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

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Book Review: 168 Hours

Laura Vanderkam is a gifted writer with a long list of professional credentials. In her new book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, she challenges the common belief that we are all so busy these days. Ms. Vanderkam understands the demands placed on so many of us. She has two young children and a career that doesn't just tend itself. However, she asks a very important question to us all, "What would you rather be doing with your time?"

The premise of the book is that 168 hours (7 x 24) is more than enough time for what's important each week. If we want to be doing something else, then an evaluation of what we are doing is in order. She's a fan of outsourcing household chores and other responsibilities that don't offer much in the way of personal fulfillment in favor of prioritizing time with the kids and even devoting more meaningful time to paid work. In simple terms, for example, working 60 hours per week and sleeping 8 hours per night still leaves 52 hours per week for family time, etc.. Sure there's still work to be done to keep a home humming along if you don't want to outsource it all but much of this work can be family time as well. Most household chores like cooking, laundry, and cleaning can all be done with the kids once they are beyond the infant stages.

Ms. Vanderkam also highlights the number of hours a working parent spends with the kids compared to a stay-at-home mom from the 1950's and I'm guessing you would be surprised with the findings. There's plenty of new information here and she doesn't just accept the cultural expectation that busy is better. She spends lots of time highlighting our willingness to watch TV as an escape. The implication here is that if we are worn out, physically and emotionally, from living a life we don't really love then it might be easier to "justify" the need for passive entertainment. But when we are juiced about what we are doing and who we are doing it with there is plenty of time to savor life, both outside the home and within.

I prefer to believe that joy and meaning are available in all 168 of our weekly hours whether we are working 20, 30, 40, or more hours per week. Perhaps 168 Hours spends a bit too much time promoting an important Career (with a capital C). I wholeheartedly agree that enjoying the intrinsic values of a career is an important element to a happy life but I don't go so far as embracing the worldly definition of success.

But I found myself agreeing with much of the book and enjoyed the intentionality that Ms. Vanderkam suggests for a fulfilled life. If you want more time with the kids, want to start your own business, or want to reconnect with your spouse, make it happen. There may be obstacles to overcome but time is probably not one of them. Take a close look at where you spend your time and then ask yourself if this is sustainable and in line with your dreams.

If 168 hours isn't enough time to be happy then we are all doomed.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

What is Necessary about Fathers?

In its latest issue, The Atlantic packs a punch with two seemingly degrading articles about men.  The first, which is the subject of this blog post, is a short piece by Pamela Paul called Are Fathers Necessary?  The second, titled The End of Men, is Hanna Rosin's latest get-under-the-skin piece; we'll tackle that one in another post soon.

Ms. Paul's article argues that while "liberal feminist moms" are eager to believe the data that fathers are essential to the physical and emotional well-being of their children (if not simply so that they can get their husbands to share the load), these data are actually based on comparing households with involved fathers with those with zero father presence.  A more accurate comparison, Ms. Paul says, would be between households with a mother and a father, one with two mothers, and one with two fathers.  Then we'd get at the meat of the issue: are fathers as good as mothers at raising happy and healthy kids?

Or rather, does a parent's gender matter?  The article says studies show "single moms tend to be more involved, set more rules, communicate better, and feel closer to their children than single dads. They have less difficulty monitoring their children’s whereabouts, friendships, and school progress. Their children do better on standardized tests and have higher grades, and teenagers of single moms are actually less likely to engage in delinquent behavior or substance abuse than those of single dads."  So there.  End of case.  Mom wins, right?

Well, I guess that means that a standard-issue mom is probably a bit better at parenting than, say, last decade's standard issue dad who lives in a culture that supports moms far more than dads.  I'm not even sure I'd go so far as to conclude this.  But I sure wouldn't conclude that gender has one whit to do with the outcome here.  Let's explore further.  Ms. Paul goes on to share the results of new research on the quality of parenting in lesbian families.  She says, "On average, lesbian parents spend more time with their children than fathers do. They rate disputes with their children as less frequent than do hetero couples, and describe co-parenting more compatibly and with greater satisfaction. Their kids perceive their parents to be more available and dependable than do the children of heteros. They also discuss more emotional issues with their parents. They have fewer behavioral problems, and show more interest in and try harder at school."  Pretty good, huh?  This makes a lot of sense, actually.  Because they are women?  No - because they come closer to a true partnership of equals.  In fact, the authors of the new study conclude that "based strictly on the published science, one could argue that two women parent better on average than a woman and a man, or at least than a woman and man with a traditional division of family labor."

The end of this article delivers the real punch - not to fathers, but to our culture of traditional family roles.  "All howling to the contrary, most heterosexual men and women like that traditional division. Sticking to "gendered" parenting roles offers a seductive affirmation. Fathers, roughhouse all you want. But we, gatekeeper moms, are in charge of the rest. We could give you detailed instruction, and you still couldn’t possibly do it as well."

