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

Monday, September 29, 2008

When Equal Childraising Isn't

I read an interesting column in The Irish Times last week by clinical psychologist, David Coleman. The column is Dr. Coleman's answer to a father who notices that his two preschool children currently have a strong preference to be comforted by their mother rather than their father. The father wonders - should I let this happen because it is 'natural' or should I work with my wife to make things more equal (which is what the father wants)? I should mention that this father claims that they have shared childraising rather equally over time, although he currently works more than she does. The father also says that his wife is more of a pushover in disciplining the kids, whereas he has clearer boundaries.

Dr. Coleman's answer is generally acceptable to an ESP father - don't take it personally, continue to be available to them, don't reject them because they are rejecting you, etc.

But one recommendation rings hollow for me: "If indeed [your wife] is exhausted by the way things are now, then you might want to look at other parenting responsibilities you can take on to free her up so that, for example, the night-time comforting becomes her main responsibility and you pick up slack in other areas such as cooking, cleaning, transporting and so on."

Don't do it, ESP father! It's a trap! Fix your wife's exhaustion from being the primary parent by relieving her of half the primary parenting - not housework. Don't let your kids learn that comfort comes from one of you more than the other, especially from the one who is soft on boundaries. Give them a strong message that you are equally there for them, capable of listening and handling any problem and committed to your relationship with them. If you cave in when they go through a Mommy phase in preschool, think of where you'll be when they are older and you've been relegated to cooking and cleaning instead.

ESP childraising isn't a steady diet of "you do the cooking and I'll comfort the kids." It is also more than just an equal division of childraising tasks - mental and emotional equality count too.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It's Not the Gender That Matters

I've been thinking a lot about feminism lately. I've also been reading about it, and there's a lot to read these days with all the reactions to a potential female in the White House. Many feminists have a gut-level, primal scream, angry reaction to Sarah Palin. Many think she's their heroine - a woman potentially venturing where no woman has gone before. Others, like feminist Rebecca Walker, point to the huge chasm in between these views and wonder if perhaps we feminists have missed the point of uniting our liberal and conservative camps into one powerful and well-lead woman's movement. We are two fighting factions instead.

I checked our blog stats the other day and noticed that ESP.com is on the blogroll for a new website. So I wandered on over to see what it was about. I found a description of this website's mission:

[XYZ.com readers] are women and men who find themselves at the intersection of conservatism and feminism. They believe strongly in their faith and find their highest happiness in their families. At the same time, they do not believe that women are subordinates of men, nor that women should confine their efforts to the home. [XYZ.com readers] embrace motherhood, but also actively contribute to their communities and to the world, using the talents that God has given them for this very purpose. [XYZ.com readers] believe that men and women are to be loving and equal partners in the journey of life, and that the differences between women and men were meant to be a joy and a strength, not a basis for hierarchy, domination, or abuse. [XYZ readers] believe that all human collectives, from the family to the nation and beyond, are best led by men and women together in consultation as equals.

I can get behind every word of this belief statement (although I might not believe in as many differences between men and women as most people do, and I'm not conservative). It is beautifully written.

The website is called Red State Feminists.

And so I'd like to give a shout out to my sisters in the red states, from one of the bluest states in the union. We have so much in common. We believe in the beauty and the promise of equality. We know it can work. I'm honored to be on your blogroll and, even though we don't agree on some things, I wish you the best.

So what does it mean to be feminist? I'm starting to realize that, for me, feminism is about equality between women and men. It isn't about raising women up at the expense of men. And it isn't about grasping onto any woman and triumphantly saying 'we won!' I don't want to win if the woman who represents me can't do a bang-up job of leading this country. I don't want to say 'I love Sarah' or 'I love Lucy' or 'I love my mother's best friend' if I'm just saying 'I love that she's female' or that she's going to empower women for the sake of empowering women.

