Equally Shared Parenting - Half the Work ... All the Fun

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Here's where we keep you updated on news about parenting as it relates to division of responsibilities, career versus home decisions, work/life balance, and legislative and grass-roots movements toward equality or better choices for families. We'll also throw in our opinions of life as equal parents in a nonequal world, regardless of what's in the news.

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Equality Blog

Friday, April 27, 2007

Fearless Friday
Today is Fearless Friday on blogs across the land! The motherhood literary community, MotherTalk, is promoting the paperback release of Arianna Huffington's book On Becoming Fearless with a call for simultaneous posts on the topic of fearlessness today. I have not yet read Arianna's book, but the topic is highly appealing to me. What is life if you cannot get out there and be yourself - imperfections and all? We learn when we take chances, and we're really alive when we live from love and not from fear. So, here is my contribution to Fearless Friday:

From Me to We

I'm a control freak. Yes, absolutely, that is me. My friends would agree, in a lighthearted kind of way I hope. I go around with checklists of things to do. I straighten and tidy. I get queasy around clutter. My biggest worry if I die is that I won't be around to direct things.

But I want something else even more than control. And that something is an intimate and equal partnership with my husband. This dichotomy has battles in my head - and when I am fearless, the equality warrior can win. To be real equals, I have to completely let go of the notion that a mother is more than a father to a child. Except for my far superior childbearing skills, I am just one of the two parents that M and T have been given.

I come to motherhood with huge hopes and dreams for my children. From their very first cry, I want to protect and, well, mother them. I feel enormous responsibility for their welfare, their emotional growth, and their development in the skills that are needed for happy and productive lives. It is so easy to just take over these tasks, pushing aside my partner or telling him how to get from A to B! But if I do, I believe that something beautiful is lost. Society says that mothers possess some special innate elixir not given to fathers that is essential to a happy and healthy childhood. I say this is not true. I'm betting my children's very happiness on a new way.

And so I choose fearless mothering that steps aside to make room for equal fathering by Marc. Absolutely equal footing for both of us. I choose this because I believe in the depths of my heart and soul in this type of a family. I thank God for Marc - a man who is up to the task of keeping me on track with equality, and a father who wants this as much as I do. I am so grateful for a co-parent in this scary and thrilling (and very hard) responsibility of raising children. I'm relieved that Marc's neuroses are different than my own, so that we can learn and grow from each other and so that M and T will not be smothered by those of one of us alone. The world may say that I'm abdicating my motherhood. I say I'm putting parenthood ahead of my own needs to be a mother. M and T just say "is it time for a snack, Daddy...I mean Mommy?"

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Men and Housework

For the past few weeks, the parenting news has been all about 'The Feminine Mistake' and mothers' roles (or lack thereof) in the breadwinning domain. This week, it's all about the housework domain instead.

BusinessWeek.com's Working Parents blog posted an entry asking why women are always stuck with the primary housework role and respondents posted passionate agreement or annoyance with this stereotype (Amy was one of the posters - her comments introduced the concept of ESP and how true equality can be attained). Then, another Working Parents blog entry featured some of our own ESP tips for sharing housework - cool! Yesterday's Working Parents blog further explores this issue; the blog author suggests that perhaps the main reason why men are not still equal housework contributors is that either their partners are not communicating their dissatisfaction or that women don't think men's cleaning is up to snuff. I agree with this assessment, especially the part about women gatekeeping the housework. Amy and I know it doesn't come easily sometimes, but shifting the housework standards from the woman's to the team's standards is absolutely necessary for long-term, happy equality.

And today's Working Parents blog features yet another discussion of housework equality, this time with comments from me. I was interviewed earlier this week by Anne Tergeson, author of the original blog that started this topic at BusinessWeek.com. Hopefully some of my ideas for attaining true and lasting equality will be helpful to readers.

