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, December 29, 2008

The Power of Asking

We're catching up this week on news that has piqued our interest over the past week or so, now that the Christmas festivities are over and our house is once again inhabited only by our immediate family. One of these interesting tidbits is an entry by Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal's The Juggle blog from 12/17, entitled "Be a Negotiator, Not a Victim: How to Get Parental Leave."

In this piece, Ms. Shellenbarger queries Harvard Law professor Robert Mnookin to find out if he thinks someone who works as an independent contractor could ever negotiate a few weeks of paid adoption leave from her employer. Dr. Mnookin suggests that this new mom-to-be approach her employer with ideas that represent the company's interests - not just her own wishes - and be flexible in her conversations with her boss. He then suggests some unconventional solutions, such as asking for advance pay as an interest-free loan to be repaid the following year from her fees, or in exchange for an explicit promise that for some period of time, she won’t raise her fees.

These strategies may not work, since it is pretty hard to expect paid leave when you're a contract employee. But one way to guarantee they won't work is to avoid asking.

There is amazing power in asking - especially with a spirit of cooperation, flexibility and no hint of trying to get something for nothing. Asking for what you want, and negotiating a fair solution that keeps your employer and you happy, is a good thing for all parties. It bodes well for your future too, if handled well, since you'll be seen as a straight-shooter who follows through.

So ask for what you need at work. Don't expect free handouts, but don't expect anyone to read your mind either.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Full Ownership

Thanks to reader Jeanne, for pointing out this interesting essay in the Boston Globe from last week. In this piece, an ESP dad describes his reaction after finding out he has to bring his kids for their annual holiday portrait sitting. Despite his wishes to share equally in childraising and breadwinning with his wife (they both work 4 days per week in order to share most easily), he dreads taking on this responsibility alone because he's sure the photos won't turn out to his wife's standards. He's torn; he fully accepts that he needs to buck up and conquer such tasks if he wants to reap the rewards of equal sharing, but he also feels he's doomed to 'failure.'

His wife is not much help, since she has no intention of letting him handle the task alone. She informs him that she'll be picking out the outfits, and she tells him directly that she's afraid he'll put the baby's clothes on backward. She probably made the appointment too, and quite possibly made the decision by herself to have the portraits taken in the first place.

In the end, this dad concludes: "So maybe I'm not a true jack-of-all-trades. But then again, neither is my wife. The next time she fixes a hole in our ceiling will be the first, though I bet she'd be willing to try if I were laid up. The good news in all of this is that we pretty much see eye-to-eye on questions of who should handle which tasks. And if something were to happen to one of us, the other would be ready to step in with a wrench or an extra baby outfit."

It's a cute story. I give this father kudos for his understanding that ESP entails learning new things and taking on whatever tasks come his way. I applaud this couple for realizing that it makes no sense to divide each task 50/50 - that most tasks have natural divisions that point to one or the other parent most of the time (e.g., by who cares the most about a task being done a certain way). And I give them extra points for trusting in their ability to pinch-hit for each other on any task if the partner who usually does it is not available - hooray!

But did you notice that this dad got an assignment that was still controlled by mom? If an ESP father is elected the responsibility of the holiday picture sitting, he should be given the authority to handle the task. That includes picking out the clothes, at least in partnership with his wife - not being handed the clothes his own children will wear. Here's a guy who is willing to rise to the occasion. But he will only truly take ownership if he is given that ownership. And fully allowed to fail. In this case, he had good reason to expect he'd fail, since his wife is the client - the one with the opinions and the one he has to please. He needs to be his own client, and she needs to back down to at least co-client status.

True equality in examples like this is extremely hard to accomplish! If this were Marc and me, I'd likely want to make sure the outfits were to my liking and I'd worry that Marc wouldn't care about these aesthetics. I wouldn't be concerned he'd put the clothes on backward or forget the time or bungle any procedural part of the task. But I'd still have some trouble letting go. I'd like to think we'd choose the outfits as a team and then he'd take over from there. And that we'd have agreed up-front together that the photos were a good idea.

The details of how this couple, or Marc and I, or any individual couple might solve these types of issues can be fascinating; there are countless ideas and possible answers for each dilemma. But what's far more important is equal partnership. The who/what/when/where/how of each individual task is unimportant compared to going through life as a team. That's the prize we're reaching for.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Add Dinosaurs to That List

A few days, ago, I posted a list of some animals that routinely delegate childcare to the male of the species. And now, it looks like we can add dinosaurs to this 'involved dad' list. NPR's Morning Edition reported yesterday that scientists suspect several types of dinosaurs to have given egg-warming duties primarily to dads.

The dinosaur mothers used up a lot of energy laying their eggs, it seems. And then they needed to replenish that energy through feeding, leaving dad to tend the babies-to-be. This type of male nesting behavior, the report states, is similar to many other birds - such as ostriches, emus and kiwi birds.

