ESP Book Review: An Unconventional Family
It's once again time for one of our embarrassingly belated book reviews! While we're dedicated to staying up on what's currently being printed that relates to equally shared parenting, we often take our sweet time getting around to reading some of the classics. One of these is Sandra Lipsitz Bem's An Unconventional Family, published in 1998 by Yale University Press.
Dr. Bem is a professor of psychology, women's studies, and lesbian, bisexual and gay studies at Cornell University. An Unconventional Family is her personal story - her in-depth description of attempting to raise her two children in a gender neutral way with her then-husband, Daryl Bem. The book describes their courtship and the rules they set up for their marriage, one that they hoped would be fully egalitarian, and for instilling feminist values and gender/sexual preference-neutral views in their children.
The book is fascinating, especially the chapters on Egalitarian Partnering and Feminist Child-Rearing. The end chapters evaluating their success are also very enlightening, and include interviews with each of their grown children. And, to us specifically, Dr. Bem's vivid description of how the couple took their messages out into the world via lectures and papers really hit home - they are our foreparents in wanting to tell the world about ESP!
The Bems approached ESP from a decidedly feminist point of view - it's fair, it's right, it's how the world should be. We approach ESP differently, although we certainly believe it is fair and right; we are motivated primarily by how it simply allows us both to live our best lives. And the Bems' equality motives go beyond just ESP into gender neutrality (a stance definitely taken by a subgroup of ESP families). But despite these differences, we heartily recommend reading An Unconventional Family and have added it to our list of Resources.
Now you might have noticed a small detail in the words above. That detail is the 'then' before 'husband.' Yes, sadly, the Bems are no longer married. The book covers why in wonderful detail, and we found their story of separation to be a huge warning to us - and to every ESP couple.
Both Sandra Bem and Daryl Bem (in an epilogue) agree that they started out marriage with full equality. When their children were young, they parented equally and all was well. But they didn't appreciate how they needed to guard this equality with vigilence, and they slowly arched towards Sandra as the primary parent over time. The problem got worse during their children's teenage years, with Sandra gravitating toward the emotional nurturing and Daryl deferring to Sandra's accumulating 'expertise.' Daryl didn't stand up for his co-parent rights; Sandra didn't wait for him to exert them. As Sandra writes, "Over time, this interaction process transformed our family. No longer were we two reasonable happy and well-functioning, even if overlygendered, little subunits. Instead we were a mother-and-kids subunit struggling, sometimes well and sometimes not so well, with problems that required attention, and a husband-and-wife subunit still functioning adequately on the surface but with a new estrangement festering below." Sandra and Daryl, whose marriage was defined by equality, no longer had this core element in their relationship.
An Unconventional Family is an interesting study in gender bending for the non-ESP reader. For the ESP reader, however, it is a wake up call to stay on track with equality. Sandra and Daryl both say that they would not have partnered any other way, even if they had it all to do over. But their experience, so well detailed for us in this important book, can help the rest of us remember that the work of ESP doesn't end after a few years of successful childraising. Like anything different and worthy, ESP must be tended at each stage of the children's and parents' lives.
Thank you, Sandra and Daryl, for your wisdom and your story.