Equally Shared Parenting

(Laura’s note: I’m taking the week off, and revisiting some posts from past years. This book review ran in January of 2010).

Over the past few years, Marc and Amy Vachon have found themselves in the public eye for what, judging by some of the comments on blog posts about them, seems like a pretty controversial and non-traditional lifestyle. Nope — nothing you need to cover the kids’ ears for. What’s gotten the Vachons a cover story in the New York Times magazine, plenty of TV interviews (and being profiled by me in the Huffington Post in 2008), is a commitment to being equal parents to their two kids.

Now in a new and very compelling book, Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents (which I blurbed), Marc and Amy discuss this philosophy. At first blush, it sounds like what women have been clamoring for all along. Who wouldn’t want dads to do more of the endless bathing and laundry and making school lunches that moms do? Many women who first hear about ESP wonder “where they can sign up… their husbands,” as the Vachons put it.

But true ESP requires just as much change from traditional motherhood as fatherhood–sometimes in ways that many moms would find difficult. For starters, as the Vachons write, moms “have to believe, just as strongly as any man, that breadwinning is your responsibility.”  Many mothers assume that having children gives them a license to either opt out of the workforce or not treat their careers very seriously. We get excited about a career’s flexibility, rather than its income potential, and we fail to negotiate raises because we do not see earning a family-supporting income as a critical part of motherhood. But if we aren’t willing to take on this responsibility, why should men take on more at home?

Now, obviously many women do put a lot of energy into their careers. But even in these cases, many mothers undermine the notion of equally shared parenting by assuming they know best on the homefront, and that their way is the right way. They then want men to do half of the work as they dictate it be done, and get upset when fathers don’t exactly embrace this subservient role.

To take one example, how often do small kids need to be bathed? What happens in some families is that mom thinks the answer is “every night” and dad thinks the answer is “twice a week.” Now, dad may be entirely willing to do half of what he thinks is the right answer. That is, he’ll give the kids one bath a week. But if mom doesn’t compromise on her number, that means she’ll bathe them six times and he’ll do once, and she’ll be bitter that he isn’t pulling his weight. But “every night” is not necessarily more right than “twice a week.” ESP couples have to hammer out a right answer for their family, not giving more weight to mom’s preference in situations where it’s not a matter of safety or medical necessity. Then they execute against the family answer, splitting this definition of the task.

It’s the same thing with housework. The usual stereotype is that women have higher housework expectations than men, and probably in many families, this stereotype has some grain of truth. But again, ESP requires mom to give up the idea that she’s right. Dad may have a point that there’s no reason to pick up a playroom nightly because the kids are just going to get it dirty again the next day. He may completely get behind the idea of cleaning it up once a week with the kids helping out, and turning it into a game of basketball (points scored for drilling the toy box with that Duplo car from across the room). ESP requires mom to acknowledge that if she wants it done more often, she either needs to give dad a compelling reason, or do it herself and admit that this added housework is simply leisure time — because doing it is a preference, not a necessity.

Marc and Amy make it clear that ESP requires shifts from fathers, too (my profile of the Vachons was written in a bit of a wistful tone during a somewhat rocky period as my husband and I were transitioning toward a better split of work and kid time). They have to develop childcare competence, sometimes learning the hard way to check that the diaper bag has diapers before heading out. Dads can’t just assume that whatever they deem necessary for their jobs is a family priority, though I disagree with the Vachons that choosing part-time work is a great option for both partners. There still aren’t that many great part-time jobs out there. Going from, say, 45 hours per week to 35 hours often involves severely limiting one’s career options, and earning much less than one would proportionally assume.

Still, the Vachons do a great service in pointing out how modern parents can be fully involved in raising their children, building their careers, and maintaining their personal passions. As I note on the jacket (quoting from my HuffPo piece), “the Vachons are the leading edge of true social change.”

photo courtesy flickr user glokbell

6 thoughts on “Equally Shared Parenting

  1. I am the more laid back parent on things like bath and bedtime, but still the primary parent… I had a single mom so I think this might be part of it and my father’s father didn’t do as much as he could have… I do think that to be a feminist in modern america is to rebel against the mommy track… that is we believe that motherhood should not relegate you to the mommy track.. look at margaret thatcher ! will check out cover story…

    1. mean to say my husband’s father provided to him a terrible example of equally shared parenting so I think that is at the heart of our own desire/struggle to do better …. also equally shared parenting book is really into both parents working like 30 hours a week (benefits, work done at 30 hours versus 45) which is kind of hard to do in modern society and anti feminist if you are into women getting off the mommy track and society helping them do that..

      1. Working part time does not equal “mommy track”, nor is it anti-feminist. Unfortunately it’s not easy to find good part-time arrangements with benefits, but it is possible.

  2. I like the point about true equality meaning that both partners have to take their earning potential seriously, too. I think you could arrive with an arrangement where one partner “downshifts” and still consider it an equitable one- but only if both partners discuss it and think about how to balance things out. Anyway, it is interesting to think about.

    I would love to find some research on the impact of the woman’s salary on home equality. I need to go spelunking and see if I can find some data.

    1. @Cloud- please share what you come up with on the data front. I think one of the points that came out of the “Richer Sex” article was that though sociologists have had a pet theory that when women earn more men do less around the house in order to show they’re still wearing the pants, or some other such offensive idea. But it’s just a pet theory. It turns out not to be true. It’s certainly not globally true. Men are doing a lot more childcare and housework than they did in the 1960s, and women are earning a much higher percentage of family income. In some specific families it may be true, but they probably stand out as anecdotes because they’re different. Another point of the ESP article was that women do a lot of gatekeeping — setting a certain standard or approach, and then expecting men to do half of that. I imagine this would be as frustrating as my experience with various home contracting projects. My husband tends to take the lead on them, but I’m the one around when the workmen show up because I work from home. I attempt to be empowered to approve various costs, quality of work done, and then he shows up and inevitably I have done something “wrong.” After this happens enough, I find it tempting to just shrug and tell the workmen to call my husband at work. I imagine many men would feel the same way after being told they’re dressing the baby wrong.

  3. IIRC from the article about ESP, part of what this couple wanted to do was avoid outside child care *and* not have one person leave the workforce entirely, hence their dual part-time arrangement. I think that’s what makes their situation unique.

    Obviously you can still do the same with 2 FT working parents but I thought that one of the points of the ESP article was that *both* parents were “downshifting” their careers to handle the parenting stuff for a while.

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