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

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.


Blogger Amanda Shankle-Knowlton said...

I think a factor in why it is so hard for people like the wife in this article to let go of this task is that the wife is aware that people will judge her for the finished product more than her husband will be. I am as enlightened as they come, but when I see photographs of children, I assume that the mother was the one responsible for it (a terrible cycle, I know). It's why I'm more concerned that my daughter shows up with clean clothes and a full stomach to daycare than I am with whether my lawn gets mowed or not. If my kid is fussy and dirty, I feel like I'm the one that is judged by outsiders more than my husband is judged, so I take ownership of that task. If my lawn doesn't get mowed and there are leaves piled everywhere in my yard, I feel like my neighbors will assume it is was my husband's failing rather than mine, so I don't really sweat that as much. I'm not saying it is right, but I think it has a lot to do with what we see as the most important tasks, and why the household division of labor stays so tied to gender.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

I agree! Societal expectations have a way of influencing how much we're invested in a particular task. As you say - a terrible cycle.

I've been thinking about this lately, and wondering how ESP couples can very consciously own those jobs they agree to do but that reflect on the opposite gender if not done right. I'll get my thoughts in a post soon - still mulling. Any ideas?

Thanks for writing. Happy New Year!

4:47 PM  
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