So, way back in prehistoric times, with some of the most ferocious animals ever to walk the Earth, it wasn't unmasculine to take care of the children and tend the home. Even then, mom and dad split the workload into egg-creating vs egg-tending. Something went wrong along the way when our culture sold us the story that this work isn't manly or that both of these tasks belong to women.

The big question is whether or not these dino-daddies shared the feeding and nurturing of their babies once they hatched. For now, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Let's hear it for the dinosaurs (and ostriches, emus and kiwis)!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

(Not) Equally Sharing the Holiday Cards

Sometimes, it's good to share with you when we don't do so well with ESP, right? Our Christmas cards fit this category. We always start out in good spirits, with a discussion about whether we want to send any this year. Yes, we did. Then, we move on to picking them out - usually photocards of the kids. Picture selected, cards ordered (we even did this step together this year, sitting side-by-side at the computer). Then, the little box arrives and the hard part begins.

I buy stamps because, well, I happen to find myself at the post office. I make a list of names because I'm a list person. Then, at least this year, we assign Marc to take it from there while I handle other holiday prep tasks. Then, I wait. Nothing happens - no labels, no writing, no licking and sticking. Nothing except T finding the box and spewing the cards all over the kitchen floor.

I grow restless. I do something I tell all of you not to do - I complain that he isn't doing the cards. He looks innocently at me and says, "But I thought we had enough to do this year, so we had decided to skip doing them." Hmmm.... This doesn't compute in my brain. I clarify, he mutters something I'm not sure means he'll do anything, and I wait a bit more. Then, in a flurry, I print the labels, paste everything on, stuff the cards and write little notes on the ones I feel need little notes, and mail them. Well, I mail most of them, and then Marc volunteers to drop the rest in the mailbox on his way to work the next day - and he forgets - so I mail the rest the following day after glaring at him.

There. Don't I feel good.

No, not really. Even though the task can now be neatly checked off, I did it all - which would be fine except our plan was for Marc to do this chore himself. Why did I take over? Why did Marc stall, forget, abandon the project? He's no slacker; he's been working hard at all sorts of other things. But somehow, this project still reeked of my control. And somehow, Marc didn't own this task - even to the point of remembering to put a batch of completed cards in the mail. I know what Marc would say; he would point out that I sapped the fun out of the whole thing, and made it clear that I was supervising him - two reasons he couldn't get all that excited about doing his part. He would be right.

Unlike most of my stories, I don't have a punch line. ESP isn't perfectly executed everyday. Tomorrow is another day, and next year is another year we'll face the Christmas card dilemma.

Perhaps I will do so with more grace.

And if you happen to get a card from us this year...please know that we picked them out together with the best of intentions and love. Really.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Two-Income Emancipation

Here is a repost from June 2007 that might be worth revisiting in this season of materialism and uncertain economic times. Many of the couples we have been interviewing for our upcoming book have expressed gratitude for the paradoxical connection between ESP and financial stability.

A wildly popular and provocative book called The Two-Income Trap was published in 2003, and became that year's frightening call to arms for parents. The book outlined how easy it is for middle class families to go broke as they find themselves up to their eyeballs in mortgage debt in order to live in cities with safe neighborhoods and good school districts. The authors, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, argue that one negative effect of women entering the workplace over the past 5 decades is the upramping of housing costs as more and more families compete to buy the best homes. A woman's salary hasn't really gone to bettering her own family's savings; it simply caused her family to spend more. The real problem comes when her family suffers a significant setback - a layoff, a serious illness - and debt quickly mounts.

Warren and Tyagi warn against living the typical two-income lifestyle. While not specifically advocating stay-at-home motherhood for social reasons, they say this lifestyle affords the family a safety net because the non-working mother could go out and get a job if disaster strikes. Until then, having one parent at home forces the family to live on one salary.

I agree with all of the authors' warnings about living without a financial safety net. But I'm puzzled that they do not consider an option besides having one parent completely drop out of the workforce. I think they focus on the one-income solution because it is not the American Way to live below our means. If we earn it, we tend to spend it. We think in terms of 'stuff' and the so-called status and security it brings. So it is unlikely that most two-income couples can devote one salary to savings. Who chooses to live in an apartment their whole lives when they could 'afford' a house? Who chooses to buy a tiny shack when they can afford a 4-bedroom Colonial in an upper-middle-class town with a top-10 school system?

