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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Saturday, October 31, 2009

ESP Book Spotlight: Remodeling Motherhood

We have been anticipating a new book called This Is Not How I Thought It Would Be: Remodeling Motherhood to Get the Lives We Want Today by Kristin Maschka for many months. Having had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Kristin's manuscript, we knew it was going to be an empowering and very ESP-centric book. And we're happy to announce that it was released earlier this month.

Remodeling Motherhood is Kristin's own personal story of transforming her marriage from a traditional SAHM/working dad union to an ESP partnership - and how the result has given both her and her husband, David, lives that now feel so right. It is the first book we know of that describes this journey. We've gotten to know Kristin (who is a former president of Mothers & More) through emails over the past year, and she is a solid believer in equally shared parenting who walks the walk . To highlight her terrific book, we sent her a few questions so that you could begin to know her as well. Take it away, Kristin....

1. We love your story because you and David took on a world of gender assumptions about marriage and parenting and re-wrote your own rules instead. What do you think was the hardest 'rule' for each of you to re-write?

I think the hardest to rewrite were the unwritten rules that "Mothers are responsible for and best at family; Fathers are clueless" so that we could share responsibility for family work. We couldn't seem to share the responsibility even though we wanted to. Over time we realized that we struggled because we were also dealing with so many other unwritten rules in other areas - like his job being 60 hours a week, and an assumption that caring for family didn't take any time, and my feeling that my identity was wrapped up in being a "good mother." We had to remodel everything else to get at this universal challenge for couples around truly sharing family responsibilities.

When I asked David, he said that the hardest thing for him was that he didn't understand why I was so unhappy in the role of being at home and not employed. Our experiences were so vastly different when our daughter, Kate, was born - he continued his job and mine stopped - that his view at that time was that what I was doing was less stressful than what he was doing. He felt like it was a gift he was giving to me and our family, me not having to go into the workforce to deal with difficult people and to have the stress of making money and keeping a job . So when I resented him for our situation he was confused and frustrated. In hindsight he says the unwritten rule at work was his assumption that caring for family wasn't really hard work, wasn't as stressful or demanding as employment. So he thought at first, what is wrong with Kristin? He was surprised to learn that other women often have the same reaction, and that made him feel better about us because it wasn't just us or just Kristin struggling with this issue.

2. Since writing This Is Not How I Thought It Would Be, how have you and David continued to stay the course of equality and balanced lives? What has been, or continues to be, the most difficult part for each of you?

We both agree that what continues to be the hardest part is staying on top of changes in our relationship with each other and the way we share the family work week to week and month to month. We still do regular checkups - How are we feeling about our relationship? How are we feeling about how the family work is being handled? And when we face a big change, like we did recently when I took a new job, we try to be proactive about talking about what that means for sharing family responsibilities. Given the recession, I think we are in a situation many families are finding themselves in where the mother is either re-entering or increasing paid work, and the father is facing either a work slow-down or even a layoff. In our case, because we've been working hard on these conversations for years, this has been an easier transition for us than it might be for other couples. But it's still really hard both to make time for those conversations and to have them without blaming each other and pointing fingers.

For me another hard part continues to be fighting back any guilt I have for not spending more time with our daughter, for not picking her up at school every day at 3 pm like my own mother did. Even when she's spending tons of time with her grandparents and with David, I fight this assumption that it's only time with me that really counts because I'm the "mom." David doesn't share the guilt, doesn't get why I feel guilty, and wishes I would just get over it - but I'm the one who's absorbed the assumptions about what a "good mother" does and they don't disappear easily.

3. How do you think that Kate has benefited from your choice to parent her together? Do you think there are any pitfalls for children whose parents make this choice?

Kate has benefitted most by having a richer relationship with her father, and also by becoming aware of subconscious assumptions about mothers and fathers at an early age. Shortly before I finished the book she was watching TV one morning and shouted at me to come and see something. She rewound the TV and showed me a commercial for juice that featured a mother and child and a voiceover about "Motherhood means giving 100 percent." She stopped it and said, "Do you see that, Mommy? They think mommies are the only ones who take care of kids, but that's not true!"

