over bedtime and allowed me to start reading novels alone before bed again.
As he got older, Charlie needed different things from us. I decided a full immersion was the best training I could give my husband.
So I left. First I left for two days and two nights to copy-edit my novel. Another time I left for five days to go on assignment for a story. I imagined it a little like Outward Bound or one of those reality television shows in which people are thrown naked into the woods, but for parenting. There were some women who criticized me. “How could you leave your 3-month-old like that?” they said.
“Because he has another parent,” I said and decided not to be friends with those women anymore. I left him because my husband needed to learn to be a dad the same way I needed to learn to be a mom: through trial and error.
Babies are resilient. One day Charlie ripped off a dirty diaper and pooped right on the couch. Another day he ate dirt. He’s fine. The two of them figured it out and when I got home, Nick’s confidence about being alone with Charlie was nearly as high as mine.
These days my husband puts the baby to bed most nights. He’s better at shushing (I tell him this all the time). He does a lot of the feeding. He does the laundry; I usually fold it. He loads the dishwasher and I unload it. He’s just as good at reading Charlie’s mind as I am, which means he gets it right half the time. We both empty the smelly, smelly Diaper Genie.
I still hate asking for help. I still wish he could read my mind. We’re not perfect parents. Figuring this out still causes the worst fights we’ve ever had. Charlie took his diaper off again the other day and hid it. We still have no idea where it is.
I’m covered in both puke and pee as I write this. Many days there are tears from all three of us. But we’re still trying, and over the course of the past year my husband has learned how to be a very, very good father and I have learned how to ask for help.
- Jo Piazza is the author of seven books, most recently the novel Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, and is the host of Committed, a podcast.