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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Equality Blog

Monday, September 27, 2010

Saving the World: A Book Review

While I love to review hot-off-the-press books about gender and parenting, sometimes it is even more rewarding to review an older book. And in today's case, we're talking quite old...as in, dead-author old. Yes, I've finally finished reading The Mermaid and The Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise by Dorothy Dinnerstein, first published in 1976. It was my 'assignment' from Gloria Steinem, who highly recommended it in her wonderfully supportive comments to us.

Mermaid was a hard book to read for several reasons. The author's writing style is elusive and I ended up re-reading many sentences in order to follow her train of thought and catch the subtle points. I felt a bit like I was back in college, struggling through an assigned text for an advanced Gender Studies class. She also tends to write in the abstract, describing an idea that begs a clear-cut example or two, and then not including even a trace of an example. And the book is meant to shake up the reader - scare her or him on a deep level. But beyond these few difficulties, I found myself a changed person as I got to the final page.

The basic premise behind The Mermaid and The Minotaur is that our culture's predominantly woman-centric childraising (especially in the very early months of a baby's life) has an enormous ripple effect on how we view and treat men and women in our world. That the world would be a changed place - for the immense good of both sexes - if men shared in this responsibility...to the level of a chance at world peace and ecological sustainability for our planet. And that if we, collectively, cannot move in this direction soon (and remember, the book was written in the 1970's, so 'soon' is even sooner now), we face eventual planetary destruction and the end of our species.

In other words, early ESP is the key to saving humanity and our world.

This may sound a tad alarmist, you could say. And I can't begin to do justice to her argument, which is laid out carefully in stepwise fashion throughout the book. But I'm not being lighthearted in my comments above. Dr. Dinnerstein calls on the works of Freud, Ashe, Marx and others, and then adds to their analyses, as she exposes societal behaviors that no longer fit our species - and the harm that they are doing by their continued practice.

For example, Dinnerstein says that babies who are primarily mothered come to see the female parent early on as the "other" - meaning that when they have that scary realization that they are not actually one-and-the-same with their caregivers, they react emotionally to this understanding, and deep down inside for the rest of their lives they think of their mothers as the perpetrators who destroyed that closeness they first thought was the case. Their fathers, however, tend to come into their lives more distantly and later, when the infants have already realized the truth - so they don't have that same tearing-away experience with men. This unevenness plays out throughout the rest of a baby's life, says Dinnerstein, and manifests globally in a fear and loathing of women - in a need to punish women for the initial separation.

This is heavy psychology, of course, but not to be dismissed only for this reason. A full 288 pages of thick text describe the thesis, and my few words cannot do so well. I have come to believe, crystallized by my reading of Mermaid, that our society is gendered because each of its individuals start out seeing life that way, and that the ramifications of this early beginning are vast, wide and deep.

One point I found very interesting was Dinnerstein's description of how our society views childbearing and birth compared to how it views the man's part in this miracle (i.e., a simple sperm deposit). She says: "Once fatherhood, like motherhood, means early physical intimacy, man's procreativity will seem in its own way as concretely miraculous, as fraught with everyday magic, as woman's. For man's body will carry for us as intense an emotional charge, a charge as pervaded with primitive pre-verbal feeling, as woman's." She goes on to explain that all the sexual parts of a man's body should be seen as equally sacred to those of women, even though our culture practically deifies women's reproductive organs (or, to the contrast, considers birth through them to be dirty and obscene). She ends this by saying: "The fragility of his tie to the seed that he buries for so many months in the dark center of another, independent, body balances the fragility of her claim on him to help take responsibility for the child she carries. His life-extending biological link with the past and future rests with her. If he cares about this link, he can be betrayed, just as she can be betrayed if she relies on him to act as a parent to the child. We are aware of this potential emotional balance, but we do not live by it. If we did, woman would seem no dirtier and no more sacred than man, man no more a human authority than woman."

Dinnerstein also describes the differences between men and women in their initial tie to childcare after a baby's birth. Because it is the woman who must bear the child, it is she who would need to be more callous that he to "escape experiencing the impact of parenthood" once the baby is born. Experiencing this impact, Dinnerstein asserts, is a primitive and intimate way to feel what it means to be human - and so in becoming a parent, "humanness is more firmly forced on woman than on man." But yet, she continues, "if [a father] does allow himself to feel the impact of parenthood, he (since he does so under less direct, bodily, duress) is more surely bound than she is to recognize that he has done so voluntarily." Life pushes men more directly than women into "clear awareness that on balance one chooses - prefers - to be human." The more contact a father has early on with his baby, the smaller this difference becomes.