I think the only possible pitfall for children is how stressful it can be for mothers and fathers as individuals and as couples when they face barriers to sharing family and parenting responsibilities, barriers like their jobs or assumptions from family and friends .

4. Do you see this newly-remodeled option for motherhood and fatherhood (what we've termed equally shared parenting) as a true possibility for all parents who desire it? Do you feel the barriers are more personal (such as being able to let go or re-prioritize) or external (such as those involving workplace, laws, childcare options)?

I think it is a true possibility for all parents because I think what we're really aiming for is to share the RESPONSIBILITY, not necessarily to share all the tasks 50/50. There are plenty of reasons couples might not want or be able to share all the family tasks 50/50, but I think with some hard work, and some intentional efforts to give fathers in particular lots of opportunities for practice and to help mothers "let go" sometimes, parents can make lots of progress toward sharing the responsibility.

There are both personal and external barriers to really living our lives as if we truly believed "Mothers and fathers share the responsibility and are equally capable of caring for children and home." That's why I think so many of us find ourselves asking, "Why can't we share the family work even though we want to?" On the personal side, it's really hard to recognize or admit that most of us still harbor subconscious assumptions like "Mothers are responsible for family." It took a crunchy waffle to make me see it. One morning, as my husband and I rushed through the morning routine to get our daughter to preschool, I asked him to make her a waffle. When the wailing started, I returned to the kitchen, picked up the toaster waffle, and promptly scolded my husband. "Of course she won't eat that. It's crunchy from the toaster!" For at least a year, I'd been microwaving the toaster waffles every morning so they would be soft. In that moment, it dawned on me that we did have a problem - and I was part of it. I was the only one who knew crunchy waffles were unacceptable because I was the only one who'd been preparing them. Yet I was blaming David for toasting a toaster waffle!

Subconsciously anyway, I believed "Mothers are responsible for family" so I just did everything and with so much practice, I was better at everything. Kate depended on me. David knew I would do everything and wasn't even sure he knew what "everything" was. And I silently, and sometimes not so silently, resented being responsible for everything. I felt resentment about doing it all, but because I was living up to that "good mother" ideal, I also felt a pleasant feeling of superiority from being better at it.

One of the reasons we still harbor these assumptions personally is that the world around us tends to reinforce them. For example, when in-laws and friends always talk to mom about things like playdates or parenting advice. Or when people refer to fathers as "babysitting" their own kids. Underneath those things is the assumption that mothers are responsible for kids. Another external barrier for us was that my husband was working 60-70 hour weeks when our daughter was born and my proposal to go part-time got turned down. It took us years to reshape our employment in a way that even gave us the time to share the family work and our employment the way we wanted. Because the barriers are both personal and external, I think mothers and fathers make the most progress when they remodel the whole thing together, rather than remodeling being a solo project for the mother.

5. What one (or two or three) thing(s) would you advise new mothers and fathers to think about as they piece together their lives?

Keep in mind that these days fathers are pretty much in the same boat as mothers. They are feeling just as much work-life conflict. In trying to be involved fathers, they face a host of cultural assumptions to the contrary. So change the conversation by stopping the blame game and help each other see the real barriers - both personal and external - keeping you both from the lives you want.

Be proactive and explicit about sharing responsibility for family work. Get a list of all the work it takes to maintain family and home, there's one on my website at http://www.remodelingmotherhood.com/ under Remodeling Tools. Using an objective list to support regular conversations about "who's doing what at home" helps make it less about pointing fingers and more about "What's the best way for us to get all this done well?"

Keep at it. You are pioneers and this remodeling doesn't happen overnight. My husband and I tackled this over a seven year period, and at that point we renewed our wedding vows as a way of celebrating how far we'd come and the realization that our marriage with our daughter was fundamentally a new and different contract that our marriage before she arrived.

6. Finally, what is your hope, as you send your book out into the world?

I hope this book opens up lots of conversations: among mothers with other mothers, among couples at their kitchen tables, and among mothers and fathers with society about what we need to live the lives that are best for ourselves and our families. And I hope it gives mothers and fathers both the understanding and the tools they need to take on their own remodeling projects.