Finally, Linda Hirshman's piece in the New York Times yesterday about the importance of women working outside the home (written in a strangely kinder-and-gentler tone that her usual style) touches on the issue of housework (and childraising) inequality with this statement:

"Sociologists have found that mothers (rich and poor) still do twice the housework and child care that fathers do, and even the next generation of males say they won’t sacrifice work for home."

I'm puzzled by where she got her data on the next generation of males, since the sociologists quoted recently (e.g., Kathleen Gerson in The American Prospect's Mother Load issue in March) are saying quite the opposite. Young men value balanced lives more than powerful careers, say the sociologists I read, and they want and believe in gender equality in their marriages. They may not know how to achieve this equality, and they may wimp out at the current cultural and workplace barriers, but at least the desire is there.

Dr. Hirshman concludes her piece with a solution involving changes in the tax code. There may be merit to her suggestion, but I still believe that the desire for a balanced and happy life is what will motivate individual families to even out the housework, childraising, breadwinning and recreation time.

Friday, April 20, 2007

ESP Take on 'The Feminine Mistake'
Phew! I just finished reading the last page of Leslie Bennetts' new book 'The Feminine Mistake', the latest manifesto on how mothers should be handling their lives. The book is clogging up the blogosphere, the radiowaves and the newspapers with debates and passion. So, while the actual book (rather than what everyone is saying about it) is fresh in my mind, I'd better get down how I feel:

First of all, this book is powerful and the discussion contained within is important for every woman who is a mother or who expects to be a mother. It is alarmist, and many women are reacting to that simple fact rather than the actual information in the book. Heck, the book practically gave me nightmares - what if Marc dies tomorrow, what if he 'suddenly' stops loving me and wants a divorce, what if he is incapacitated by a car accident? Shiver and panic. But, these worries are beside the actual point of the book which is to help women make educated choices about their own lives - because bad things happen (or don't).

Secondly, any book about how mothers are living their lives is bound to incite fury in those who are the targeted group - here, the stay-at-home moms. Once we've made a decision about how to live and raise our children, it is very hard to hear others denigrate that decision. We get defensive and lash out. We completely miss the point that perhaps there is something in the object of our anger that is actually helpful and important to hear. So, I hope that every type of mother (and father) can find a way to step around their need to defend a position and find something useful in this book.

Now, for Leslie B.'s take on equal sharing. She's a big fan, and a semi-practitioner of equal childraising, housework, breadwinning (obviously) and recreation. Her own marriage is close to gender-equal, but she admits that she does do more of the housework and the 'remembering' at home. She claims that things are 'almost' equal in her house because her husband was given no choice otherwise. She insisted on equality. Marc and I would agree with much of this, except we think there are a few steps Leslie has not taken. True equality is true partnership, not one person forcing the other to do anything. Leslie is fond of giving her husband lists of chores to do; we are opposed to this practice. If one spouse is directing the other, equality has not been reached. We'd rather read that she and her husband communicate and negotiate how to handle the housework rather than have her direct him. That said, she does have examples of true teamwork in the book, and so we'll let her off the hook.

When it comes to breadwinning, Leslie says that women should work full-time throughout their earning years. During the crucial 15 years of early childraising, she recommends continuing with full-time work rather than reducing hours or (worst of all) opting out. She waffles back and forth on whether part-time work is a viable option - sometimes saying part-time workers are next to worthless in the workplace and don't bring in enough money to assure their financial independence, and sometimes saying that reduced hours are an option for a short time while children are very young. She never mentions the option of both parents reducing their hours equally, and does not distinguish between a part-time job at 15-20 hours per week and one at 30-35 hours per week. We think there is a huge difference in most careers between a 20-hour/week worker and a 35-hour/week worker; and if both parents can reduce their hours even slightly, their collective ability to be home with their children is greatly improved. What about the kids? Leslie says that they will do just fine with two full-time working parents, and that great outside childcare is not unsurmountably hard to find. The kids probably will do fine if the childcare is decent, but we idealize a family where outside childcare is not needed 50+ hours per week. Leslie missed the boat on this one.