I could write many more paragraphs of insights from The Mermaid and The Minotaur (perhaps I'll do so in a future post), but I'll leave you with the author's central argument for ESP: Once we can share early childcare between the genders, we can give up woman's lone dominion over babydom and all of the world's negative, fearful, scapegoat/idol behaviors against women will fall away. This can be scary, since we're so used to running the world by our old ways. To let go means to begin to reconcile and live out more directly, our relationships to each other as equal humans - to come to terms with life, death, and how we are caring for each other and our planet in between. Male and female will become complementary, with a mutual awareness of feeling based on an imaginative, reflective, purposefully procreative approach to life together. To do this, males and females much join together as "unequivocally equal collaborators."

ESP feels more like a calling than ever before, with Dorothy Dinnerstein cheering us on from beyond the grave. Together, we're all turning the time course of humanity.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Wrong Stuff

Way down under, Lisa Pryor from the Sydney Morning Herald examines a "study comparing the demands on families with young children, including the gender division of work and care, in five countries, namely the US, Australia, Italy, France and Denmark." I found her article on the online news resource, stuff.co.nz. She quotes two researchers, Lyn Craig and Killian Mullan, of the social policy research centre at the University of NSW as confirming "that in all the countries couples found themselves working harder once they had children. This is not surprising to just about anyone with, or without, children.

However, the explanation of why this is the case is very interesting. It "had little to do with stereotypes about men being lazy - they were working very long hours in paid work - and a lot to do with our obsession with mothers working part-time rather than full-time."

Ms. Pryor goes on to elaborate on the problem of the inherently unequal position of women scaling back their hours and careers in hopes of a more balanced life. As expected, these choices often exacerbate the problem. Men don't tend to share the childcare and home responsibilities when they are expected to be the primary breadwinners. Instead, they have justification to focus more on their careers knowing that their partners have given up the promise of more lucrative options.

So far, I found little to disagree with in this article. As we have been saying for years, the ESP goal of equal time investment in the main areas of breadwinning, childcare, home and self is a worthy endeavor. Intentionally skewing any one domain can wreak havoc on the overall balance attainable for a couple. This article does a good job of describing the problem.

Still, I was dumbfounded at the author's conclusion - that women may want to reconsider the option of part-time work in favor of full-time careers on par with their partners. Sure, for two parents who want full time work, ESP can be an invigorating lifestyle choice. But, why not consider the possibility of two part-time breadwinners working as a team to meet the family obligations as well as gifting each other with enough time to embrace all the joys as well. I'm not sure who is holding onto the sacrosanct man-as-breadwinner role more - women or men.

This seems like a classic case of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

ESP is the Law

Wow! Who knew that the law could be so fascinating? Thanks to our friends over at the Council for Contemporary Families (CCF) for highlighting a brilliant piece by Linda Greenhouse at the New York Times titled "Hiding in Plain Sight." The column analyzes Judge Vaughn R. Walker’s decision in the California same-sex marriage case back in August. Here are a few juicy nuggets:
  • One of the smartest moves by Judge Walker was his unveiling of a central hiding-in-plain-sight fact: the change in society’s expectations about what partnership in a marriage entails. “Marriage between a man and a woman was traditionally organized based on presumptions of a division of labor along gender lines” until recently, he said. “Men were seen as suited for certain types of work and women for others. Women were seen as suited to raise children and men were seen as suited to provide for the family.”
  • Evidence at the trial, he said, showed “the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles.” As a result, the judge continued, “gender is not relevant to the state in determining spouses’ obligations to each other and to their dependents,” and “gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.”
  • Judge Walker is saying basically that he is not “redefining marriage” — the charge instantly leveled by critics of the opinion. We, collectively, in California and elsewhere in today’s United States, have done the job ourselves.
Amen to that! ESP is a growing and desired lifestyle that stands firmly on the belief that men and women are created equal. And I don't mean simply equal worth as a human being, this is equal as is in equal opportunity to experience all the joys and challenges of each domain of life together - not based on roles by gender. Sure, the practicalities are not always easy to work out - but the dream is undeniable. Before we know it, the definition of marriage as a "union of equals" will be the law of this land, not just for same-sex couples but for all of us.

Gender, while still a powerful and beautiful difference between humans, is dying as a default way to structure our families. Our laws are catching up to this evolution, and our families are reaching to embrace it.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Equal Parents

We're back from a wonderful week on Cape Cod (complete with an almost-hurricane Earl), and ready to start the school year.  We could not resist these terrific magnets from the Human Rights Campaign's store in Provincetown, here with an ESP twist:

                                                                          Photo: Maia Vachon

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