ESP is about equality. No gender more important than the other. Each person standing on his or her own merit.
We don't have to love or vote for a woman because she's there - today, in 4 years, or ever. Let's give this country we love over to someone who can do amazing things, regardless of gender. Let's unite, we liberal and conservative feminists, women and men, and forget our labels of red or blue. May the best person for the job be the one for whom we proudly cast our vote.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Daddy Tracked

Well, it's that time of year again. Working Mother Magazine (Oct. 2008) has come out with its annual list of the 100 Best Family-Friendly Companies (not available online). To be honest, I didn't even look at the list. I have become skeptical about such lists in recent years with what appears to be positioning by employers to accentuate their family-friendly policies sans the real culture change necessary to make the programs accessible to all employees. However, I do like the idea of companies extolling their family-friendly policies if for no other reason than to keep people thinking about what life might be like with more flexibility from their employers.

In this same issue of the magazine, what I did read in its entirety was the article called 'Good for the Gander.' It examines why fathers don't take paternity leave even if it is offered to them. The main explanation is because they are afraid to be "daddy tracked." I can't even dispute this notion since I believe there is still a cultural expectation against dads getting too involved in the caretaking of children. But the article doesn't stop there. It suggests some of the many benefits that can be gained by dads getting more involved, including:
  • Everyone gains. Men and women are less stressed about child care. Companies get more productive employees as a result.

  • Men and women become equally competent as parents, allowing them each to pursue outside interests while the children are cared for by a loving parent.

The article continues by pointing out that "family demands don't end after maternity leave." I couldn't agree more. In fact, I would be happy to forego a paternity leave, and maternity leave for that matter (beyond the medical recovery period), if a long term solution could be put in place from the beginning with both parents getting equal opportunities to care for the children and pursue their careers. This article also covers some of the cultural barriers to flexible work by highlighting a few senior managers who are vocal about the benefits of dads getting more involved at home.

Keep up the good work Working Mother. You may want to consider launching another magazine called Working Parent!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Letting Go of the Motherhood Payoff

We've blogged here many times before about our culture's sacred mother/child bond and how a mother's claim (or stronghold) on playing the central role in her child's life can be a significant barrier to ESP. It is often taken for granted that women can claim centrality in parenthood. But ESP means believing that motherhood is no more important than fatherhood.

It was nice, then, to see this pair of articles on Parenting.com (not sure when they were published in print, since we don't subscribe) - one describing how a competent father can trigger feelings of jealousy in his partner, and the other giving tips to moms on how and when to let dad parent 'his way.'

I liked many parts of each article, and cringed at other parts. Here's what I loved the best:
  • "Most important, moms say, remember how lucky your kids are to have two hands-on parents. Gleicher [a mom interviewed for the article] hopes that having a caring, involved father will one day spur her daughter to choose a guy with those qualities. "She won't end up with somebody she doesn't respect," she says. Speaking of respect, adds Gerken [another mom interviewed for the article], it's the best cure she's found yet for parental jealousy. "Just to glory in your husband's abilities as a dad, I think, is key," she says."
  • Lots of generally good advice for mothers to get out of their husbands' way and even learn from men's style of parenting (in the second article).

And here are some of the phrases that made me recoil:

  • Calling an involved dad the "extra pair of hands" that moms have always wanted. No, we're whole, separate people - you don't just get our hands, you get our minds and hearts and souls that are wrapped up in caring for our children as much as yours are. We don't work for you. We work with you as a team of two parents.
  • Saying that women want dads to be competent, but they "don't ever want to be pushed off that throne of being Mommy." What follows are examples of mothers who are jealous of their children's deep love for their dads. This mentality speaks of parenting for yourself rather than for the child - parenting so that someone loves and adores you rather than so that you can create a loving and warm home in which to bring up a child. Moms who want equality cannot operate from this perspective.
  • Tying a SAHM's value to her superior parenting skills. One such mom says, ""When you've made this decision to stay home, you've given up this side of you where you can shine as your own person. Instead, you feel pressure to shine as a parent." Which can make it frustrating when your husband is as much fun with the kids as you are." Gee - how horrible - a fun dad! Again, parenting should be about giving our children the best lives, not a contest in which you secretly hope your spouse fails to live up to your excellence.

