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.