As long as men are kept as junior parents by their mates and by our mom-centric parenting culture, we can't expect that they will rank as equals.  But take away the gatekeeping, and bring on two partners who deeply desire to parent as a team of peers, and I'm willing to bet that the data will show Dad is worth every bit as much as Mom.  And that the gender of the pair - be it dual moms, dual dads or one of each - doesn't matter when it comes to raising children well at all.

So what's necessary about fathers?  It isn't so much that they are male, but that (at least in heterosexual families) they are one of two humans who are fully capable of loving their children and providing for them in every way (not just monetarily).  In other words, change our culture and give them an equal chance, and (beyond gestation and breastfeeding) their necessity becomes exactly the same as that of mothers. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

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.

Friday, June 18, 2010

I Love You Dad!

Yes, Father's Day is upon us and it seems appropriate to share some feelings for our dads. In many ways I'm the stereotypical reserved man. I toss around compliments like lead weights. I'm not proud of this and continue to attempt to prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Maybe this is why I like the film-making work of Dana Glazer so much. He shines a bright light on men talking about their dads and shows us how things have changed over the recent decades. Even before his current release, The Evolution of Dad, I saw some of his work on the internet around Father's Day a couple of years ago. The clip was a simple collection of individuals telling their dads that they loved him. Thankfully, Dana has put forth another Father's Day video this year.
Check it out:

I encourage you to check out Dana's
movie as well. He is a great guy with a passion for showing us how men and the roles they play continue to change.

Oh yeah, by the way...

Dad, I love you for your dedication to the family. Primarily as a breadwinner through my youth but also as a full participant in my life. I feel blessed to have the support of such a thoughtful, inquisitive, and devoted father. Some of best memories are times spent with you. I remember playing catch with a baseball for hours working on transferring the ball from my mitt to my throwing hand. "Take it out fast but throw it slowly," you would say with all the patience that I can now understand. I also love you for your commitment to mom. You engaged in the details of a meaningful relationship and showed me the the rewards that were available for doing so. I look forward to seeing you on Sunday when you will greet me and my family with a warm smile and comfortable embrace. I love you Dad!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fabulous Sweden

Many of you may have read the fascinating piece in the NY Times last week entitled In Sweden, Men Can Have It All.  If you haven't, it is worth the click!  Because, in a nutshell, it is about a whole society that is purposefully built to embrace gender equality - and equally shared parenting.  Let me share with you what I took from the article...

In a country where 85% of fathers take paternity leave, a new definition of masculinity is taking hold.  Men who balance fathering with work are more attractive than those who leave the home duties to their children's mothers.  Household cleaning product advertisements no longer feature only women.  And two full months of Sweden's generous 13 month paid parental leave must be given to fathers...or forfeited altogether.  What's more, there is a political push to extend this to a full four months come September.

How has this all been possible for the companies that have to fund all of this time off, and cover for the men who are home while still turning a profit?  With an even playing field throughout the country, they have managed amazingly well.  For every man who takes his time off, a woman could go back to work for that time period.  And state sponsorship sure helps.  Companies are even finding that their job flexibility ratings work in their favor, as more and more workers of both genders come to expect such flexibility and employers who can provide it can get the best pick of recruits.  Leave time often allows companies to test out future employees on a short-term basis, as well, as they cover for those who are out at home.

Divorce and separation rates are down, shared custody is up, and women's paychecks are flourishing. Sweden's gender-equal policies also allow both parents to request reduced hours rather than simply chunks of time solely at home.  They can, for example, both elect to work 6-hour days until their children enter school (doesn't that sound like a wonderful balance?).

The Swedish system has not always been smooth and successful.  In the beginning, it allowed parents themselves to choose how they would divide up the full parental leave time - resulting in essentially the opposite of what thought leaders hoped to achieve.  Women took the majority of this time, further reducing their career and earnings capacity, while men soared ahead in their careers and left their childraising skills to languish.  Enter the use-it-or-lose-it genius of today, and gender equality has hit a tipping point that makes it a generally normal state of affairs.  In other words, making equally shared parenting a socially easy path to take.  The lesson, as Sweden's deputy prime minister says, is: "The only way to achieve equality in society is to achieve equality in the home."

Equality is not yet achieved in every Swedish home, however.  Women still take the majority of the leave time, and handle more of the childraising and household tasks. But the early adopters of full-out ESP are out there in mainstream view - those couples who share the leave time about evenly and switch off their time at home so neither parent becomes the family manager and both can share the joy along with way.