Hat tip to WorkingDad for covering the first article in his Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog today.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Does Maternity Leave Threaten ESP?

The Wall Street Journal's The Juggle blog asked this question yesterday, in so many words. Actually, it asked 'Does Maternity Leave Affect Household Gender Roles?' but it referred to Lisa Belkin's NY Times article on ESP in introducing the topic. This is a key question, and I'm glad to see the WSJ covering it! My answer is "It depends on the motivations of the two parents."

Maternity leave, especially a long one, does give a new mother gobs of solo-parenting time right off the bat. She gets lots of practice with diapers, soothing, feeding and bathing and can quickly feel competent at babycare. She also gets lots of face time and cuddling with the baby, which is a two-way bonding not to be missed. Most moms, Sarah Palin aside, wouldn't want to miss out on this opportunity - and we wouldn't want to suggest otherwise.

A new dad, on the other hand, doesn't typically get as much time to practice his new baby wrangling skills. He may take a few days off or he could take a longer paternity leave, but it will take more than a specific length of paternity leave to make ESP happen. Here are some ideas that will make ESP possible regardless of maternity or paternity leave situations:
  • Don't relegate Dad to housework: A lot of people say that a man's role during paternity leave is to do the household chores so that the new mom can tend to the baby. This notion is probably the root of maternity leave's threat to ESP, as it cements a woman's primary parenting status from the start. Yes, only women can breastfeed (setting aside weird reports to the contrary). But men can share everything else, including bottle feedings of breastmilk. If a new father is primarily relegated to doing mom's housework duties during his paternity leave, he's a junior parent and a temporary housekeeper - not an equal partner.

  • Allow him to parent his way: If he's directed by mom on how and when to hold, soothe, bathe and feed the baby or vacuum/dust/cook, he will likely not take responsibility in the long run. If his partner moves over to make room for him to learn from his own mistakes and experience, he can own what he takes on. ESP couples build in lots of solo parenting time for Dad so that he finds his own way and feels great about his competence.

  • Have a plan for full ESP after maternity leave: Even if a new mother takes a long maternity leave and her husband gets a measley few days off, it is still possible to create ESP. Of course, an equal distribution of parental leave between partners would make ESP much easier to germinate, but with a plan, any couple can correct inequalities once the maternity leave is over.

Just as a job layoff is not a deal-breaker for equal breadwinning, maternity leave is definitely not a deal-breaker for equal childraising and housework if a couple wants to create ESP. Success comes not with a perfect external situation for equal sharing, but with an ESP mindset and a willingness to consciously make it happen.

Monday, September 15, 2008

ESP at 30,000 Feet

A co-worker couldn't wait to tell me this morning about his business trip to California this weekend - not the part that happened at the destination, but what happened on the flight. He's minding his own business, half watching the in-flight news program, when he sees me on the overhead television! The flight was re-broadcasting the 'day-in-the-life' video from Lisa Belkin's New York Times Magazine article. Pretty cool to have a captive audience like this!

Amy's boss gave her a similar story this morning too. There he was settling in for a JetBlue flight home from Salt Lake City and then he's scrambling for the headphones because he sees us on the monitor.

Just wanted to share that you never know where a news story is going to go!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Anniversary

Today is, as you are all well aware, the 7th anniversary of THAT 9/11. For each of us, this conjours up different memories as well as a collective and horrific memory of terrorism at its most powerful. For Marc and me, it also reminds us of our wedding. We were married just 11 days after 9/11/01 and exactly 7 people were brave enough not to cancel their flights to attend. Luckily, we had a warm and large local crowd, and several dedicated family members who drove very long distances to be there.

A few people asked us in the days leading up to the wedding whether we were going to postpone the ceremony. We thought about this for about one second and then plunged forward (fully respecting anyone's decision not to travel). Our wedding was an antithesis to the control terrorism hoped to have on our lives, and so was the perfect antidote. Live by love, not by fear.

