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ESP Book Review: Against the Grain
It's time for a book review! On a recent trip home to visit my mother, I brought along some reading and got some good stretches of time to dive into Canadian sociologist Gillian Ranson's new book, Against the Grain: Couples, Gender, and the Reframing of Parenting. It is an in-depth description of her study of 32 parenting couples who have bucked traditional woman-as-primary-nurturer/man-as-primary-breadwinner lives, and so not always light reading.
The couples included in Dr. Ranson's study were not all ESP couples; in fact, a large group were reverse-traditional couples (whom she calls 'crossovers'). Her aim was to explore the reasons behind any type of non-traditional, intact family, and she included both heterosexual and same-sex couples, and couples with children ranging in age from only a few months to nearly adult. Of those couples who were not reverse-traditional, she distinguishes between 'shift-workers' (couples who organized their outside work in shifts to allow for zero outside childcare) and 'dual-dividers' (those who maintained full-time jobs and depended on outside childcare at least some of the time). Hmmm...not sure where Marc and I would fit then...we have a 'shift-worker' mentality because we both work reduced/staggered hours to minimize outside care and balance our lives, yet we depend on some outside childcare too.
Anyway, as one reads deep into Dr. Ranson's book, several themes emerge that I found thought-provoking and important. One is that non-gendered ways of approaching parenting can take many, many forms. This makes a lot of sense to me, and certainly what Marc and I found as we interviewed couples for our book; the details of ESP are highly individual, even as its principles seem to be solidly those of equality and balance.
Another takeaway is that parenting partnerships almostly uniformly include early and deep father involvement and non-conventional work arrangements (e.g., unusual schedules). All of Dr. Ranson's ESP-like couples had these two elements in their relationships. I agree that these things help, and are almost essential, but I'll stop at 'almost' because I've met full-out, amazing ESP couples who started out their first years of parenting in a completely traditional way, and I've met legitimate, successful ESP couples who work in traditional jobs. I don't think that any outside force can stop a couple bent on sharing their parenting, but surely statistics will show that most ESP couples fit these molds.
Now for the really good stuff about Against the Grain. Overall, I loved the book. Dr. Ranson 'gets' gender equal parenting, and has lovely ways of describing it. She talks about 'functional interchangeability' as the result - which means that both parents are fully capable of attending to their children's needs and both have formed intimate bonds with them. This is not to mean two identical parents, since she found that her ESP couples maintained their individuality as separate people. She also defines true gender equality as 'undoing gender' and as 'equal terms' parenting - in which both parents have equal say and equal responsibility.
Only six of the couples included in this book can be considered ESP parents. Yet they tell a powerful story. These couples balanced paid work with strong family connections, and reported deep satisfaction in their overall relationships as a result of their shared parenting. They were, in Dr. Ranson's conclusions, 'parenting' rather than 'mothering' or 'fathering.' Their paths were not always easy - just as we found in so many of our own interviews - but their choice was affirmed many-fold along the way.
Dr. Ranson challenges scholars who say that men and women cannot fully share parenting because our culture is too deeply gendered to make this possible. "Any gender-based differences seemed to me more a matter of style than substance," she says, drawing on the fact that she interviewed each couple as separate individuals and could hear details from a father that seemed similar to details she heard from a different mother. "I don't think that parenting necessarily has to be genderless," she add, however.
Against the Grain is a well-written description of how a small population of couples is approaching parenting in a less-gendered manner. No, they (we) are not the majority yet, but Dr. Ranson thinks these pioneering efforts will move us closer and closer, little by little, to a society in which 'parenting' is the more appropriate term. And they demonstrate, as we strive to do, that ESP is fully possible today.
Thank you, Dr. Ranson, for a wonderful addition to our Resources page.
Moms - Get a Grip!
If your partner is a fantastic parent, does that make you a crappy one? Hardly worth the energy to think about, really, but that's exactly what an MSNBC article last week describes when it comes to mothers' anxieties. The article starts out with an objectionable sentence - "Dads are helping out with childrearing more and more these days"- which gives us a big clue to the crazy-thinking of the moms in question.
The key word here is 'helping,' of course, and we find out a few sentences later that new research from Osaka University of Commerce in Japan (in collaboration with the University of Texas) reveals a drop in self-esteem in mothers who rate their husbands' parenting as high quality. Now, the 78 couples interviewed for this study were not ESP couples. They were dual-earners, and the moms spent on average triple the time caring for their babies (all had 8-month old infants) as compared to the dads. In other words, Dad may have been an involved parent, but he was probably thought of as a 'helper' by his partner.
