I listened to a new dad talk about life with his newborn. He is a first-time parent and the bliss of his sweet baby still makes him dizzy. I thoroughly enjoyed watching him swoon, but he quickly grew frustrated when I asked about sleep. His biggest complaint was with his newborn’s loud grunting sounds while eating because it keeps him awake at night. But he wasn’t the one feeding her; his wife was breastfeeding their child next to him while he put his pillow over his head. “Oh, friend. Let’s make this better right now,” I told him. He looked at me with wonder and hope, as if I had the secret to a good night’s sleep while also holding the title of parent. “You need to step up your night game and help your wife.” That’s not what he wanted to hear.
I was the one in the relationship with useless nipples when it came to breastfeeding my children, so I get the idea of feeling a bit helpless and also not responsible for nighttime feedings. It would have been easy to claim that I was of no use to my then-partner, and roll over and go back to sleep. It would be a lie to say I never did that. But I recognized that was a shit move and learned how important it is to be a supportive partner during the night as much as I was during the day — because even if I wasn’t the one breastfeeding, I was still a parent, and my responsibilities didn’t go away just because I was tired.
One of the first arguments I hear from dads who work outside of the home is that they feel entitled to more sleep than their wives or partners who stay home. Those bullshit beliefs have to go. Sleep is vital to all people and shouldn’t be distributed based on patriarchal thinking. Being the breadwinner is no more important that being a stay at home parent. And one can’t exist without the other; making money can’t happen without free or affordable childcare. So thank your partner for allowing you to have a life outside of your home while building a career and earning potential.
As a parent who has both stayed home with kids and worked outside of the home, the harder job for me was being with my kids all day long. I was exhausted, touched out, and even resentful at times. If your partner or wife is also a SAH parent and the primary person dealing with nighttime parenting, then you need to figure out a way to apologize and make some changes fast because she is going to burn out, shut down, and/or stab you while you sleep. And don’t you dare ask for any of your “needs” to be met, because that ship sailed the moment you rolled over and complained about your child being a noisy eater. Her chafed nipples already know.
Also, not all moms have the ability or desire to stay home. If both parents are full-time working parents, then why is the expectation still that it’s Mom’s job to get up at night? Seriously, why? Get over yourselves, Dads, and do better.
There were definitely nights when my ex-partner didn’t want or expect help. Our first baby was a good sleeper, and nighttime feedings were pretty simple, so sometimes my ex thought it was more efficient to just go to our daughter’s room, nurse her, and then put her back to bed. However, there was always the agreement that I was available to help. Before I went to sleep each night, I anticipated being woken up by her or our daughter and fully expected to help. While I wasn’t the one feeding our baby for the first six months, I changed diapers, soothed, and rocked our baby back to sleep. Or I got my ex a glass of water and took bottles of pumped milk to the refrigerator. And when my daughter started taking formula, we would split the nighttime feeding schedule. Before sleep each night, we made a plan that determined who would get up first, and then would alternate turns if and when our daughter woke up.
There were still plenty of grumbles and not-so-nice words said to one another, especially when we added twins to the mix, so we added a rule that anything said between midnight and 6:00 AM didn’t count as punishable. And even though I was helpful and doing my best to share the burden equally, my ex still ended up sleeping less and had to deal with children latched to her breasts for a chunk of the night. She appreciated the help, though, and felt supported.
We also divided the bedtime routine. When we only had one child, we would alternate who would get her ready for bed and who would then read stories and get her to sleep. With three kids that rotation continued, but we would alternate who would have the singleton and who would have the twins. The division of parental labor should be equal from the start — specifically in heteronormative relationships. Otherwise, a really gross pattern is created where Dad sleeps, Mom doesn’t, and the kids only go to Mom in the middle of the night because that’s who is always there. Mom continues to not sleep while growing more frustrated, angry, and potentially mentally and physically unhealthy.
There isn’t a “Moms only” rule for taking care of kids at night. Dads need to get their shit together and take care of bedtime routines, feedings, bad dreams, and for the love of all things good, if your kid is sick in the night, get your ass out of bed and start some laundry. If you are a Dad already doing this, thank you for breaking the cycle of entitlement. If you’re not doing any or very little of this nighttime parenting, now is the time to step up … because your partner deserves so much more.