Does Competition Kill ESP?
Marc and I were surprised to find a substantial piece in The Independent (UK national paper) yesterday about equally shared parenting, and, well, those crazy, over-serious, torchbearing Vachons. The Independent has covered us before, also without notice or without interviewing us, but actually we've found each instance to be a nice piece of writing that provokes thought and discussion. The only thing we find unfortunate about this new article is the title (which we know all too well usually gets written by someone other than the article's author and aims to stir up negative emotion): Shared Parenting: A Disastrous Double Act. Gee golly, makes sharing the childraising sound downright sinister!
The article is written by a mother who describes her husband as the type destined to love being a stay-at-home dad; yet, when their son first arrives, she surprises herself by falling in love with their baby and wanting to spend at least equal time raising him. A perfect set-up for ESP, one would assume. Unfortunately, this couple approaches the sharing as a tug of war - each competing for 'best parent' status, butting heads over their very different parenting styles, and butting in when they each needed to let go to honor and learn from the other's contributions. By the time their son reached the end of his first year, they were seriously discussing divorce.
What we have here is a detailed account of something well worth discussion: the fact that the first year as new parents can wreak havok on a couple's relationship. Plain and simple. To then choose to truly share equally this experience with your partner can add even more stress if you aren't both prepared to connect as an intimate team. And if you both grit your teeth and poke each other with your elbows as you share the diapering duty, you may even find the whole experience more unbearable than doing it alone or with a checked-out, mostly-absent partner. This is not the spirit of ESP, although on the surface it looks like the work is being shared.
We loved this piece because, more so than any other account we've read, it is an excellent, poignant illustration of the fact that ESP is anything but the easy way out. Sharing two lives to any extent can be a challenge, and ESP accentuates this by the level of intimacy that it creates and requires. It leaves no stone unturned, and no hiding places in the relationship. Because of the high level of communication required by both partners, and the need to work out all the bumps together along the way, it is a life of brutal honesty. And we'd have it no other way.
Any major life change can bring challenges to a couple who wishes to share it as equal partners - be that traveling together around the world, starting a business together, or having children and choosing to share equally in their care. The alternative to ESP is to split the experiences and power, relegating one partner to junior status as a parent (something that can work well for many, but we suspect would have brought even more misery to these two parents who both so clearly wanted time and a deep connection with their son).
We would like to offer that ESP itself - the true equal sharing of breadwinning, housework, childraising, and time for self - is not the core of the problem that this article describes. And that when two parents want the same deep connection with their kids, the bravery of addressing this head on might actually be more satisfying than the lives that a traditional arrangement might have provided. The author blames the inherent competition in her relationship for their miserable first year of parenting together. And competition turned inward in a relationship can indeed poison the trust that ESP requires. We've seen plenty of extremely competitive ESP parents (and some who are the opposite); but competition doesn't stop them from having a great relationship - it actually fuels their desire to succeed together because they turn their 'must win' energy toward fortifying their ESP lives against outside forces rather than competing against each other.
The author mentions that both she and her husband wish our book wasn't so downright serious about equal sharing. We kinda do wish we could be fluffy and light about the topic, but then the important stuff wouldn't get addressed. ESP is a model; models are not any particular couple's full-time reality - they are aspirations. And so much of what is written about equal sharing gets stuck in the surface stuff - the unimportant 'how to divide up the laundry' silliness. ESP is a substantial lifestyle choice, based not on charting out laundry division but on a shared willingness to walk in each other's shoes on a daily basis and a shared desire for equality and balanced lives. With all the pitfalls and difficulties, we had to be serious about the philosophy behind ESP to get at why a couple would want to work through everything it entails to reach lives that they love.
Toward the conclusion of the article, the author describes some light at the end of her stress-filled, fight-ridden tunnel. She notices how their son is free to choose either of his parents when he needs or wants anything, and that her husband has grown into an amazing father. She begins to appreciate how his skills can actually complement hers - how he is so well able to bring out strong, positive traits in their son that she is less inclined to encourage, for example. And she believes in the vision of ESP - still.
This article touched us. We felt the author's genuine emotional struggle and her wish to learn the lessons and make peace with the terrible moments. It so clearly illustrates how ESP can bring out the truth about our relationships - whether we're ready to see this truth or not. I've never been a fan of hiding from the truth, however, and I know it makes us better off in the end. I hope that this couple can reap the rewards of their struggles so far, and see how far they have already come. And I hope that readers can get past that damn title and start talking about the truth in their own relationships...and reach for the beauty that ESP brings.