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Careful What You Wish For
That's the warning sent out to men by Sasha Brown-Worsham on Babble a couple of weeks ago. She is speaking to any man who says he would like the opportunity to swap places with his stay-at-home wife. As it turns out, her husband gets laid-off and they get to experience a partial role reversal for 5 weeks. The article covers much of the expected struggles that he faces and does a great job highlighting some of the more difficult aspects of parenting young children.
The author's husband was a motivated father who wanted to be home and to succeed. He brought creativity and energy to the experience but he never got to the same level of competence as his wife. Maybe this was because she remained so available to rescue him.
Regardless, the article does a tremendous job framing up some of the challenges of traditional arrangements, namely, that specializing in either childraising or breadwinning leaves a lot of potential joy on the table from the minimized domain.
As commenters weighed in on the piece it struck me that nobody even referred to my favorite line, which happened to be the last sentence, "And somehow amidst this terrifying economic crisis we have been given a gift we never would have received otherwise: true equality."
Hopefully, other couples given this opportunity will be inspired to reach for this kind of lifestyle beyond the trial period. It's possible, sustainable, and worth the effort.
Babble Spotlights ESP
Welcome, Babble readers!
We're thrilled to be featured today on Babble, the hip online parenting magazine we've been long impressed is actually written for both parents. Author Amy Kuras rounds up seven tips for achieving equally shared parenting and covers key concepts such as:
- ESP is not about task division. It isn't about getting lazy men to do more around the house. It's about giving both partners a chance at a happy, balanced life.
- Flexible work schedules, which are necessary to achieve ESP for most families, are possible even in times of national economic stress. Keeping the brightest and best workers by offering them the flexibility they need can be a bargain to employers compared to letting them go, recruiting and training others, and letting those go when they don't perform as well.
- For ESP couples, maximal income is far less important than optimizing their lives as parents, partners and individuals. Work fits into their lives, rather than the reverse, and they are willing to make the sometimes-tough changes needed to live by their principles.
- Two fully competent parents at home is a beautiful thing! For the kids, for the parent who can take a break from the action without preparing for her/his absence, and for the parent who knows he/she can handle what comes along - and even relish it.
- Communication is king in ESP families. All couples fight or disagree (and that definitely includes us!), but all the communication that ESP couples tend to build into their daily lives may prepare us for more effective problem solving together. Just a theory, but it makes sense.
- The core of ESP is a team mentality. A happy partner is your best shot at a happy partnership...and that's why we're doing this marriage thing together in the first place.
Hearty applause to Amy Kuras for hitting the ESP highlights so well. Choosing a life of equally shared parenting is not always easy, but it is nice to read in Babble a bit about why it's so worthwhile.
Book Review: Couples, Gender, and Power
I just finished reading the new book Couples, Gender, and Power, edited by Carmen Knudson-Martin (Professor of Marital and Family Therapy at Loma Linda University) and Anne Rankin Mahoney (Professor Emerita of Sociology at University of Denver). The book is an academic text that pulls together a group of sociological studies to provide guidance to marriage counselors and others who work with couples so that they can think in fresh ways about relationship issues that might be arising from power differences based on gender. Each chapter in Couples, Gender, and Power examines a new sub-topic or population of couples (e.g., young American marrieds, same-sex couples, couples in Singapore (a culture that emphasizes collective rather than independent goals), African American couples, first-generation immigrant couples, couples in Iran (patriarchal society). And each is packed with interesting ideas. I will take up just a few of the book's key points in this post. But if the overall topic interests you, I urge you to get a copy! Couples, Gender, and Power is a welcome addition to our Resources page - an extremely useful compendium of the social research on ESP to date.
Okay, on with my thoughts on some of the key messages....
By way of background, the authors provide evidence that gender 'norms' mess with our relationships - and we often don't notice them for what they are: limiting stereotypes we can learn to see and discard. And that classic gender roles are social constructs that result in a power difference between opposite-sex couples that can erode a relationship over time. Knudson-Martin and Mahoney point to solid data that describe egalitarian relationships as the most successful, intimate and stable. And to an imbalance of power as a motivator for both partners to hide thoughts and emotions, making intimacy difficult and lowering satisfaction.