At its best, this is what we believe about equally shared parenting as well. While so much is made of ESP's call to equal task division so that life is finally fair for women (especially), the point of equal sharing is lost when this is the focus. To us, ESP is about creating the best life for your partner - about making sure that your partner gets a full opportunity for all of what life offers and your partner in turn doing so for you. No longer is a parent's role concentrated on just childraising and homemaking for women, or on breadwinning for men. But on all of what it means to raise a family, be an individual, and live in relationship with a partner. With ESP, the idea is to build equality (which then does lead to equal task division) because we love each other rather than so we can get our partner to do more for us.

As we all look back on 9/11/01, my wish is that we are given the opportunity to live by love and not by fear - by abundance and not by scarcity. That we don't have to yell at our spouses to do more housework, but step back so that they can.


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Staying in Charge

There are a lot of cultural banana peels out there just waiting to trip up a would-be ESP couple - to cause them to slip into standard gendered divisions of labor without their consent. But sometimes the thing that can crumble their equality comes in the shape of a toddler. Beware the toddler!

I remember when T was 2 years old and he developed a huge Daddy preference. He was happy to hang out with either Marc or myself during the day, but he wanted nothing but Daddy if he woke up in the middle of the night. The preference was so intense that a visit from me (which happened every other time he wakened) escalated his crying to a fever pitch, complete with "No, Mommy! Want Daddy!" and physically pushing me away. It would have been easy for me to give up, crawl back to much-desired sleep, and send in the requested parent. Marc would have gotten a very different response from T - quick calming and a "yes" to Marc's suggestion that they rock and cuddle for a few minutes, followed by an agreeable return to the crib. But neither of us wanted T to consider Marc his only source of comfort; we knew I was just as capable. So we didn't cave. I kept going in his room every few minutes to soothe him, offer him water/rocking/hugging, and sure enough he finally called a quiet "Mama" and collapsed into my arms for a big hug. The whole event, at its worst, took less than an hour and lasted a couple of nights (once per night). After that, he readily accepted either of us - with the usual phases of mild preference over time.

It is no fun to be the parent who isn't preferred. It can grate on your psyche and make you question your ability to care for your own child. For parents who are not equal sharers, this doubting makes sense - after all, if a mother is home with her children all week, she probably will be more talented at taking care of them (and hence more preferred) than their father. But for ESP parents - equally competent and practiced at childraising activities - we suggest you consider other reasons for your child's preference (e.g., desire for routine, wish to control, mood).

It is so easy for the more desired parent to just pick up the other parent's rejected responsibilities. It solves the problem for the moment, and your child is happy. But as they say, "pay now or pay later." Soon, with this cave-in approach, the childraising domain is out of balance. Your child, furthermore, is running the show. Keep your eyes on the long-term prize of ESP - a prize that benefits all three of you.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A Good Time to be a Dad

It sure is an interesting time to be a father! With Governor Palin's nomination for VP, the sexist barbs about her parenting are slowly giving way to a question about whether or not her husband Todd is going to step up to be the primary parent of their five children. This is juicy stuff for an American culture still not sure that we can handle the job of caring for one baby, nevermind the bottomless needs one can only imagine are present in the Palin children right now. Whether intended or not, the Palin nomination has given us the potential to kick fatherhood right up there with motherhood - and for that, I'm ready. It would be nice if Todd could give us a nod that he is too, but even if he doesn't quite become the role model we'd like, his very protoplasm puts the issue front and center.

In my own usually liberal state of Massachusetts, I'm noticing another kind of issue-raising around the equal status of fathers. It seems we have a law (little did I know before this) that allows full-time workers to claim up to 8 weeks of parental leave upon the birth or adoption of a baby. The law applies to employees of any company with 6 or more workers, and so protects more people than FMLA (pertaining to 50 or more workers). The leave is not paid, but that's not the surprising thing. The crazy part is that the law covers only mothers. Even in cases of adoption, where there is no medical recovery period for either partner. But now fathers are starting to take notice, and call foul play, and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination is gently suggesting (but not forcing) companies to offer the same benefit to men (especially if the benefit goes beyond what this law requires). The law is still on the books in its current gender-bias glory, unfortunately, but men are finally ready to fight back.

