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

Friday, June 24, 2011

Shattered: A Book Review

A couple of months ago, I heard about a new book, Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality, that is advertised as "a call to arms for a revolution in parenting." Published in England only, it is described as a rant against the unfairness of modern role-based mothering - with the 'call' being toward equally shared parenting. At the time, not having yet figured out how to obtain a copy, I only hoped that it would be a forward-thinking, solutions-based book rather than yet another big, long, loud complaint with no instructions for how to make life better.

Soon after my initial mention of the book, I did in fact here from its author, Rebecca Asher, who generously sent us a copy along with her good wishes. Yay! And over the past few weeks, I've slowly chewed through the chapters - which are packed with information and well written descriptions - and I learned a lot.

Shattered does indeed do its share of complaining. I can't get you out of that one, Rebecca, but I'll mitigate my comment by saying that the complaining is really, really important. It is completely justified, and best of all, it fully includes fathers in the discussion. For many, many of us, the usual state of parenting shuts doors we'd rather were left open. It squashes women's career dreams or squashes their hopes for motherhood (or both). It also relegates women to 'foundation parent' status, and men to junior parents and family ATMs. It pits couples against each other in a race for fulfillment, leaving their relationship gasping for attention and care along the way. And none of this can be great for the kids either.

So Rebecca spends much of the book outlining this sad situation - what she aptly calls "our current state of parental apartheid." Unlike other books to have done so, however, she very clearly describes how men (not just women) lose out in the present state, and how the answer must come from what will work better for both sexes.

The author's aim is "to discover if there is another way of organising our homes, communities and workplaces which would enable both women and men to give wholeheartedly to their children and to experience the joy of a deep connection with them, while retaining other fulfilling elements of their lives."

Chapters are devoted to what happens to couples after they have a baby (including, interestingly, how many hospitals in Britain apparently do not allow fathers to sleep overnight on the maternity floors), how mothers judge each other and contribute to the problem, the effect of parenthood on careers, the work/life conundrum of new fathers, and maternal gatekeeping and denigration of father's contributions.

Then comes my favorite chapter - one describing how other countries are successfully (and sometimes not so successfully) moving toward a more ESP-based society. I learned the most here, and found this chapter the best synopsis of what works in governmental solutions that I've ever read. The UK, with its seemingly generous maternal leave policy, is actually making gender equality less likely as women stay home longer and men eschew leaves to keep their careers on track. In other countries, such as Sweden, Norway and Iceland, use-it-or-lose-it paternity leaves are working to vastly improve equality and equal parenting. The US, with its 'nobody gets nothin'' attitude, actually prevents an equality meltdown as both parents struggle to come up with their own solutions to "who will take care of our children" and "who will work." Not that I'm advocating for the no-help-for-you situation we're stuck in at the moment, but it will be very important not to push simply for paid maternity leave if we want to avoid enhancing gender inequality!

Rebecca's book does end on a hopeful note. And while she focuses primarily on solutions that involve government or workplace changes (it should be required reading for UK policymakers!), she pushes us to take control of our own destinies - ESP-style. "Moving away from the orthodox model is hard: it opens up uncharted territory that exposes us to ourselves and to others. Rather than unthinkingly sticking with the familiar, we must engage with the full range of options in how we organise our parenting. We must be prepared to step into the unknown: giving up ground and claiming a stake in other areas." She recommends shared leave in a baby's first year, for example.

"Sharing the care of children throughout their dependent years, and moving between the public and domestic spheres as equals, may seem daunting and difficult. In practice it requires reciprocity, energy and patience - probably more so than clearly dividing the jobs of cash and care. There may be more daily negotiation but there is also the underlying satisfaction in a joint enterprise. And it is worth reminding ourselves of how this effort is repaid. The benefits of equally shared parenting do not just pay dividends for women...fathers form meaningful relationships with their children of significant long-term benefit to both; children learn that both mothers and fathers can provide care; couple relationships are more likely to last; and mothers and fathers spread their bets, so the family isn't dependent on the father for income or on the mother for care, if either of them leaves, dies or is unable to provide one of these functions for any other reason." Rebecca also lists wider benefits of a government that supports ESP through flexible working, high-quality affordable childcare: lower rates of child poverty, greater family stability, less crime, richer community life, rise in the fertility rate to allow for resources to care for our aging society, and keeping educated, qualified workers of both genders in the workplace as full contributors.

As the book concludes, "Men and women must come out of their corners, meeting in the middle to share all the responsibilities and pleasures of life. Together we can create a more equal society of which we can all be proud." In short, Shattered is indeed a manifesto for equally shared parenting. It narrates a compelling, urgent argument for the UK government, workplaces, and parents themselves. And if any of those parents happen to want to take on the challenge...well, we've got just the tool for them!