But one very important alternative is equally shared parenting! Here, you have two parents who get to keep their careers but downsize them (such as by reducing their work hours) in order to have time for their children, themselves and each other. They make less money than two full-time, full-bore earners, and so are 'forced' to simplify and budget their money carefully. They may forfeit that 4-bedroom Colonial but won't exactly have to live in abject poverty either. They will probably net more money than a one-income family and their childcare costs will be lower than a typical two-income family's. I'm betting that all their family togetherness is good for their children in ways that the top-10 school system can't touch. I'm also betting that they are happier than their stressed out and bankrupt two-income friends. And if disaster strikes the equally sharing family, either parent can be the safety net by ramping up his/her career (probably more easily than a stay-at-home parent can suddenly go back to work).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Instant ESP

Take an 'involved dad' and a willing mom, give them all the worksheets in our Toolbox, and ask them to transform their lives into full-out ESP for one week. What do you think the result might be? Care to guess?

Marc and I are about busting our guts laughing at this article in The Independent (UK paper) about a journalist, Russ Litten, who was assigned to follow this website to a T and write about his experiences. A first, the poor guy is a bit horrified that the worksheets show he's not pulling his weight at home and with the kids. The recreation domain is a bit more equal, and the breadwinning domain comes out with less hours for his wife than for him (but approximately equal money earned, incidently).

Armed with this information, they flip roles - each taking on all the tasks on the worksheets that didn't have their own initials next to them. He attempts all of his domestic duties at once, appropriately not accepting advice or direction from his wife. And mostly, what results is a comical disaster in which no one dies but everyone is a bit frazzled and wants to return to life in their previous comfort zones.

But not quite. In the end, Russ' wife resolves to spend a bit more time on herself - in the recreation domain - and Russ himself decides to spend more time on family activities.

All in all, we love the article. Russ Litten has a gift for comedy, surely, and he has clearly read a great deal of our thoughts and ideas, and good-naturedly attempted to follow our philosophies. We suspect that the whole point of assigning him this writing topic was to find flaws in the idea of ESP and to poke fun at them. We're willing to roll with the usual punches Russ includes in his article about how we appear to be so polished and blissful (of course, we're not; of course we're going to appear decent when a newspaper photographer shows up at our house to take our picture). But all in all, we're honored that he took on the assignment and gave all our worksheets a whirl in public.

At the end of the article, Russ promises to write us a thank you note (a reference to the fact that the housework domain worksheet reveals he never writes them). We'll be waiting for that, Russ, but in the meantime, we've written you a short note ourselves:

Dear Russ,
Loved your experiment - really, we did. But we suspect you've realized that turning your life upside down for a few days is a general recipe for disaster. Throw anyone into a job he or she is not trained to do, and you'll get poor results - and unhappiness. ESP is not an instant fix. It is also so much less about equal task division than it is about equal involvement and connection in all four domains and a balanced life for both parents.

As you so aptly point out, ESP takes guts. It isn't easy. Our cultures are set up to honor the traditional division of labor at home, and gender roles are extremely difficult to bend. It also takes time to set up your life to accomodate ESP even in the best of circumstances. So, we know that you knew you were going to fail. Not because you couldn't accomplish it and love your balanced life, but because you can't just turn on a switch like that.

The thing, Russ, is that ESP does work. It works "brilliantly," in fact, for many couples. Some have made considerable sacrifices to create it, all work hard to maintain it, and none would give it up once they've tasted the balance and connectedness it allows. Yet, it is clearly not for everyone, and we would never pretend to lift it above other parenting lifestyles. We make no claims that ESP turns out brighter, more well-behaved, better looking children. It is simply a real option, alongside other choices, and we've appointed ourselves to speak up about it because very few others have yet done so.

We must comment on the byline of your article, that refers to the "strict new equally shared parenting scheme." Perhaps you didn't write that line, but you can guess we don't consider ESP to be either 'strict' or a 'scheme.' Our website if full of specifics because it meant to be practical - a smorgasbord of ideas from which to pick and choose what fits your family. But ESP couples come in all sorts - all focusing on specific bits of the philosophy and aiming for the same very general goals.

Say "hello" from us to your lovely wife, Ruth, and your two kids, Sonny and Josie (who are the same ages as our M and T). We'd love to hear more from you, so please stay in touch. And, really, you made our day!

Hugs and kisses,
Amy and Marc

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Naturally Involved Dads

Who says fathers who share (or dominate) the nurturing of their babies aren't doing what nature intended? Equally sharing parents have a lot in common with these animal dads:
  • Emperor penguins - if you've seen March of the Penguins, you know what I mean.
  • Marsupial frogs - dad watches the eggs hatch and then helps the tadpoles wriggle along his back until they enter pouches on his hips where they live for a few weeks and grow into frogs.
  • Seahorses - mom deposits eggs into a pouch on dad's abdomen, where they are fertilized. Dad then carries the embryos to term, nourishing and then birthing them from the pouch.
  • Hardhead catfish - dad carries the eggs in his mouth for 60 days until they hatch.
  • Marmosets - dad is the primary parent who carries, feeds and grooms the infants after their first few weeks of life, and may assist mom during birth by grooming and licking the newborns.