Of course, there are plenty of early adopters right here in the US too, where policies are not so magically geared towards our priorities, but we refuse to settle for lives that don't make sense to us and find ways to make ESP happen anyway.  All of this Sweden stuff does make me drool, however...and wish for a little visit to the Arctic Circle.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Words We Love

Can I share something with you that made me smile from ear to ear today? It is the latest entry on the amazing Equal Couples blog, from Anne Mahoney, Professor of Sociology at the University of Denver - who has just finished reading our book:
Amy and Marc Vachon’s book Equally Shared Parenting should be on everyone’s baby gift list. Don’t worry that the couple might get more than one copy. They will wear out several over the years. In this month of weddings, think of it also as an equally appropriate wedding gift. This book lays out, on a day-to-day basis, how to work together as an equal couple. It gets down to the nitty-gritty of how a couple learns to share life together in an equal way and why equality is so important for life and love. It is well written, a good-read, and is the best guide for couples who want to share life together that I have ever seen.
I am not a sales person by my very nature. I actually abhor the idea of trying to peddle our book, racking up sales just to hit some number on a book popularity chart. But I'm quite proud of our book's contents and message and I DO want it to get into the hands of those who can use it. And I kinda think a lot of people might fit that category! So I'll be happy today with such a beautiful endorsement from Dr. Mahoney, someone who has worked for years to help marriage therapists teach couples to reach equality. And someone I greatly admire.

Friday, June 04, 2010

A New Real Life Story!

Introducing Shimul and Roger, the latest ESP couple to join our growing Real Life Stories community!  Shimul wrote to us recently, sharing her thoughts on living as an equal partner with her husband in their pre-children years and then how they were able to hold onto these ideals as they welcomed their baby son into the family seven months ago.  We both loved her story - packed with details about how they make this work for them - and are so fortunate to be able to share it with you.

Both Shimul and Roger are mechanical engineers, and they both work at the same Fortune 500 company.  We hope you enjoy and are inspired by their story of dedication to equality - in spite of a culture that tricks us into thinking that women are the only parents who can make the work/life sacrifices when a baby comes along, employers won't go along with our plans for a balanced life, and telecommuting is not an option.  This family busts all those 'rules' and then some!

A warm welcome to Shimul, Roger, and baby D.

Are you an ESP parent?  Working toward it?  We'd love to include your story!  Drop us a line....

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Is Money the Biggest Barrier to ESP?

I found myself at a playground this past week overhearing a conversation between a grandmother and her grown daughter.  They were talking about some recent changes at the older woman's workplace - it seems that management just instituted a mandatory 4-day workweek and grandma was not sure she liked the change. She admitted that she liked the day off but was struggling with the longer days. The conversation reminded me of a couple of guys I worked with years ago who had similar sentiments when offered a compressed workweek. They both rejected the opportunity in favor of five "normal" days, preferring to see their kids each workday for longer stretches before and after work to being given a full day with them every week.

I understand the trade-offs and can't presume to know what is best for each family, but I like the 4-day workweek idea as long as people get to choose it rather than have it forced upon them. And better yet, if both parents are on the same team working towards an optimal family solution, the likelihood of success is greatly increased.

After a bit I was included in the playground conversation and offered a simple question to the grandmother: "Would you like four "normal" days along with a 20% pay cut?" Her response was short and to the point, with a bit of indignation: "No way!"  Was this because she loved her job/career so much that 32 hours per week just wasn't enough, or did she feel that 32 hours was beneath her somehow, or perhaps she felt that she could not afford the pay cut (or benefits cut) involved?  With her rapid dismissal, I never got to probe further.  But her vibe was all about the money.  Her body language shouted, "Are you crazy? Who would take a paycut?"

We begin the Money chapter in our book with a quote about ESP's requirement for flexible or reduced work hours that we hear regularly, "Gee, must be nice, but we could never afford that." It seems to me that the cultural ideal of "more is better" is alive and well despite the literature to the contrary. In the popular book, Stumbling on Happiness, author Daniel Gilbert tells us that the amount of family income at which happiness plateaus is relatively low; true poverty makes us miserable, but a family income of about $50,000 can make us as happy as one much, much larger. Once basic food, shelter, and a little extra is obtained, more money just doesn't seem to satisfy. Sure, we can all think of things we could purchase with more money than we have now - like a bigger house, more elaborate vacations, a top-ranked college education for our kids, maybe a new outfit now and again - but the truth remains. These things will not make us (or our kids) any happier.  And there is no end to how relativity can trick us; a surgeon's salary looks like the answer to a nurse, a nurse's salary looks like the solution to a teacher, a teacher's salary looks like heaven to a short order cook.

I also like to look at this from the other end of the spectrum. I'm confident that a person can be miserable at any level of income. If money isn't all it's cracked up to be, maybe it's time to optimize our lives instead of expending so much energy on maximizing our income. Perhaps grandma really does need every penny, but I'm willing to bet that is not the case for many of us.

What would your ideal life look like? Can you imagine it without putting a dollar value on it? Or better yet, what would you pay for a life in which you woke each day loving what lay before you whether it be a day at work, a playdate with your child, a mountain of laundry, or dinner with friends? I'm not suggesting that we like each of these equally but instead recognize that a life with healthy doses of work/play/chores/relationships can be pretty darn nice.

Money is not a worthy god.  Sometimes, the best decisions are not simply the ones that bring us the most cash.

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