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.