We are proud to add Shattered to our Resources page (and now it is available in the US on Amazon, although in a limited sort of 'other distributor' way).

Thank you, Rebecca, for sending us your brilliant book to read, and mostly for getting it out there into the world.

World, are you listening?


Blogger Helen said...

Thanks for your review. I loved this book, we haven't quite got to equally shared parenting yet.. but we are definitely moving in the right direction.. it was after reading this book that I found your blog actually. My not so great review is here.

7:08 AM  
Anonymous ND said...

Sounds like an interesting book and your thoughtful review is interesting.

I found your comment that "The US, with its 'nobody gets nothin'' attitude, actually prevents an equality meltdown as both parents struggle to come up with their own solutions to 'who will take care of our children" and "who will work.'" interesting. I think it's true that we have a terrible stalemate going on in our country.

I am a big supporter of shared parenting / shared earning (I'm one of those women whose had to forego motherhood in order to be able to provide for myself - and because I thought it was important to have women in demanding jobs in order to eventually equal out the marketplace - and because I struggled to find a man who took parenting as seriously as I do - so I haven't actually done this myself, though.)

I find I have almost a visceral reaction, though, to expressions like "paid parental leave" and "high quality affordable child care." I really think these demands that the state subsidize people having children are getting in the way of getting this fixed. I think this triggers a reaction that people don't need to take responsibility and plan for the decision to have a child.

For this reason I am more a fan of (a) the state setting boundaries on the marketplace for parenting and requiring unpaid leave to be available to both parents cumulatively (like FMLA, only I would extend it to 6 months) after a baby is born/adopted and (b) requiring reduced hour schedules to be available for a man or woman with a child under the age of 2; and (c) having some sort of program where people can create a savings account for their parental leave.

I just don't think it's a good idea to have taxpayers subsidizing people's choices to have children.

Any thoughts?

10:50 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Nice review - what do you mean, "not so great"? The first step towards ESP is to decide together that this is what you want for your relationship - this is how you want to live together, raise children together, grow old together as equals. The rest is simply details. Best of luck as you take steps and gather courage to make the decisions that will get you there.

Very interesting thoughts. In general, we're huge fans of the personal approach to ESP rather than waiting for our government or our workplaces to make it easy. Right now, right here, almost every couple with kids can live an ESP life if they really want to - and money is not the real barrier. This also goes for any person, with or without kids, who wants a balanced life.

That said, there are several things our government or workplaces could do to make ESP easier for more people. Flexibility is key, and also gender-equal policies. After that, the wish list could include paid leave and high quality childcare, but these are secondary to flexibility and gender equal use-it-or-lose-it policies.

As Marc says, if given the choice of paid parental leave or a reduced hours work schedule, we'd take the reduced hours in a heartbeat. This creates sustainable equality and balance rather than a one-time immersion. But just to make things interesting, if you needed to suddenly take care of your ill mother or father (or other relative) - would you appreciate paid leave to allow you to make ends meet while you did so? This is a bit of why we feel paid leave is also important, no matter how much a soon-to-be parent plans ahead. We can't plan ahead for the extent of what we need, sometimes.

Thanks for your thoughts!

8:48 PM  
Anonymous ND said...


I appreciate your reply. When you say "But just to make things interesting, if you needed to suddenly take care of your ill mother or father (or other relative) - would you appreciate paid leave to allow you to make ends meet while you did so? This is a bit of why we feel paid leave is also important, no matter how much a soon-to-be parent plans ahead. We can't plan ahead for the extent of what we need, sometimes."

I think that it's not realistic to expect workplaces or the state to subsidize people for this in anything more than short-term leaves (like a few weeks). I think creating subsidy for longer leaves creates a psychology of responsibility shift to the government or employer and this is not prudent. I think instead people of both sexes need to be thinking their whole life of needing this space for taking care of others - and planning for these "rainy days." It should not be considered a woman's sole burden or "choice" to do this balance. Nor should the burden or "choice" be shifted to the state or the employer because then neither men nor women are making accurate plans or decisions in their lives.

Anyway, I appreciate your reply.

I also wanted to let you know I enjoyed your book. I was curious how you decided to go by Marc's name of Vachon and not something hyphenated? Do you ever find that having the man's name on everyone in the family - without the woman's name accompanying it (including for the children) - creates a psychology of inequality?

2:19 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

ND - I definitely think we're very close in our beliefs. Our culture is not accustomed to people (especially males) balancing their lives so that they can stretch to meet emergency circumstances or simply live unhurried lives. I'm 100% for re-thinking this paradigm! And a life with this level of balance is far better than any particular chunk of subsidized leave for either gender.

