Dear Carolyn: My husband is a great father to our 6- and 4-year-old daughters, but he is a dud with children much younger than 4. I did nearly all the baby and toddler stuff by myself because he was too tired, too overwhelmed, too scared to break them and so on.
He wants a third baby — he does not say so, but he wants a boy — and while I'm sure I would love another baby, I don't want to do all the work alone again. When I say that to him, he promises to be more involved next time around, but I don't know whether I believe him and I don't know whether he really knows how to be more involved, or understands how far off the mark he was the last two times.
How can I determine, without actually having the baby and watching him fail, whether he can be a better baby dad and not leave me in the lurch?
— Another Baby?
Another Baby?: The only way having another baby would make any sense for you is the following:
1. You really want another baby yourself.
2. You assume you will be left in the lurch on all of the baby care, you plan on doing all of the work alone again, and you enjoy the pleasant surprise of not having to do it if and when he makes good on his promise.
3. You are ready to possibly have a boy and then watch your husband actually care for said boy in a way he never did for his girls — or have another girl and watch him be just as disengaged — and harbor unwelcome suspicions that gender has something to do with this.
Grumpy just typing that one, by the way, so I hope I’m laughably wrong. And it’s not just the sexism of it that’s irritating, either — it’s the fact that kids are, and deserve to be treated as and loved for, whoever they are. They’re not little gender representatives sent to give their parents a specific sense of continuity and connection, no matter how many generations of parents promote and perpetuate these hopes. So for everyone’s sake I hope, if you have this baby, your husband is a champ about baby care and keeps the gender thing in perspective.
The list I suggested is partly about not setting either of you up to fail, and partly about knowing where your buttons are so you aren’t surprised when something pushes them. Both goals are in service of a larger goal of not allowing resentment to seep in, since that’s bad for marriages and flat-out terrible for kids.
One more thing. Just because a co-parent is reluctant doesn’t mean you have to step in to do everything. There are ways to engage an otherwise competent parent who is just fearful of breaking a baby: “I’m taking [4-year-old and 6-year-old] to [activity]. You’ve got [baby]. We’ll be back around [ETA several hours from now].” Everyone is new at it at some point, and everyone learns on the job.