It's Amy again. Isn't she wonderful? I highly recommend Remodeling Motherhood and will be emphatically adding it to our Resources page. Oh, and if you are in the Boston/Worcester area, please join Marc and myself at Kristin's upcoming book event at Tatnuck Booksellers in Westborough, MA on Friday November 13th at 7-9pm. Click here for a description of the event.

Thank you, Kristin, for a fantastic step forward in the global equally shared parenting discussion.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Proof Positive

Continuing from my last post on the Shriver Report, I'd like to focus on its essay by sociologist Michael Kimmel - a work of pure ESP gold. The essay, entitled Has a Man's World Become a Woman's Nation?, starts with a description of how women's increasing equality in the workplace and at home has led to different reactions from different types of men.

Some men, Kimmel explains, view women's expanding roles as an invasion of their own space and God-given rights. Others, the 'masculinists,' long for a world where men are men and women are women, and focus on the (very small) differences between the genders rather than all the characteristics and abilities that we share. A third subset considers fatherhood to be political; these men speak of fighting bitter custody battles to retain equal rights to their children, and of the effect of a fatherless America on crime. Each of these rather stereotypical male models actually represents only a small population of American men, says Kimmel.

The final type of evolving man that Kimmel describes is the largest sector of all. He is someone who quietly accepts the equality of women and ends up joyfully realizing how evolving gender roles can benefit his life as much as they can benefit his wife's. He supports wage equality, comparable worth, women's candidacies for public office, and dual-career families. To this male subtype, women's equality is just what is fair and it doesn't threaten his value as a man. As Kimmel says, even though we still have a long way to go to get to true equality, "without fanfare or struggle, [these men] drifted into more egalitarian relationships because they love their wives, partners, and children."

The last third of Kimmel's essay is devoted to describing what happens to men (and women and children) in egalitarian relationships. This is the really good stuff! "...when men do share housework as well as child care, the payoff is significant," says Kimmel. Research shows that, in egalitarian relationships:
  • Children are less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, less likely to be put on prescription medication, and less likely to see a child psychologist for behavioral problems.
  • Children have lower rates of absenteeism and higher school achievement scores.
  • Children get along better with their peers and have more friends if they do housework with their fathers, and they show more positive behaviors. That's because men who take on domestic work teach children cooperation and democratic family values.
  • Wives are happier, regardless of class/race/ethnicity, reporting the highest levels of marital satisfaction and lowest rates of depression, and are less likely to see therapists or take prescription medication.
  • Wives are more likely to stay fit.
  • Husbands are physically healthier - they smoke less, drink less, take recreational drugs less often. They are more likely to stay in shape and visit their doctors for routine screenings. They are less likely to end up in emergency rooms or miss work due to illness.
  • Husbands are less often diagnosed with depression, see therapists or take prescription medication. They report higher levels of marital satisfaction. And they live longer.
  • Couples have more sex.

Anybody out there really want to pass this up?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Parent Excuse

The dynamic is familiar. Not the MommyWars but rather the battle cry of the childless against parents in the workplace. We can easily imagine a non-parent coworker rolling his eyes after hearing yet another reason why Mom or Dad has to leave early or arrive late to care for a child.

One such woman decided to capitalize on these opportunities by supplying a kit that helps create the illusion at the office of being a parent. Just set up your cube with the supplied artwork, a framed photo, or even a manufactured doctor's note and you have your ticket to head to the gym early, sleep in after a long night, or refuse to travel, yet again. This entrepreneur wisely does not accentuate the downside of such behavior - namely, lower pay (at least for mothers).

The Working Parents blog at BusinessWeek points out that moms looking for work get offered salaries $11,000 less than equally qualified childless female applicants. This discrepancy does not exist for fathers compared to childless men and, as a result, shows how our culture plays a role in nudging women to opt out of the workforce. Given the environment we currently work in, it takes extra effort to maintain equivalent careers for both partners.

If men decide to take a portion of the baby-punch on their careers, we might finally be able to free women to dedicate a bit more time and energy toward maintaining their professional passions (in equal step with men). Having two people working together to solve the family financial puzzle goes a long way to preserving the most important parts of both childcare and aspirations outside the home for each parent.