Finally, Leslie says that women should just persevere through those tough-to-balance 15 years of intense mothering. So what if they feel stressed to the breaking point, have no time for themselves, and never see their spouses? They can fix all of this a decade or so later when the kids don't need them as much. Hmmm. We disagree. Well, we agree that life can be hard, and that when the going gets tough the tough get going. We agree that it is okay to be frazzled and colorfully unbalanced at times. Life is far from perfect. But we don't agree that the only option for women with young children who want to be financially savvy is to be unbalanced and harried for 15 years. That's a long time! How about both parents living below their means so that the family doesn't need quite as much money and can reduce their income during these years? Maybe by just a little, so that both parents can cut back at work - stay in the game but not gun for superpower jobs for those 15 years? That's the prescription we recommend instead. We agree that having enough money is important, but how much is enough? Once we can reasonably assure a middle class life (and take steps to assure this in the future), balance is the more valuable currency to us.

Okay, I said that was my last point. I'm sure I'll have 1000 other thoughts after I post this, but enough is enough (for now). What do you think? If you haven't read the book yet, I urge you to do so before you answer.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Words of Hope
I wrote recently to Kathleen Gerson, Professor of Sociology at New York University and leading researcher and writer on work/family balance. I wanted to find out her opinion of whether parents in Generations X/Y are ready to overcome the barriers to egalitarian marriages in today's society. Barriers such as flex-unfriendly workplaces and social stigmas for men who put family ahead of career aspirations. So, what did she say?

"I think that new generations are not only willing but increasingly determined to FIGHT for equal marriages and the right to be equal parents. Let's hope they succeed. We need strong collective efforts, and sites such as yours are our best hope!"

Hooray! These words give me reason to cheer and make me happy that Marc and I are a part of this fight. I hope you feel the same, and we can all march forward together.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Where the Rubber Meets the Road: School Obligations
Every so often, we think it might be fun to share with you some of the things we are working on to assure our own parenting equality. So, today it is the flyer that was in M's cubby at preschool last week when I picked her up. The bright yellow piece of paper announced the school's upcoming yard sale, and asked parents to gather their goods and bring them to the school as contributions. There were instructions - what, where, when, who to contact - and a list of responsibilities that needed volunteers.

As I'm sure is true with all of you, we get things like this all the time - things that Marc and I agree do not absolutely require our participation, but nonetheless have an aura of expectation. Each of them seems friendly enough on its own - worthy causes - how could I possibly not participate? Right? But each time I get one, I cringe inside ever so slightly. While at the same time I see benefits all around - in this case, a way to get rid of things accumulating in the basement that we no longer need, a chance to help the school raise some money, a fun community-building event. Normally, I take these requests and do my best to remember the dates and details, and I'm a good dooby.

Marc, on the other hand, doesn't do nearly as much for these types of 'voluntary' obligations. He volunteers in plenty of other ways - usually in a more spontaneous style that matches his personality. But if you added up all the times that each of us takes on these types of tasks, I'd win hands down. Hey - that's not equally shared parenting!

Yes, yes, I know that you could remind me that ESP is about overall equality, not dividing everything down the middle. And it is. But noticing that I take on about 90% of the school obligations is an interesting thing nonetheless. So, we talked about it. We did not argue. We did not accuse or defend. We more like mulled.

We figured out that I take on these things because I feel that they reflect on the mother in our society, and that if we shirked our duties I would look bad. I also take on these things because I want them done my way; I know that if I just handle the yard sale obligation myself, I'll pick the 'right' stuff to sell, get there in time to help set up and price things, remember the right date, etc. Heaven forbid that Marc screw this stuff up...wait a minute! What a load of crap I've sold myself. I should be signing up like a single parent for these obligations only if I feel happy doing them; instead I've been signing up because I'm afraid of the consequences if I didn't do them.