The authors define equality as something far bigger than a couple sharing the load of dishes and laundry - and I could not agree more. Relationship equality, the authors say, has four dimensions: relative status (mutually defining what is important in your relationship), attention to the other (being emotionally present and supportive to your partner), accommodation (both partners organizing their lives around each other to an equivalent level), and well-being (sharing the burdens and supporting the well-being of each other).
Of particular interest is a chapter that describes a study of young American couples (mostly childless), and introduces the concept of the myth of equality. These couples all spoke of having equal relationships, but upon examination, most did not. They used words like 'give and take' to imply equality, even if one person gave more and the other took more. They spoke of having 'free choice' to each be his/her own person within the relationship, and looked upon resultant inequalities as simply arising from choice. They expressed 'all for one and one for all' as a shared belief that explained how decisions that benefited one partner more than the other were fully mutual. And they referred to themselves as 'partners' in a way that implied mutual decision making without the action behind it. All of this talk, the researchers found, acted as a symbolic representation of the couples' commitment to an equal relationship, but didn't often translate into actual equality. They called this the language of equality. I've seen plenty of this, often in reaction to media pieces about ESP, in which commenters say 'Doesn't everyone share these days? What's so special about ESP? We share everything, but it only makes sense for my wife to do the cooking because she likes it better.'
This chapter goes on to define the strategies that these equal-in-words-only couples use to deal with the reality of their inequality. Namely, they avoid the issue by:
The chapter ends by describing a way out of this myth of equality - through open negotiation, fighting (yes, although hopefully with respect), and working through power struggles rather than avoiding the issues. If a couple is willing to risk the unpleasant moments that will arise by confronting the problem, they have a chance at true equality - or at least at knowing the truth.
- rationalizing inequality as a positive ("She's better at running the house." "I don't mind doing all the laundry.")
- not examining the consequences ("We've never discussed moving, since my business is here.")
- settling for less ("I don't mind doing all the straightening up but draw the line at doing his ironing.")
- hiding the issues (e.g., through humor)
- placing responsibility for equality on the wife (e.g., by making it necessary for her to appreciate the work her husband did in order for him to keep doing it...our point exactly in Marc's previous posts on appreciation!)
Interestingly, a study of Singaporean couples in a subsequent chapter showed a very different result. There, in a collectivist culture that discourages individual goals, dual-income couples speak of being traditional but actually act far more egalitarian. This is termed the myth of traditionalism. Why would this be? Collectivism truly is 'all for one and one for all.' In Singapore, it seems that young couples tend to marry their equals. They also highly value family needs, rather than the individual needs of one partner. And they are built for a team mentality...perfect for ESP.
Marc and I had the pleasure of meeting Drs. Knudson-Martin and Mahoney this past spring at the Council on Contemporary Families annual meeting, and were happy to hear from them that their research fully supports the ESP lifestyle. Since this time, they have started a blog, Equal Couples, and I encourage you to check it out. They are true kindred spirits in the quest for gender equality in relationships!
Countdown to January
Just a quick post with an update on our forthcoming book, Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents. The book cover is a work in progress, but we're very pleased with the cover art and hope to be able to post a copy here soon. We're now set for a January 5, 2010 release, and we already have an Amazon book page. Check it out!
Balance is Not a Four-Letter Word
You may have seen commentary lately about former General Electric CEO Jack Welch's speech to the Society of Human Resources Management at its recent annual conference. The thrice-married, family-sacrificing, career-driven Welch pontificates about the myth of 'balance' and warns women (but, somehow, not men) that taking time off to raise children will hurt their chances at top-management positions.Now, if Welch weren't so gendered in his remarks, I might find quite a bit to nod my head about in his ideas. For example, he tells the audience that, "There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences." He's right. We can't have something for nothing. If we want to devote our lives to our jobs, we can't devote them elsewhere - and vice versa. No one, ESP couples included, should think that the world will open up and hand us lives that include incompatible prizes. Welch goes on to say that taking time off for family "can offer a nice life, but the chances of going to the top on that path" are smaller. He adds: "That doesn't mean you can't have a nice career." Again, I think he's spot on. And I'd apply that same tenet to downsizing your career (not just taking time off completely). ESP couples typically choose to prioritize balanced lives - and downshift their careers by either reducing their hours or finding flexible work - rather than gun for the single goal of a superpower career or maximized paycheck. To us, it's a sacrifice well worth making.And that brings me to the conclusions being thrown around Mr. Welch's comments. Conclusions like 'balance is impossible' and 'we need to stop using that outdated phrase, 'work/life balance.'' Here's where I completely disagree.There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with the vocabulary. We don't need a new word - 'fit' or 'juggle' or 'integration.' Nothing wrong with these words either, by the way - they are dandy too. But changing the word is just playing with symantics. Balance is alive and well and fully attainable. It means something unique to every individual. It changes over time for each of us. To me, it means sorting out all of life's options and taking personal responsibility (together with your partner, if applicable) for aligning your internal priorities with the way you actually live. It means not accepting the cultural status quo if it doesn't happen to match your soul. It doesn't mean erasing the possibility of harried days - although, unless harried days are your goal, it means making choices that don't result in long runs of them. It doesn't mean perfection.There is absolutely nothing wrong with 'balance.' Welch, in his old-fashioned, gendered way, is simply illustrating what happens when we don't prioritize it. The truth will out.