Oh, and I hope we reach the day when being a parent isn't the only excuse for not subscribing to overwork. Every one of us, whether childfree or the parent of 3 year old triplets, has valid reasons for being somewhere other than work - perhaps caring for other relatives, going back to school, and yes...simply having a fun and balanced life.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Happiness Realized

It has been an exciting week for the dissection of women's happiness. First, the data on women's supposed declining happiness since 1972, discussed in my most recent post. And now the Shriver Report. The latter is a 400+ page report released by the Center for American Progress, together with Maria Shriver, and is also titled A Woman's Nation Changes Everything. It examines women's progress toward becoming (finally!) 50% of the American workforce - and the implications of reaching this momentous tipping point.

I haven't read the bulk of the Shriver Report yet, but two of its essays caught my eye immediately and I read (more like devoured) them a couple of days ago. One is marriage historian Stephanie Coontz's short essay, entitled Sharing the Load. She sets the stage for ESP as a highly satisfying way of life by stating: "Educated couples, especially those with egalitarian gender views, report the highest marital quality of all." And then she tells us, "We are no longer in the thrall of the feminine mystique, but two other mystiques continue to impede our progress."

The first she calls the 'masculine mystique,' which is the cultural pull some men feel to resist sharing household chores or doing 'women's work' and to feel threatened by successful and well-paid working women. Coontz tells us that men who embody this mystique suffer the most when they lose their jobs or their wives' salaries surpass their own. And she warns that couples who start out as dual earners but then adopt less egalitarian views over time become "psychologically vulnerable in their marriages."

I love this warning. It tells us to stay alert, to pay attention to what is happening (without any malice or forethought) in our relationships lest we find ourselves shifting from an equal to unequal state over time. This is why Marc and I (and all ESP couples) find it so important to talk and talk together about staying the course - and why these conversations are anything but the picky scorekeeping that ESP naysayers love to claim our beloved lifestyle means. A life examined is a life in which we have a chance at creating our own happiness together.

The second mystique mentioned by Coontz is the 'career mystique.' It tricks us into thinking that successful careers take 100% of our time and energy in our prime adult years, and that to have one of these careers means turning over the care of our children to someone else (such as our spouse). "Finding creative ways to allow men and women to integrate, combine, and sometimes alternate their responsibilities to work and to family coud be the single most effective "pro-marriage" program of the 21st century," she says. Oh, YES! She ends by listing four ways in which our government, employers and society can help realize this dream, but of course we are calling on all of you to take up the personal side of the work too.

The other eye-catching essay in the Shriver Report is by sociologist and masculity expert Michael Kimmel. And lest this post go on and on and on, I will save my comments on the Kimmel essay for my next visit to the keyboard. I'll just say here that it's a beauty - an extraordinary proof that ESP brings happiness to both women and men.

Please read both essays if you have a moment, and let me know what you think. Judith Warner did, as you can read in today's NY Times Domestic Disturbances blog. Her conclusion: When We're Equal, We'll Be Happy.

Oh, YES!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Happiness Denied

Over at The Huffington Post, author and personal-strength guru Marcus Buckingham has been running a series of posts on his upcoming book, Find Your Strongest Life. I was intrigued by the premise of the first post: women's happiness has been in a steady decline for many decades.

Sounds crazy, huh? After all, back in the 1960s women led lives of overt female oppression - stuck at home as men's servants, raising their kids and scrubbing their floors - as described by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. How could we be less happy now that we have so many more options, and now that, in many fields, we are heading to college more often than men and often earning more than our partners? Any minute, statistics are expected to reveal that more women than men are in the workforce. Even at home, things should be better now than in the 1950s - we've got the microwave, the dishwasher, the food processor, and all manner of other supposed time-saving devices and conveniences. Never mind the Internet.