So, Marc suggested that I start to divide up these types of responsibilities with him. But, he will only take one on if I can agree to let go of those consequences - including the choice to actually participate at all. I decided to start with that yard sale. Marc will now be choosing if the Vachon family wants to participate in the preschool yard sale. If he decides we'll contribute, Marc will be gathering the things to sell (I do get to make sure that he isn't donating anything I actually meant to keep). Marc will be responsible for following all the directions in the flyer, including responding back to the school, showing up on time, remembering the date. I will be his assistant only - and only if he wants the help. I will not be reminding him, reading him the flyer details, or urging him on in any way.

The important point here, for us, is that I face letting go and that Marc takes on a task and all its details without it being assigned to him by me. Assignments, honey-do lists and the like are things you give your subordinates, not your true partner. ESP parents communicate, negotiate, divide up the work, and then go about completing their own responsibilities as full team members.

Phew! I felt light and airy after this conversation. And ready for the challenge. Now to put my letting-go skills to work on even bigger things....

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Being Happy
Happiness is the goal of equally shared parenting, when you strip away everything else. It aims to give parents happy daily lives by putting everyday balance above success, achievement, money and power. It is about living more in the moment than for the future - although in a responsible way.

Equally sharing parents aren't gunning for CEO positions in the workplace. Frankly, neither are most young workers today - they want good jobs that are fun and interesting and challenging (and just happen to pay well enough to provide them with what they need financially) but that don't unbalance them. They have no interest in slogging up corporate ladders in hopes of someday having corner offices that cost them a happy life along the way.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Fruits of Recreation
For the past 10 years, I have gotten together with three other women about 3 times a month for about 2 hours at a time. In all those years, we have seen each other get married (me), have kids (two of us), and say goodbye to children leaving the nest (the other two of us), and have provided countless consults to each other on everything from which herbal products are not actually voodoo bunk (me - the pharmacist), the best therapists in town (the therapist), great literature (the English professor) and sprains/strains (the physician). We've been there for each other through hard times and happy times. We've laughed, we've cried, we've played lots and lots of Beethoven. These women are my string quartet buddies, and together we make up the very amateur but very enthusiastic Desdemona Quartet.

For the past 5 of those years, all of this bonding has been at the direct expense of Marc's freedom - he's the one at home with our kids while I'm out playing violin. Such is the life of a husband who supports his wife's passion for music. I tend to think he made a pretty smart investment. Here's what he got for all that time 'on' with the kids:
  • A wife who is actually passably decent on the violin.
  • A happy wife who comes home refreshed and ready to take over for him.
  • A wife who can share her happiness with him and with the kids, even perhaps inspiring someone else to follow his/her passion. There is nothing like teaching your children how to have a fun adult life.
  • A daughter who excitedly yet quietly says she has chosen the violin for herself. Not that I want to create a mini-me, but the idea that I may have been able to uncover her own love of music-making is wonderful.
  • Extra time with his terrific kids.
  • An equivalent amount of time to pursue his own interests.

And this past weekend, my quartet gave a little recital to celebrate our 10 years together. Each of us invited a few music-loving friends and family members to hear some of the pieces we'd been practicing. Marc and our children were there, and I felt very loved.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Join the Revolution
Here's a sweet article in the Lafayette Daily Advertiser about standing proud as an involved father. The author invites dads to join his private revolution - to be blatant and direct about their love for their families and how much they enjoy hanging around with their kids. Enough of the small-minded viewpoint that this is for sissies!

I'm right with ya, and today was a great example of that. I had a ball parenting not two but four kids while Amy was at work. Our good friends went to the hospital to deliver their third baby this morning, and Amy and I were honored to get the early morning call for help. I got to spend the day flexing my father muscles and getting myself out of little jams like lost stuffed animals and a bathtub filled with giggling soapy kids. I was happy to see Amy come home to make the adult:child ratio more favorable - but not because moms can do what dads can't. All in all, it was a great day!

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