Book Review: The Daddy Shift
Fellow Dad blogger, Jeremy Adam Smith, recently launched a new book called The Daddy Shift. It covers the trend of men taking on more of the childcare in recent generations both through a historical perspective and an in-depth look at a handful of examples.
The couples profiled are real and Smith does more than introduce us to them. He shares their history, context, struggles and desires for the lives they are tending. The couples are complex with varied motivations and don't fit neatly into any preconceived notions of existing family models.
Beyond the personal stories we also get the long view of how men's views have changed in relation to caregiving. I found the information compelling and thought provoking. I loved the "myths of caregiving fatherhood." Ranging from the myth that Dads opting out of work is a luxury of the educated elites to the myth that the decision for a man to stay home with children is always an economic one.
This book stares down the stereotypes around male nurturing and offers explanations, willing examples, and historical trends to highlight the changes happening all around us. Being among the masses of men who do more childcare than their own fathers, I recognized myself in this book and would recommend it without hesitation. We will be adding The Daddy Shift to our list of resources as a proponent of egalitarian marriages.
Note: For those of you in or around NYC, Jeremy will be leading a discussion along with Amy Richards, author of Opting In, on the shifting roles of fathers at the 92Y Tribeca on June 22nd from 6:30 - 8:00. I wish I could make it myself.
De-Feminizing the Decision to Work
It seems that I see survey after survey in which women are asked about their choice to work full-time, work part-time, or stay home after they have children. Are they happy with their decision? Do they feel they are missing out on time with the kids, or a meaningful career? Almost never do we see similar surveys of men - especially in connection to their transition to fatherhood.Yet we're being treated to plenty of news articles these days about men's changing roles at home. Laid-off fathers are retreating to childcare and housework - some in frustration and shame, some in joy and newfound understanding of their priorities. It seems as if the gender assumptions around us are suddenly changing at a dizzying pace. Or are they? The articles don't talk much about purposeful downshifting - just outside forces causing a man to remake himself.What would it take to truly de-gender the work decision? I'm the guest blogger today at BusinessWeek's Working Parents blog, where I write about this issue. Stop over and leave a comment!
One of the more common responses I hear to reduced hours or flexible employment is that my job can't be changed like that. People often point to their demanding bosses and unrelenting workloads to justify the belief. I suspect that many of the people in this story about employers who have mandated reduced hours may have felt the same way.One employer even reduced his entire office staff of 8 employees to a four day work week instead of laying off 3 employees. They are participating in a Mass. unemployment program, which we mentioned here recently, that allows these employees to receive unemployment benefits for a portion of the lost wages, netting them a 20% reduction in time on the job for a 10% reduction in pay. In my world, that sounds like a pay rate increase, at least until unemployment runs out.The article covers the hardships to employees when their hours, and pay, are cut but ends with the silver lining of having more time to pursue other interests. How would you react to a reduction in pay if the "other interests" included the things you love to do outside of work? Could you shave your family budget by 10% to have more time to exercise? How about spend more time with your siblings, parents, or kids? Maybe take that Community Education class you've had your eye on?Many of the ESP parents we talk with tell us that the work/life puzzle hinges on striving to optimize their life instead of maximize their income. They tend to value their careers so that they can continue to command higher pay rates over time. This allows them to vary the amount of time and energy needed to bring in the family paycheck.Maybe the silver lining could become a fantastic life they just might love!