Capitalizing on a Dream
We take it as a good sign - an excellent sign - that more and more books are being published on the concepts and practicalities of equally shared parenting. Just take a look at our growing Resources section to see what I mean. I'm sure there will be more, too, and this makes me very happy. This is the lifestyle that the majority of Gen X/Y parents (of both genders) say they dream about - let's help them get there in as many ways as possible!
But then there are the quasi-ESP books that give off the book-cover appearance of innovative, helpful guidance toward true co-parenting...but when you dig into them, they are simply collections of perky advice about how to co-exist in harmony with your mate as loving, civilized people.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
It just isn't solving the gender puzzle. It is capitalizing on our collective desire for equal partnerships without offering any real solutions - like exactly how to circumvent cultural pulls that make Mom the primary parent and Dad the understudy, or how to structure your lives so that both parents can sustain a good balance of everything that matters most to them (raising their kids, caring for their home, tending a career, time for themselves and each other).
Such is the case for a new book by Kathy Peel, self-described as America's Family Manager. Right away, my radar is on alert...I'm not a fan of the idea of a single family manager (nevermind one with leading capital letters). ESP is all about finding a way to avoid one adult managing the other, but Ms Peel starts off chapter one by telling us that every family is an organization and every organization needs a manager..."most often it's the mother." She has already written 20 books - a virtual empire built mostly on helping women manage their homes with verve - and now she's penned her latest collection of tips and tricks as The Busy Couple's Guide to Sharing the Work and the Joy. Sounds like an ESP book, right? I wish I could say it was.
Truth be told, there is a lot of potentially useful information in the book (albeit written for a female audience). Things like how nice it is to use a labelmaker to mark the contents of boxes and drawers throughout the house. Or like how to use an online recipe site to plan meals for your family. And specific feel-good tips like "Start the routine of taking regular walks with your spouse." Or "Make sure everything you plan to wear is clean, mended, and pressed" (referring to how to prepare for upcoming busy periods in your life). To be fair, she packs the book with example after example of something we can't stress enough: Communicate and negotiate standards with your partner for household tasks. Before you decide who is doing the dishes and who will tackle the laundry, sit down and figure out what doing each of these things means to your family and your relationship. Big thumbs up for this advice.
But so much of the book rubs me the wrong way. Not because any one tip is bad; every one of them could resonate with any particular reader. It's that the whole book, while masquerading as a handbook on equal partnership, is really just written for women who are their household's managers - who are in charge at home, no matter how lovingly they involve their husbands in the decision-making or workflow directing. Not that there is anything wrong with that - for couples who don't aspire to ESP, that is. Yes, Ms Peel believes in tossing gender out the window when it comes to who physically cooks and who cleans, but this book is not breaking any new ground.
The most unfortunate part is that this book actually belittles the dream of achieving an equal partnership in its introductory chapter (even mentioning Marc and myself by name). In an extraordinary misinterpretation of ESP, we're labeled as scorekeepers who split every task down the middle - and then readers are warned about such a life of obligation and fairness-keeping. One visit to our website, or one interview with any genuine ESP couple, would have cleared up a number of these accusations.
In a bit of irony, Ms. Peel's book has plenty of advice about how to split specific tasks exactly down the middle (along with enough worksheets to drive even an ESP couple crazy). How to divvy up who cooks by alternating days, for example. Sounds good to me! And sharing the cooking by countless other permutations sounds equally lovely. Still, all of this task division is just surface equality - not the real stuff that makes up ESP.
Here's a standout line from Ms. Peel's book: "If an equal divison of labor were doable, husbands could carry their unborn baby for 4.5 months." That's the spirit! It is not helpful to write a book about sharing parenting and housework if you don't believe in really, truly sharing it - from the tasks to the responsibility to the power and decision-making. It is not useful to tell us that we can't achieve the type of equality that creates the intimacy and great marriages we want in the name of the opposite - picky, meanspirited, selfish scorekeeping.
Oh, and why is this book only for 'busy' couples? What about couples who have found a way not to be busy, busy, busy all the time?
Let's hope that we see more of the real stuff of equality and balance in future book releases. Beware the imposter.