Just some fun food for thought.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

BabyZone Coverage

Just a quick post to say we're featured in a new article on BabyZone.com today. It's a fairly general article about how couples can more equitably share housework and childraising activities. I like how the author describes the relative ease of sharing the household cleaning and typical chores, but that 'extracurriculars' like party planning and shopping for gifts are harder to share.

Tips are provided, partly from us and also from Jessica DeGroot of the ThirdPath Institute. I agree with all of them except this one: "Many women think that being CEO of the home gives them the right to micromanage their husbands. Instead, think about the good bosses you've had - usually the best ones are those who tell you what needs to be done, but let you figure out how to do it." I'd go much further than this if you want ESP - all the way to asking women to give up being the CEO of the home altogether. No managing at all - just teaming up with him to get the job done and enjoying it along the way.

Thanks, Jeannie Brown of BabyZone, for a nice primer on getting to equality!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Calling for Crazy Ideas

I stumbled today upon a left-wing UK thinktank organization that is holding a contest to come up with ways to achieve "a more equal, democratic and sustainable world." The thinktank, called Compass, was created in 2003 to debate and develop ideas for change, and then campaign to move them forward. Their contest was inspired by the upcoming US presidential change and is called 'How to Live in the 21st Century.'

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I was struck by
one of the proposals that has been submitted. It calls for changing the definition of full-time work to 20 hours per week. Here's the proposal's brief description:

[A 20-hour work week] leads to equality between the sexes and means that parenting can be equally shared. It frees people up to contribute properly to their communities at the same time as making work accessible to all, even young mothers, and allows all to participate more fully in democracy. It would halve traffic and employer overheads allowing them to pay the same wages as for today's 40-hour week.

It goes on to, again very briefly, describe how this change could be cost-neutral to companies, allow for full employment, and possibly even reduce capital costs and IT expenses for workplaces (if half of a building's employees worked different days than the other half).

Now, even I know this is pie-in-the-sky thinking. Among many other stumbling blocks (like the fact that I'm not sure many - including I - want to reduce their career to only 20 hours per week), most people would probably rush to say they couldn't possibly live on half their salary, even if it meant everyone around them would then be doing the same thing. But long ago, most people worked far more than 40 hours per week too - and labor laws changed that. And we adjusted and survived as a species.

Imagine all the people. Living for today. I'm getting carried away now...thinking about a world where all people work enough (whatever exact number of hours 'enough' means), have enough time with their families and to care for their homes, contribute meaningfully to their communities, and enjoy plenty of time for personal fun. Where ESP is so common that we no longer have to fight against anything to achieve it.

You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

What Makes Parents Equally Share?

It is a joy to swap stories with another parenting couple who equally share their household, childraising and breadwinning. One of the things I like best about this exchange is that I get to find out why they are equally sharing. Every couple has a slightly different take on how they ended up where they are now.

There are those couples who vow not to become traditionalists. They enjoy bucking the status quo, and usually establish a unique way of life for themselves before they have children. When their first child comes along, they fashion a new unique life with their baby. In talking with this type of equally sharing couple, I get the sense that they want to see how far they can ride out their current lifestyle before they have to mix things up again. And that they will keep choosing something out of the ordinary.

Then there are those who say they just 'fell into it'. Often, a subconscious shift from the traditional happens for these couples when they make a specific decision about one of their jobs. For example, the father might have been laid off early in their baby's life; this crisis may have led to a prolonged paternity 'leave' in which Dad bonds so closely with his baby that he then seeks a position that allows him to stay home one day a week. These couples may have fallen into equal sharing, but most of them say they don't think they would ever want to return to their old ways. What started as a subtle unconscious shift becomes a purposeful and carefully guarded lifestyle.

And then we have the 'simple living' group. It is not uncommon for at least one of the parents in these couples to have dabbled in part-time work before having children or even before meeting. Living a balanced and serene life is highly important to these individuals, and they prioritize simplicity over the stressed-out juggling act that so many traditional couples do once they have children. It is not a big sacrifice for these couples to work less than full time, because money definitely doesn't buy their happiness.

I could go on and on. I haven't even mentioned the die-hard feminists who would be deeply unhappy in an unequal marriage. Or the made-to-be-a-father men who don't want to miss out on their children's upbringing. Or even the practical couple who realizes that it simply makes the most sense for them to equally share their family - financially as well as from a balance standpoint.

As for me and for Marc, we fit a few of the descriptions above. Marc definitely values simplicity and balance. He did not fall into equal sharing; he sought it out quite deliberately. My reasons include a bit of feminist 'fairness' mixed with a deep desire to literally share my family with my partner with everyday intimacy.

Lots of different couples practice equally shared parenting. What makes you equally share? Or if you don't do so today, what would make you want to move in this direction?

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