I imagine doctors get a lot of “is this normal?” texts from friends and family. Should I be worried about this mole? Do I need to take my kid to the ER now, or can it wait until morning? (I’ve sent several of these texts myself over the years – sorry, M.D. friends!)
No one is coming to me for medical advice, thank god, but I do get my own version of these messages. (For the record, I don’t mind at all.) A new-mom friend texted me recently to ask whether it was normal that her husband constantly checked with her about baby-related things. For the most part, she explained, he already knew the answer and was simply looking to her for confirmation: The pediatrician appointment is at 5, right? You fed him at 8, so I should give him a bottle at 11, right?
In the scheme of things, she recognized this as a relatively minor annoyance. Her husband is a committed egalitarian who is doing a lot of childcare and housework. Still, this new dynamic grated, as it implied that she is the one in charge of their child’s life and her husband is merely her loyal assistant.
My partner is involved but still looks to me as the ultimate authority. And/or, my partner wants to take on more, but I can’t fully let them because I’m afraid they won’t do it, or won’t do it well.
The customary advice to women in my friend’s situation is to “drop the ball1:” lower your standards, stop caring about things that don’t matter, let your husband do things in his own way and his own time. Is it really a problem if your husband dresses your infant in mismatched socks? Will the world crumble if the baby is fed 15 minutes later than you had planned?
In broad strokes, this advice makes sense. I’ve interviewed a number of women who describe themselves as “control freaks” and lament that they cannot sit back and let their partner do things his way.2 But, as I’ve written before, the problem is a myopic focus on what women are (or aren’t) doing and a neglect of the broader forces that influence their behavior. We can’t talk about “maternal gatekeeping” or “controlling wives” without acknowledging that mothers and fathers are held to very different standards, socially speaking.
Given this context, I believe we need new solutions for women in my friend’s situation. Rather than drop the ball, why not attempt to pass the baton?3 Rather than berate yourself for your control freak tendencies, why not focus on facilitating a smooth handoff between you and your partner?
Relay teams drill handoffs extensively, because a bad handoff leads to a lost lead and, often, a lost race. Small details matter: if the outgoing runner doesn’t start jogging at the right moment, or if either runner’s hands are in the wrong place at the wrong time, precious milliseconds are wasted. And, heaven forfend, sometimes the baton falls to the ground.4
What makes a good handoff?
In the household context, bad handoffs often involve miscommunication or a failure to transfer all the requisite information and context. Let’s say you ask your partner to take over dinner duty on Wednesdays. What you want is for them to pick out a recipe, identify any needed ingredients, and put them on the grocery list in time for your Sunday shopping trip—and then to do the actual cooking on Wednesday, early enough that your kid can eat before soccer practice. In practice, their mental model of “cooking dinner” may be far more limited. Best-case scenario, you bug them on Sunday for a recipe, and then remind them on Wednesday morning that it’s their turn to cook. Worst-case scenario, Wednesday rolls around, your partner is delayed getting home, hasn’t planned anything or purchased any ingredients, and suggests you order pizza.
A good handoff requires a shared understanding of what a task involves and what constitutes an acceptable standard of completion. (For much more on this, see Eve Rodsky’s book Fair Play.) Ideally, this shared understanding is co-generated by both partners, rather than decided by one partner and reluctantly accepted by the other. If you say that frozen pizza is unacceptable for a weeknight, and your partner agrees but still, deep down, thinks that’s crazy – well, your partner’s night to cook may devolve into freezer entrees more often than you’d like, leading you to conclude they simply can’t be trusted to manage dinner.
A good handoff may also require a transfer of concrete information or even relationships. If you would like your partner to take over the weekend sports, they will need the cell numbers of the coaches and other parents, access to the tournament schedule, and inclusion on any team email list. Otherwise, they will act as chauffeur, and you will act as dispatch service.
It’s helpful to prepare for a handoff before it’s absolutely necessary (because you’re going out of town or have hit an emotional breaking point, say). Some couples manage this by routinely trading off who does a particular task, or occasionally doing a normally-solo task together. Bedtime routines are a classic example: if one parent always does this, the child will be pissed if the other parent takes over, because that parent will do it “wrong.” Better to occasionally switch things up so that everyone is on board with a personnel change.
In some cases this might feel overly duplicative. Do both partners really need to be looking at the bank statement every month? Maybe, maybe not. But even if you prefer to divide and conquer, it can be helpful to keep some sort of shared record, just in case: a post-it note with all the accounts and passwords, a standard packing list, the names and contact info of all of your home repair people.
I learned this lesson the hard way. Back in the fall, I was frantically trying to finish a dissertation, find a job, and plan a wedding. Eric and I agreed that I was in charge of nailing down a reception caterer before I realized a) how hard that was, given the Covid-induced vendor shortage, and b) how overwhelmed I would be with work.
One day when I was having a small emotional breakdown, Eric offered to take over the catering search. (My hero!) He was subsequently horrified to learn that I had kept zero record of who I’d already contacted. I couldn’t even rely on my email history, because I’d sent dozens of messages into the void of caterers’ “contact me” pages, and half of them never replied.
In the moment, the added step of tracking my outbound inquiries had seemed like a waste of time. But not doing that meant there was no easy way for me to hand off the catering search. In the end we did manage to reconstruct my efforts, and Eric found us a great caterer I hadn’t thought to contact. Nevertheless, I now make a point of jotting down all the vendors I email on a note in my phone, just in case.
There is a final, far squishier ingredient of a good handoff: trust. Partner A needs to know that Partner B will make a good faith effort to pick up the baton. Partner B needs to know that A really wants to let go of the baton and will respond compassionately even if B screws up.
It can help to start out by transferring lower-stakes responsibilities: if you have Very Strong Feelings about when and how often your child should nap, maybe that’s not the place to begin. Similarly, it can help to lower your (initial) expectations. If you’ve been doing a task for five years, it would be unreasonable to expect your partner to be comparably skilled after five days. Even Olympians occasionally drop the baton. Importantly, they pick it up again and keep running.
Do you have any examples of handoffs gone horribly awry? Or, perhaps, strategies for seamless baton transfers? Email me or leave a comment!
Programming note: I am on vacation next week, so the next Dispatch will drop on 3/22.
Though Tiffany Dufu’s Drop the Ball is the most prominent example, this is not meant as a critique of her work. Dufu’s book goes into considerable detail about how, exactly, one can “let go” while avoiding disastrous consequences. Nevertheless, that nuance is often lost in the broader conversation, which implicitly or explicitly places blame on women. We need a new metaphor!
One ingenious, if perhaps impractical, solution I learned from a friend: when her husband (a novice cook) is making dinner, she leaves the house. This way, she can’t accidentally stumble on him making a culinary faux pas, and he can dirty the kitchen as much as he wants without fearing her disapproval.
I ran track in middle school, can’t you tell?