In these quasi-traditional relationships, the mothers seemed to want to hold on to their role as primary caregiver - which makes sense since our society (and probably even more so, Japan's) expects this and has a way of making a mother feel guilty if she doesn't. Yet, the moms wanted help with the parenting too...just not so much help that their place in the family was usurped by a too-good daddy.
I can see the (sad) logic in this. But I can see a no-win situation, surely. For both partners. It puts mothers between a rock and a hard place and it cheats fathers out of the joys of full-on parenting their own way. And it sure sets a couple up for resentment rather than appreciation of their arrangement!
I bet that if this same study were done with ESP couples - meaning couples who had made a deep commitment to equal partnership in their parenting - the results would have been very different. It seems to me that the women in this study weren't really ready to let go. But in an ESP family, the eyes of both partners are wide open to the challenges of re-sculpting traditional roles and are focusing on creating balanced lives and a team approach to raising their children. In an ESP mom's soul, a competent father is the best thing in the world for her/his/their children - and her self-worth is no longer tied to what culture expects.
Whenever 'equality' is discussed in terms of marriage or parenting, it is often kept in the realm of the tangible. Here on the surface, the media talk of who is doing more of the chores - by number or by time - or even sometimes about who is handling more of the job of remembering when those chores need to be done. This is all well and good, but you've probably read our views about this before...equally sharing the chores or even the joys of parenting, or housework, or breadwinning, or time for yourself, is more of a product of the mindset of equally shared parenting than a goal unto itself.
The real meat of equality in any partnership is far more weighty and vast than the weak definition of equal chore sharing. We like to talk about equal investment, or equal value in the marriage, or equal power in decision-making. Over at the fantastic Equal Couples blog, equality is given an even broader and deeper definition - encompassing each partner's equal ability to be vulnerable in the other's presence.
I hadn't thought of equality in this way before, but it brings an important idea to light. One of my deepest wishes has always been for a marriage built on genuine intimacy, in which both of us are able to truly be ourselves - with every imperfection and work-in-progress fault out in the open. To be loved not just in spite of our shortcomings, but even for them. (I knew I'd found the right guy when I asked Marc early in our relationship if I snored, and his immediate response was "Just enough to be sexy.")
For me, the 'equality' foundation of ESP really is about equal vulnerability when I brush away all the surface stuff.
Check out this chain email (of sorts) that I got recently:
If you know any woman currently undergoing Chemo, please pass the word to her that there is a cleaning service that provides FREE housecleaning - 1 time per month for 4 months while she is in treatment.
All she has to do is sign up and have her doctor fax a note confirming the treatment. Cleaning for a Reason will have a participating maid service in her zip code area arrange for the service.
Please pass this information on to bless a woman going through breast or other cancer treatment. This organization serves the entire USA and currently has 547 partners to help these women. It's our job to pass the word and let them know that there are people out there that care. Be a blessing to someone and pass this information along.
Pretty nice of them, huh? Granted, most women (sadly, I guess even those in the throes of chemotherapy) are still their household's primary cleaning person. Or maybe they live alone and don't have a capable partner to take over. But I hope someday generous offers like this will be gender-neutral. Don't men deserve clean homes too? Let's bless them too, shall we?
The other day, the WSJ's The Juggle blog tackled the subject of what happens when Mom goes away on a business trip. The author of this particular entry tried for humor as she described the travails of her two toddlers, one of whom is crushed by her 3-day absence. To get the laughs, she used phrases like "my family fell apart" and described spending several days "setting the scene" for her absence and "familiarizing her husband" with routines she usually handles. Her son spent 3 days sobbing and her daughter caught a cold. Her son cried for days even after her return, declaring he suddenly didn't like school anymore.
Now, no one can predict a toddler's reaction to a missing parent. And Marc and I have certainly had our share of "I want Mommy!" or "I want Daddy!" screamed at the opposite parent. But leaving the house for a trip is made so much easier for either of us, and for any ESP parent, by the fact that both Mom and Dad are already deeply entrenched in the routines of the kids' lives and intimately involved in their nurturing.
In fact, I'm getting ready to leave - a trip home to help my mother recover from major surgery. I'm a bit anxious - I never like to be away from Marc or the kids for that long, I'm hoping everything works out smoothly for my mother's recovery, and I know my absence is going to make Marc's life (and M's and T's) temporarily lopsided. But I'm not going crazy with the preparation, and I know Marc's got it fully under control - in his own way - without one reminder or instruction from me.