Let's join in the party, guys! Dad-power equals mom-power! Maybe something powerful indeed will come of all the focus.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Our First Census?

So it's not hard science, but an ABC News poll discussed in an article of the 'is Sarah Palin a fit parent' genre revealed the breakdown of childraising responsibilities by gender as: 85% mothers as primary parent, 11% equally shared parenting, and 2% fathers as primary parent. Wow - ESP is getting counted now! I'm happy to see it recognized right up there with the rest of the big parenting-lifestyle players, and in a small but hearty 11% at that.

Of course this is only equal sharing of the childraising domain of ESP, so I can assume that the numbers of couples who also equilibrate their breadwinning, housework and recreation time is considerably smaller. Still, I'm pleased.

We'll be on the lookout for ESP census numbers in the future, and expecting them to grow!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

You Can't Be President

It has taken me a few days to get over the shock of John McCain's running mate choice - at least enough to put words to computer screen. Marc and I purposefully don't wish ESP.com to be a sounding board for our political, religious or other sacred-territory views. So I'll bite my tongue - hard - and try to stay on-topic (kind of).

We have always said that if you choose to be an ESP parent, there will be sacrifices. And that one of those sacrifices is that you cannot also be President. You can't have the uber-power career with 24/7 availability that we all expect (and need) our President to embrace, and still have time left for involved parenthood. It is simply mathematically and emotionally impossible. Yes, the President would undoubtedly have plenty of staff hovering around him/her and wouldn't have to do any housework, but when having to choose between declaring war (or brokering peace) and handling the children's bedtime routine, we hope our President would choose the foreign relations for all of our sakes.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say you can't even be much of an involved parent and be President. Yes, you could surely have a reasonably powerful career and still be involved 'enough' with young kids, spouse and home - but you can't be President. That's why the Presidency has worked well for men with wives who care for the children and/or children who are reasonably grown already.

Enter Sarah Palin. Regardless of her gender, she's a parent of five children. One is an infant, with special needs that will keep him childlike for the rest of his life. Another is facing one of the hardest trials any teenager should ever have to face - unplanned motherhood and marriage at age 17. Another is going off to Iraq. The other two are, we hope, normal kids with all the crazy normal worries and fears of elementary and teenage years.

The media focus on Ms. Palin (why do they call her "Ms. Palin" but they call Hillary "Mrs. Clinton"?) has been on her motherhood. Her emotional strength (or lack) for choosing to give birth to a baby with Down's Syndrome, or her ability to raise an oh-so-normal family with its imperfections (a pregnant teen - oh well, that can happen to anyone, say her supporters). But I say we should skip talking about her status as a mother, except to say that by accepting a position such as Vice President of the United States (and quite possibly President if McCain's health declines), she is letting go of involved parenthood.

Is the world ready for that concept? Are we ready to say that these 5 children (including an infant) must be parented primarily by someone else? If that was all that worried me about Sarah Palin, I'd be simply calling on her husband to declare himself thrilled to be a hard core SAHD (which, from the scant information available on him to date, doesn't appear to be the case). Because I believe that motherhood is no more sacred than fatherhood, I'm not going to crucify her for making this choice if it is right for her, her husband and family. But no ESP for this couple! No Sarah-Palin-Has-It-All either. You can have it all, but not in extreme measure - and VP is an extreme career.

Alas my worries about Ms. Palin's candidacy are far more catastrophic than her parental status. But I think we can safely say "parent" is a role she's put on the back burner as much as any other President or VP candidate. Let's not fool ourselves otherwise, even as we prepare to weather the media circus that is a wedding, a baby and an election countdown over the next few months. Can the real issues be heard over the din?

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