Buckingham offers up interesting data from 1972 to the present as proof of his premise, and then discusses (and debunks) several theories about why women are now less happy (while men's happiness has actually increased). And why individual women tend to grow less happy as they age. He says the trend is explained not by women working longer hours than men (in general, they don't), nor by women doing more household chores than men (they still do, but this difference is getting smaller - not bigger). He suggests, instead, that the trends are there because women are generally harder on themselves than men - and that when they take on more and more roles (homemaker, breadwinner, parent, community volunteer, amateur cheesemaker, school committee candidate), they feel miserable trying to balance their lives and be good enough at each role.

His solution is to throw balance out the window. Oh no, here we go again - 'balance' as a dirty word. But wait. I read further and notice that symantics are getting in the way. Buckingham doesn't like the kind of balance that has to be one-size-fits-all, perfect, this-vs-that - a tenuous and stressful state. Neither do I. I don't choose to throw the word 'balance' away, however, but rather to define it as something much more personal and satisfying. Buckingham takes a different route to a similar idea - he uses different terminology to describe living in the moment, and living your own authentic life (not someone else's idea of what you should be doing or how much time you should be devoting to work vs home).

Several other journalists have reacted to this Huffington Post series. Here's one very good analysis of why women are less happy now - well worth the read. Here's another that's a scathing attack on the data, along with a rebuttal. I think there is a lot of truth to some aspects of the decline in female happiness, and the reasons are complex. But I don't think the main problem is our perfection tendencies. I suspect it has more to do with the fact that we are living in a culture that has stubbornly refused to catch up to our desires, and so often we find ourselves following prescribed life paths that are wholly unaligned with our hopes and dreams. As women, we've availed ourselves of all the opportunities we now have but we haven't let go of our old roles enough to enjoy the mix. And men have let us into the work world but haven't remade their definition of masculinity enough to join us on the homefront.

What to do? Buckingham doesn't venture into all the governmental or corporate policy changes that could help make it easier for every woman to be her authentic self and live in the moment. He focuses on what an individual woman can do for herself. In becoming spokespeople for equally shared parenting, we've taken a similar tact. Marc and I hope beyond anything else to give others the courage to choose the lives that fit them best with open eyes. To learn to sidestep what our society expects of us so that we can build our own ways of relating as partners, workers, parents, people. For us, that's ESP - hands down. For others, that may be a very different solution. Doing something different isn't easy. It's often really, really hard. But if it allows us to create our own personal definition of balance, it can make us truly happy - this I believe.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Challenging Dads

The premise of an NPR column this past week was that men will take on more caretaking responsibilities when society both expects it and demands it. Namely, when the pediatrician, teacher, and other touchpoints in a parent's world start treating men as fully capable and involved fathers. Men will then feel society's stare of judgment and will be shamed, or at least lulled, into changing their ways.

I enjoyed the author's perspective and would love to embrace this "new" society but I'm not sure I can agree with the conclusion. Yes, I believe parenting roles are shifting and people are noticing but I don't think it's because president Obama is asking dads to do their fair share or because a nurse looked at Dad, not Mom, when sending instructions home. Instead, I suspect that society is changing "one individual decision at a time." Despite the lack of cultural support to do so, men (and women) are choosing differently from previous generations. Neither want to be pigeon-holed into roles that rob them of their ability to experience the bounty of parenthood whether it's pursuing a career, bonding with their children, caring for their home, or simply enjoying life.

The author challenges men to "step up" but I prefer to think a "step back" is in order. Let's engage our partners to structure our lives in a way that offers a sustainable chance at happiness for both. Imploring men to do more seems a little short-sighted given the complexity of the roles we have all assumed in recent decades.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Partner Swap

An interesting experiment is going on over at Slate. Named Freaky Fortnight, it involves a husband and wife swapping roles for 2 weeks. Husband Michael Agger works full-time at Slate itself, and his wife Susan Burton stays at home and does part-time freelance writing in between caring for their two sons, ages 1 and 4.

The experiment involves Susan literally stepping into Michael's job - commuting to his office, attending his meetings, and doing the writing and editing he would normally do. And Michael taking care of the kids and home. At first, I was worried that this was a gimmick a bit like those wacky ESP reality switches that were commissioned awhile back for The Guardian and The Independent. But, thankfully, it isn't.