Knowing my family won't "fall apart" without me is just a little of what I'm thankful for from ESP.
The Evolution of Dad is Coming
Back in the fall of 2007, Amy and I were introduced to a dynamic and visionary man named Dana Glazer. He was dreaming about (and working real hard at) creating a documentary film about how the role of the American father has been changing. I can only imagine all the pieces that have to come together to make this dream a reality, but Dana has lived it and proven worthy of the challenge.
His eagerly anticipated film, The Evolution of Dad, is being released to the world in a couple of months - on Father's Day 2010. He recently released the official trailer; check it out on his site. There are lots of dads represented from all walks of life and even a few clips with me, Amy, and the kids.
Way to go, Dana! Well done.
Lisa Belkin's Motherlode blog today covers a different kind of equally shared parenting - the kind practiced by the monogamous Peruvian poison frog. As Lisa says, "Your average [male] frog hops away after fertilizing a cluster of eggs, but the loyal poison frog stays close, then carries the newly hatched tadpoles on his back to small pools of water and plays stay-at-pond dad; the mother shows up mostly to lay unfertilized eggs for the babes to eat."Well, that's not exactly ESP. It's more like reverse traditional. But stay with me.... The American Naturalist will publish a study next month that theorizes that this frog's monogamous, co-parenting behavior is directly linked to its relative poverty of resources. These particular frogs, it seems, inhabit extremely small pools (as in less than two tablespoonfuls of liquid each), while their bigger cousins frolic in the larger ponds. Because they have less to work with, the theory goes, they have to bond together to get the job of raising their kids done. The authors of the study then postulate that our own ancestors (e.g., pioneers) were more apt to share domestic chores simply because they were poor and had to work much harder for their basic food and shelter.
Very interesting. Perhaps a bit of truth here. After all, in troubling times we often get back to basics. We remember what is most important and are more grateful for the love of family and friends. We come together as a team of humans to batten the hatches and feed the children. When our safety is threatened, like after 9/11, we prioritize our relationships rather than superficial stuff. We find time for connecting with our kids rather than extra hours at work. We work things out rather than dig in our heels. And that's kinda what ESP is all about.But I can't reconcile with the frog theory in full. That's because so many of the ESP couples we've come to know have built their lives purposefully around this type of sharing in spite of having more than enough money to have chosen the big pond. Yet they still rejected that ol' American dream for their own version - actually preferring the little "good enough" pond and all the freedom of time that comes with this decision.On the other hand, I do love that our froggie friends can help dispel the myth that ESP is only for the upper class. Ribbit!
The Marriage Ref is Sad
NBC TV's new comedy, The Marriage Ref, premiered last week. I don't watch much television, but I was drawn to check it out by the subject: the dissection of arguments between couples. This is Jerry Seinfeld's new venture, and so I thought, "How bad could it be?"
So bad that it had the unfortunate side effect of depression and anger.
Yes, I know, it's a comedy. Lighten up, Amy! But I don't dislike The Marriage Ref for the usual reason other critics have mentioned - namely, that it is a deeply uncomfortable and not-too-funny mix of A-list celebrities with mixed-up lives ridiculing middle-class nobodies based on superficial taped material. I agree, but what made me most sad/mad was that the whole show is based on gender expectations - and no one seems to care or notice.
We get to laugh along with a wife who orders her husband around in the home - not allowing him to use "her" formal dining room and expecting him to handle all the at handyman chores because that's what men are good for. We're supposed to chuckle when host Tom Papa tells the couple that women rule the inside of the house and men rule the outside. We're supposed to adore the celebrities that agree with marriages based on roles rather than relationships.
I thought the show was pathetic. Anyone else have a different take?
Suppose I'd better check out Parenthood too, huh?
Be Part of ESP History!
If you are part of a couple with kids in which:
...our mentor, Francine Deutsch, Professor of Psychology at Mount Holyoke College, wants you!
- You both work at least 20 hours per week for pay
- You share the load of household chores and parenting tasks
- You each could participate in a 15-minute phone interview about how you balance housework and childcare
Dr. Deutsch is the pre-eminent ESP academic researcher, and author of Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works. We've known her since close to the beginning of our ESP lives, and her encouragement has been like gold to us.
If you are interested, we would highly encourage you to be part of this research by sending an email to her research assistant, Phuong Ta, at email@example.com or by calling 413-363-6432. Please be assured that all the information from this study will be treated as strictly confidential, and your name will be kept separate from your data.
Come on...it'll be fun!
Addendum from 3/26/10: Recruitment for this study is now complete.