I just finished reading an advance copy of a new mommy self-help book called Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself by feminist author Amy Richards. Its release date is tomorrow, so I figured I'd try to beat most of the crowd to a mini-review. From the title, I immediately assumed that this would be yet another of a string of books dedicated to helping women balance their lives after having babies - you know, those books that assume a woman parents in a vacuum and don't bother to mention the part her partner could play in creating that balance.
But I was wrong. This book finally says something that I have wished the others had the guts to say: people, take responsibility for your own destiny! Ms Richards calls on us to stop using the workplace as a scapegoat for why we can't have what we want (with excuses like 'there are no good part-time jobs,' or 'my husband can't possibly cut back at work so I have to do everything at home') and instead take courageous steps to claim the lives we want anyway, and take the unfinished business of feminism back into our own homes to create equality with our partners.
And she's not just talking to women (despite the book's title). She calls for men to stand up for their own rights to balanced lives. "If the fight isn't joined by men who want a life, too, any solutions become 'women's' solutions. A broader drive to redesign work will take a union-style consciousness that makes it safe for men who secretly want balance to say so." [She's quoting Matt Miller from the Center for American Progress in this last statement.]
Richards' message doesn't stop at going for your dreams in the workplace. She tackles women's role in holding onto primary parenthood and calls for us to stop thinking of motherhood as any more important than fatherhood. Using herself as an example, she says "I don't want to deprive [my children] of a nurturing father by pulling rank as a mother." Richards then addresses gender stereotypes in how we raise our kids, and argues that if we want to raise children who are not biased by constricted gender roles, we have to model gender equality for them as parents. Yes, yes, yes.
She also includes a big, fat chapter on getting men to do more childcare and housework. Her own marriage, she admits, is closer to a 60:40 divide (with, you guessed it, the usual gender division). Why, she laments, is this ratio considered fantastic, and why is 50:50 so elusive? Her answer is because we don't have good role models to learn from, and because we focus on physically dividing the tasks of housework/childraising without also including the equal division of responsibility, authority, investment, and management for these tasks, and also because once kids come along "the push toward conformity is strong and it's hard to resist." Her finger is pointed squarely at women here: "A more loaded and fraught explanation is that women won't relinquish control over the house." We can't let go of owning parenthood - whether it be because we think we parent better than men, we simply want to be in control, we fear social disapproval, or we feel unappreciated in other aspects of our lives.
I could go on and on, quoting paragraph after paragraph - especially from her chapter on childcare and housework equality. But, bottom line, I like a lot of what Amy Richards says in Opting In. The title is crummy - it doesn't frame up her arguments well. And the way that she uses Lisa Belkin's Opt-Out Revolution article as a lead-in and conclusion to this book feels like she's trying to counter Belkin's work; I think that the two are simply separate pieces of an extremely complex and personal work/life balance puzzle rather than opposing forces.
Richards is all about the personal - taking responsibility, owning an authentic life, and being a real part of bigger social change toward balance and equality. This is not a self-help book because it doesn't tell us exactly how to get there. It also doesn't focus much on the myriad of benefits that equality provides to men. It just asks us to do. Here at ESP.com, we're all about the doing - the practical steps. So, thanks Amy Richards, for giving the world a nudge in the direction of ESP. We're happy to take it's hand now and lead the way.
p.s. I can't resist one more quote: "In the absence of a society that raises both men and women to raise children equally, we may feel forced to go to extremes in order to come close to fifty-fifty." I love this - it explains so much. With all the social pressures bearing down on couples to assume traditional arrangements (especially after they have children), it takes extreme purposefulness to choose differently. So if ESP couples sound like kooks every now and then because we microscopically examine gender assumptions, well - we're allowed! We're on guard to preserve our equality, not because we're picking each other to death, but because we're a team making sure that 'what is' doesn't engulf what we really want for our lives.