Both Susan and Michael are wonderful writers, so the writing is thoughtful and wry. Neither is bent on playing out any bumbling stereotype - the dumb wife who can't handle the work world or the stupid husband who can't manage to feed the kids and get them dressed. Both have moments throughout their days when they realize little poignancies. Susan lovingly steps inside her husband's head as she sits in his office chair and tries not to rearrange his desk. Michael gets in-the-moment with his kids - able to be there for the tiniest discoveries such as a new word one of them learns on a particular day. They appreciate the difficulties of each other's usual roles, and each finds out new strengths of his/her partner.

I'm really enjoying Freaky Fortnight (entries are posted for the first week so far). Unlike those other swaps, this one both fully acknowledges, and also manages to get past, the unfair expectations that anyone can plop themselves into a new role and instantly excel. That's not what Freaky Fortnight is about. It's about sharing and intimacy and partnership. Walking in each other's shoes.

Just one of the perks that ESP offers every day.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

An Equal Future

Over in the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is tackling the issue of making sure that there are adequate numbers of skilled workers available to meet the demand as more people reach the standard retirement age of 65. Of course, this predicament is not unique to the UK - there are similar concerns in the US and elsewhere. However, I find it refreshing to hear public discourse on the topic.

I like the concept of companies tweaking the "standard" work week to attract and retain skilled employees. Maybe baby-boomers will want to stay in a workforce that allows for more flexibility while encouraging meaningful contributions. Perhaps caregivers, parents and down-shifters would like the same options? I see potential for creating a vibrant, dedicated, flexible workforce comprised of all types of adults that companies could embrace.

The Guardian (UK) ran a column recently outlining the scope of work for the EHRC. Here are some of its goals:

"Britain cannot afford to go on asking people to fit their families around the demands of ever-more intense 24/7 global competition, and marginalising or rejecting workers who fail to fit into traditional and inflexible working arrangements."

"As part of the first phase of Working Better, which focused on families, we found that today's parents want to share work and family more equally, and that there is extensive unmet demand from fathers for more leave with their children."

"We have proposed the current model be replaced with a world-class policy of gender-neutral parental leave by 2020."

"The challenge for government and for employers is to take advantage of these changes by showing a real commitment to flexible working. Only then will we be able to capitalise on the full diversity of talent available to us in 21st-century Britain."

The UK is apparently getting comfortable with the discussion of real, normal, flexible workplaces. And I am encouraged that the policies being discussed are often without reference to gender or parental status. I firmly believe it is possible to establish a workforce that can meet both the demands of business and the desires of all workers.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Unhealthy Kids? Blame Mom, of Course

The BBC News aired a segment on Monday that examined data from an Institute of Child Health study of 5-year old children. The study looked at the eating habits and physical activity level of 12,500+ kids, breaking them into those with stay-at-home mothers and those whose moms worked at least part-time. The findings? Working moms make kids junk food snackers and couch potatoes. The study's lead author hypothesizes that working moms don't have as much time as SAHMs to devote to providing healthy snacks and limiting TV watching.

What about the dads? The researchers wave them away as background noise. They didn't examine men's work hours because these haven't seemed to change whereas women's work hours have. This argument doesn't make much sense to me, unless they really mean that they could not find a large enough cohort of stay-at-home dads to include in the study.

But the bigger issue is why this kind of research continues to be conducted and then promoted as 'blame the moms' fodder. Father employment levels may not have changed as much as mother employment varies, but father involvement sure has changed. And what if parental involvement counts more than a 'yes/no' response to a "Do you work?" question?

Parents who haven't got time, or energy, or knowledge, or inclination, to care what their children are eating or doing will probably raise children who eat more chips and log more tube time. Parents who have chosen to balance their lives (regardless of whether this includes working) and care about these issues will take the steps to teach their kids to lead healthy and active lives. With ESP, for example, both parents have plenty of time with their kids (together at least as much as a SAHP would have, in most cases), and they are both equally competent to handle the nutrition and exercise issue every day.

Can we stop blaming the moms and ignoring the dads?

Hat tip to Melissa for sharing this news.

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