One Weird Trick

The Sleep Training Trick That Worked On My Spouse

If simply “waiting a hot minute” works for days-old humans, could it work on a grown adult? An adult like, say, my own husband?

by Annie Midori Atherton
Mother holding her sleeping son
Burak Karademir/Moment/Getty Images

Since having my first child, I’ve never felt closer to my husband. I’ve also never felt closer to plotting his murder. These are the dichotomies of new parenthood. There’s just so much to do, all the time, suddenly transforming a spouse into a harried coworker. Given that the person causing all this stress is a precious, eight pound angel who can do wrong, it’s hard not to direct one’s ire at the only other adult in the room.

While my husband wholeheartedly wants to be an equal partner, I still found it all too easy — especially in the early days of nonstop newborn care — to slip into a cringingly stereotypical cycle of martyrdom and nagging. Research shows the majority of couples feel less satisfied in their relationships after having a child, and women in particular feel they do both more childcare and more housework. I knew I had to find a way out of the resentment trap and in order to do so, I needed to both nag less and do less, period. And so, in the throes of sleep deprivation, I was struck with an offbeat idea. Enter: Le Pause.

Popularized by Pamela Druckman in her book Bringing Up Bebé, “le pause” is basically a fancy phrase for letting babies cry for a few minutes before helping them in hopes that they’ll learn to self-soothe and sleep for longer at night. It’s a sort of Sleep Training Lite that Druckman claims many French parents employ from the first days of their newborns’ lives. Reading this got me thinking: If the idea of simply “waiting a hot minute” works for days-old humans, could it work on a grown adult? An adult like, say, my own husband?

The thought came to me one morning early in my daughter’s life, while my partner and I both sat, zombie-like, scrolling on our phones. It wasn’t our proudest parenting moment, but we’d gotten about five hours of sleep between us. So when our baby started whimpering, I attempted to muster some (any!) energy. Normally, I’d be the first one to jump up and help her. I didn’t have to, but for a variety of reasons (namely that I was breastfeeding, and that I had stopped working), I’d taken on the role of First Responder. Ostensibly, this is a role I did joyfully. After all, I loved being a new mom. Still, it was seeping into my interactions with my husband. I could practically feel my eye twitch when he asked if it was cool that he do something as simple as shower. (Though in my defense, the fact that he’d suddenly developed a zealous urge to revisit old hobbies like learning music theory and polishing a second language — a phenomenon I’ve observed in more than one new father — didn’t exactly help).

This time, however, as I listened to my daughter whine, I just… continued to sit there. I wasn’t trying to be neglectful or passive aggressive. Nor did I believe that the Instagram Reel I was watching — a montage of cats jumping away from cucumbers — was more important than my firstborn. I was just legitimately too catatonic to respond. Another minute went by in this silent game of chicken. Then, something both miraculous and utterly ordinary happened. Without comment, my husband put down his phone, picked up our baby, and carried her away. I watched as he walked her out of the room bouncing her in his arms and softly singing. I felt an impulse to jump in and take over, but stopped myself, remembering Le Pause. Had I just unintentionally used that strategy on him? And had it worked beautifully?

It made me wonder if I’d been inhibiting him from doing more in the first place. I’d heard about maternal gatekeeping, but I really did trust my husband and thought I was immune to it. Still, according to Darcy Lockman, author of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, there are other subconscious gender dynamics that can affect any couple.

“Implicit beliefs are different than conscious values, which is why relatively progressive couples are the most surprised when they develop stereotypically gendered behavior in their co-parenting relationship,” Lockman told me in a phone call.

“We're all raised in the same sexist environment and we all internalize those rules and values. For example, girls are recognized and valued for being communal (always thinking of others) and boys are valued for being agentic (thinking of their own needs and priorities). Is it any wonder that when men and women couple they bring their implicit beliefs and culturally reinforced behaviors into their intimate relationships?”

Whether or not this was true for my husband and I — to his credit, he told me about Lockman’s book — I had certainly developed a habit of jumping up first, and it was one I wanted (nay, needed) to break, for my own sanity, for the health of our relationship, and for my husband’s relationship with his child. It wasn’t just about training him. It was also about training myself to let him parent.

I began to think about other tasks where I could “pause” and gave it a try. Lying in bed wishing I didn’t have to make coffee? Just…keep lying there until he gets up to do it. Trash is overflowing? Resist the urge to take it out. Sink full of dirty dishes? Eventually there will be no clean plates left, and by the sheer fact of needing something to eat on, those plates will get cleaned. Turns out, in the constant dance of negotiation, the simple act of not acting counts as a powerful play. Does this mean that sometimes I find our daughter wearing a half-buttoned shirt and no pants like Winnie the Pooh’s drunk cousin? Sure. Might I have to wait seven hours for the dishes to get cleaned? Perhaps. But if I can bring myself to loosen up a bit, the tasks do get done and, most importantly, I don’t have to hear myself nag or belittle the person I’ve committed to spending my life with in the process.

When I shared this strategy with a fellow parent friend, she responded, “Oh I definitely do this when my husband unnecessarily asks me where things are around the house. He’ll be packing up the diaper bag and call out to me asking where this toy or that bottle is. In my head I’m like ‘Why would I know where that is more than you?’ so I’ll just continue going about what I’m doing and eventually he finds it himself.”

I asked Lockman if she thought Le Pause could work for others, and she said that if nothing else it could be a conversation starter. “When the mother takes the Pause, and it becomes clear that the implicit expectation is not playing out, it's a good time to say, ‘Hang on, why is it that you're waiting for me to change the diaper? Are you not a person who is also responsible for this child's hygiene?’”

It’s been several months since I started experimenting. On a recent morning, before I had fully woken up, I realized my husband had already gone into the nursery to retrieve our crying daughter. Later, when she started whimpering, he automatically put down his coffee and went to change her diaper, exclaiming happily to himself that her poop seemed healthy. I realized that on that morning at least, he’d unquestionably been the First Responder, and how glad I was to cede that honor.

Annie Midori Atherton is a writer and mom based in Seattle, WA. Her writing focuses on parenting, culture, and any question that seeks to explain why we are the way we are. In past lives she's been COO of The Financial Diet, fundraiser at a nonprofit serving seniors, barista, solo backpacker, and chronic forgetter of personal possessions, all of which have involved valuable lessons. Get in touch at annie.m.atherton@gmail.com.