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

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Breastfeeding and Sharing: The Authorities Weigh In

I'm not sure if all the recent discussion of breastfeeding had anything to do with it, but the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, the La Leche League International, the International Lactation Consultant Association and the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action have gotten together to issue an official statement entitled Breastfeeding and the Equal Sharing of Responsibilities Between Women and Men.

I'm so happy to see such an issue addressed by the foremost advocates of breastfeeding. This means that ESP is really being considered as a major way of life - something that these groups realize could bump up against mom-centric feeding preferences and a topic that needs attention.

The statement is short, less than 2 printed pages. It starts by acknowledging the challenge of breastfeeding for couples who strive for gender equality. So far, so good. The rest of the document, however, I found to be...well...a bit condescending of the true value of equal sharing. "It makes good sense to share the responsibility of assuring that women can succeed at breastfeeding," is their answer to how gender equality should be approached in the early days of parenthood. "For most mothers, equal sharing of the work within the household is a dream, not a reality." Ah, yes, ESP is next to impossible, so let's just move on. "There are many fathers who take care of their newly-born and older children, but they are still a minority." I'm starting to get annoyed now; do these statements (fact or not) mean that we shouldn't bother with the issue for those fathers who do want to care for their own kids?

I realize that these organizations are taking a global view, literally speaking for all people in all countries - poor, wealthy, industrialized, third-world.

But it gets worse.

The paper then focuses for three paragraphs on reproduction itself, and how women are uniquely able to bear children. Duh. The gist here is that women should be supported to carry this physical burden within an enabling environment. Finally, they get to breastfeeding itself. They slam any "technology" that enables parents to utilize formula or pumped milk for situations that are anything less than life-saving. "The existence of new techniques must not be allowed to de-value, or worse, to erase, the breastfeeding lore that mothers and grandmothers pass to their daughters."

We're avoiding pumps and even a drop of formula because it's our duty to pass on the lore of breastfeeding? That's the best they can do? What about starting the lore of equal sharing - two parents becoming fully capable and intimately involved in caring for their newborn from Day 1? I know, I know. Breastfeeding is not the crux of ESP. ESP doesn't require, by any stretch of the imagination, equally sharing the feeding duties at any point. Plenty of ESP moms exclusively breastfeed their children for long periods of time. But this statement really irks me nonetheless.

The last paragraphs read more pleasantly. Here, the sentiment is that dads can take primary responsibility for other tasks if they want to even out the overall childcare duties, and can take the lead on 'complementary feeding' (solids) after their babies are 6 months old. And that equal sharing means fairness and respect, and meeting everyone's needs.

What do you think of the advice of these authorities?

For another view, check out Judith Warner's column from last Friday - she advocates total destruction of breast pumps (not for lore-preservation, but because she thinks they are torture devices) and liberally supplementing breastfeeding with formula to make mothers' lives easier.


Blogger mojoarizona said...

Breastfeeding, like pregnancy, is a child care responsibility that only a woman can provide, unless you know of a lactating father? Why should a child be deprived of the health and bonding benefits of nursing so that a father can feel "equal"? There are many things a father can do that is geared toward paternal influence as the child grows,such as bathing, changing,playing.Parenting should be a 100% shared endeavor AFTER the child is weaned. A year or so of nursing is an honor for a mom and leads to a healthy and secure baby. Surely dad can be supportive of this special time in a mom and infant's new life? Let's not throw the baby out with the bath, this is such a silly thing to nit pick about. Men CANNOT nurse, next, we will be doing invitro on men, oh, wait, didn't Arnold already do that in a movie?

5:11 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Hi, mojoarizona - thanks for writing. We can agree that directly feeding a baby via the breast is a female-only activity. And I will also agree that it would be folly to attempt equality for the pure sake of equality - so to forego breastfeeding for half the feedings JUST so a father can be equally involved in this activity.

But I was bothered by the authorities' statement because it assumes that the sum total of benefits from direct breastfeeding (no pumping, no formula) is obviously greater than the sum total of benefits from ANY other option.

To me, every couple should have complete social 'permission' to make the right choice for them and for their baby - and not be told that there is one right way (which comes with its own sacrifices - such as not involving a father in this once-in-a-lifetime period of intense round-the-clock feeding, not sharing the load more evenly to give a mother a better shot at adequate sleep, not allowing both parents to meet the needs of their careers re parental leaves while still giving their baby all the care he needs, etc.).