My name choice: I decided very clearly to pick Marc's family's last name as my own because I'd been married before (divorced, no kids) very young - and had chosen my first husband's last name before really thinking this through. I then kept that name after divorce since I was then known professionally by this name. So when I met Marc and we decided to marry, it felt weird to keep my first husband's name and I was more than happy to let that go. I could have chosen to return to my maiden name (which was my father's, however - and my father was not a big or happy part of my life) or hyphenate (which causes its own set of problems). In the end, I picked Vachon because: 1) it was a cool name; and 2) I wanted to share a name - fully share a name - with Marc and our children in a simple, streamlined way. I'd like to think that if the cool, simple name were mine instead, Marc might have decided to change his. But it wasn't and I'll never know that 'what if'!


7:49 PM  
Anonymous ND said...

Thanks for your reply on my nosy question on using Marc's last name as the family name.

I have a bit of concern that this name issue is getting in the way of your message? To an outsider it looks like a very traditional decision that is inconsistent with the 50/50 marriage and family.

I noticed that Joanna Strober of "Getting to 50/50" did this too.

I hate to see all the good work you two and others like Joanna are doing in writing books, this blog and so forth being undermined by the name choice.

I understand many people have issues with their family name of origin (not least of which in that it was probably just the father's name), but it seems like there is a better way to get through this rather than just reinforcing the conventional way? There are so many costs to doing that; it makes the woman seem like less than an adult, the man overempowered and leaves the children with no family name connection to their grandparents, etc. on their mother's side - or even their mother, really.

Anyway, I just wanted to mention it because may be there is some way to deal with it that keeps it from getting in the way of the example you are trying to set? Not sure what that would be, though, except just to notice it.

4:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that "shattered" hits the nail on the head by making paternity leave part of the solution. As a pregnant person in Canada, where there is 1 year maternity, I'm definitely feeling the setback of a normally long maternity leave. Employers, friends and coworkers assume that I will be taking a full year, because most women do. In fact, in hiring discussions, I have been witness to conversations about other women which take into account that if she is in her 20's or 30's, the company is likely to 'have to deal with' losing her for at least one year during that period. Similarly, although my husband's employer is aware of the pregnancy, I think my husband's employer is in for a shock when they realize we will be splitting our leave 50/50. Although this is a large employer (>3000 employees) there has NEVER been paternity leave taken, despite the legal right to paid paternity in Canada. Unfortunately, from a simply financial perspective, this probably doesn't make sense in the long run so families are choosing to sacrifice only one career, rather than suffer setbacks in two.

1:02 AM  
Anonymous doris said...

Thanks for your your review, your site and your devotion to making the world a more equal place. Is your book or any of the ones you recommend available in French? It is very important to me that I get my boyfriend to read one of these books before we get into childrearing but he doesn't speak or read English.
Incidentally ,I can offer my services as a translator (I have training as a translator and am perfecly bilingual in ENglish and French)!
You're doing a great job, please don't stop!

2:04 PM  
Anonymous doris said...

BTw, Here in France you get parental leave, free quality daycare AND the possibility of having fewer working hours (of course mostly women choose to go halftime). This is a deliberate policy to encourage people to have children: that's why France has the highest fertility rate in Europe. Taxpayers are perfeclty happy with the idea because they all profit from it. I think onece you have you're just not ready too get rid of such a priviledge!

2:13 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Points well taken. Our name choice was definitely the right one for us, even if others draw conclusions that it is the same-old male-dominated choice. The end result is that way, yes, but we can't live our lives just as examples. And even if perfect gender equality were reached today, there would still be room for some couples to choose the man's name as their shared name. And sadly, we'd probably lose some of our audience if Marc had taken my name; not correctly, of course, but ESP could become associated with giving up all semblance of tradition - something many are not quite ready for. So sometimes it can be good not to be too extreme if you want to affect change more subtlely. All that said, we're with you - really!

Anonymous - much courage to you and your husband for surprising your workplaces with different decisions! You deserve to choose, and it is wonderful to hear that you are doing so.

No plans to date for a French translation, alas. The book is currently being translated into German. Maybe the right person in the French publishing industry will see that and think about its usefulness in France? We would love that. We hope, book or not, that you and your boyfriend can have all of these discussions about ESP and forge your own way - in spite of all those generous leave benefits!

8:14 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Oh, and someday we'll get back to blogging here! We had the idea that it might be nice to take the summer off, and I agree it has been nice to have a bit of a break after several steady years of writing. Stepping back from time to time from something we have been involved in so passionately can be healthy, we figure!

8:21 PM  
Anonymous parenting books said...

I have gone through that book.. that information so good. I really like modern motherhood details..

12:02 AM  
Anonymous ND said...

Amy - Yes, you have become poster children for shared parenting/shared earning, even though you may not want that. I can understand that.

My point about the name issue is just that is may appear hypocritical to traditionalists. When you are trying to promote a new ideal to people who like ideals, if you are making personal choices that cut against the ideal, it makes the new ideal seem unattainable and thus harms your message.

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