To me, personally, the inconvenience and 'unnaturalness' of pumping more than made up for the benefits of having an equal partner in the trenches with me from the early months on. It was a wise choice for our marriage, for my health and well-being, for Marc's bonding, for our jobs, and for our children who both got to establish intimate and nourishing relationships with both parents from the very start of their lives. I would not have wanted to wait until I had stopped breastfeeding to begin to share all of the care that surrounds feeding, although I fully appreciate others' solutions to this situation (including, as you point out, involving fathers in all the other tasks surrounding early childcare). I would argue, however, that a 'year or so' of equal sharing also leads to a health and secure baby!

That said, I DO wish Marc could have nursed!

8:37 AM  
Anonymous Tasmiya said...

I have only recently been introduced to the concept of ESP (through this blog, actually) and am fascinated!

I don't think that ESP is too difficult to work out but I do feel as though this is something that only people in middle to high income ranges can attain. The negotiating work hours and for a little less pay is only really doable if one is in a position of bargaining and can afford to have their salary reduced.

Another thing that sort of bugs me about ESP (and maybe I'm not totally "getting it") is the idea that every single aspect of parenting needs to be split 50/50. The breastfeeding thing for starters. I would think that the aim is to get 50/50 participation over the course of time rather than 50/50 in every activity.

I did enjoy the article you linked to and I think (to me anyway) that this paragraph

Shared responsibility does not mean that a father must feed his baby half the time. Instead, equitable and reciprocal responsibility can be practised by a father’s taking primary responsibility for another task, such as bathing, dressing, massaging or amusing his baby, or bringing food and drink to the mother while she feeds the baby.seems like equally sharing responsibility in caring for the baby.

My husband bathed my son when he woke early in the morning, played with him and made him laugh and allowed me some valuable sleep-in time. He didn't wake up for the night time feeds so this was his way of making it up to me. I didn't count the hours that he slept or the hours I didn't sleep but it worked very well for us.

BTW - am seriously considering asking my husband to work 4 days a week so I can go back to more hours at work.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Welcome! Let me be the first to clarify that ESP absolutely does NOT mean splitting every activity 50/50. This is by far the most common misconception about this lifestyle. ESP couples sometimes truly desire to split a given task - because they both want to participate meaningfully in it as equals and not miss out - but most tasks aren't split like this. The goal of ESP is an equal partnership and balanced lives for both partners. So, both partners aim for lives that allow them enough time and involvement in all of what makes up their lives together - so approximately equal time spent doing childcare activities (not EACH activity however), housework, career work, and having time for their own recreation. This post on breastfeeding is, for me, primarily about the idea that a couple who truly desires to share early infant feeding could feel fantastic about doing so.

As for the income question, it does seem at first glance that only those with mid-high income could afford to reduce their salaries a bit to create balanced lives. BUT, we have met many ESP couples who don't fit this description - in fact, they live on very little income and ramp down their expenses to the bare minimum because they so value time over money. One car, no car, no outside childcare expenses, etc. And many actually give up high-earning careers that don't allow balance. Most work slightly reduced hour (so, like us, around 32 hours/week) although others work full-time. That said, we think of ESP as somewhere in between a dual income family that requires full-time childcare and a one-income, SAHM family that completely sacrifices one income. Each family has to do its own math to determine the true cost of any given family model, but ESP can actually net MORE money than even two standard earner jobs depending on how it might reduce childcare expenses. This lifestyle, however, is not about maximizing any person's income, but rather optimizing both partners lives. As Marc likes to say, we're not 'selling' the cheapest option here!

It sounds like you have a great foundation in your marriage for equal sharing, and it can be exciting to contemplate how your lives might change if your husband could reduce his work hours to equalize yours - and give you both intimacy-producing solo-parenting time with your son!

All the best to you both!

7:43 PM  
Blogger aztec-rose said...

I agree Amy with your earlier thread that choice and flexibility is the key in the breastfeeding debate. Yes, I understand that breast is best, but I have met so many women including myself found some difficulties breastfeeding.
In my case the pump saved my life, because it kept the milk supply going until I finally was able to get my baby to latch 6 weeks after birth. As my baby could then latch onto a breast and a bottle - my partner and I alternated between both. As I said, a flexible and supportive attitude helps when difficulties arise with breasfeeding - or birth for that matter.

5:42 AM  

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