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Are You Ready for Equally Shared Parenting?

by Amy and Marc Vachon

Amy and Marc Vachon

Marc and Amy Vachon are the authors of Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents, a how-to guide for sharing the joys and challenges of childraising, breadwinning, housework and time for recreation. Read more »

Sorry, Amy and Marc Vachon is no longer taking questions.

When we talk about equally shared parenting to others, it's not unusual for someone to bring up the sheer impracticality of the idea. We might hear something like: "I make so much less money than my husband, so I just can't see asking him to do half the laundry." Or perhaps: "I work from home and my husband has an hour commute - it feels silly to insist that he ever drop off our daughter at preschool." Or: "Why make him cook if I enjoy it and he hates it?" Or maybe even: "The baby wants only Mommy when he cries at 2:00 a.m., so why would we upset him just to share?" Why indeed? Why would we turn our lives upside down to create some artificial, unrealistic equal sharing of responsibilities between mothers and fathers?

Before tackling this question, we invite you to step back and mull over one a bit more general. That is, why would a couple aspire to share these duties (and joys) at all? For some families, this is not an important goal. It may be that traditional gendered family roles fit well with each parent's life aspirations and both partners feel fulfilled in their divided handling of paychecks, diapers and cooking. This standard lifestyle is a fully valid option - neither better nor worse than any other.

But for many other parents - both men and women alike - a more evenly shared partnership is desired
for many reasons. Sharing keeps us connected in an intimate way to the details of our lives together - to
each other, to our kids, to our communities. When we share, we can relate to each other because we're
both in the messiness and wonder of raising a family together every day, and we can both understand
each other's challenges and triumphs in the workplace as we tend our equally important (although not
necessarily equally earning) careers.

Sharing keeps us both in the game - competent enough at any particular chore or situation to not always defer to the other spouse as the 'expert' or to feel trapped because our partner cannot handle things in our absence. Sharing gives us each a chance at a life full of what we most cherish - at work, at home - without going crazy from having to handle it all. Sharing prevents the burden of earning the family paycheck from landing squarely (or mostly) on one spouse, often allowing both a bit more freedom to take risks at work and find the jobs that energize them. And sharing teaches our kids that men can nurture and women can provide, and gives them two equally connected parents who can show them, up close, two different ways of navigating the world.

Yet so many of us sharing-minded parents find ourselves bending to decisions that make perfect sense at the time, and drifting farther and farther from our goal of an equal partnership. Social customs nudge us along too, telling us that men's careers are primary and women are ultimately in charge of raising the kids and keeping house - allowing women to consider staying home far more easily than men, and allowing men to opt for junior-status parenting duties more easily than women. Pretty soon, after a few months of Mom changing more diapers than Dad and Dad pushing ahead on that big project at work that earns him a promotion, it seems downright ridiculous to force the sharing of any particular task. Life has a way of making us forget what we had hoped for ourselves.

So when we wonder about the utter nonsense of asking a father to drop off his children - and risk arriving to work late while his wife calmly sips her morning coffee from her snug home office - we need
to remember the dream instead. This doesn't mean such a couple should begin a regimented sharing
of the school drop-offs tomorrow. But it does mean talking about what really matters - a conversation
that will be different for each couple. Maybe school drop-offs should be Mom's purview forevermore,
but Dad might want to get equally involved at school in other ways - perhaps pick-ups or 'room parent'
duties or by being the default parent who goes to the school functions. Or perhaps Dad takes charge of
piano lessons instead.

Or maybe, just maybe, there is a way to share that drop-off duty after all. What if Dad could go in to
work a bit late twice a week, returning home a few minutes later too? Would his boss care? Would he
get something out of being the one responsible for marching his kids out the door in time for the school
bell - juggling their breakfast, teeth brushing, hair combing, supply-gathering, lunch-making and proper
attire wearing? Would Mom get something out of not having to be the family drill sergeant twice a
week, perhaps enjoying a run or gym workout and helping out as needed?

When we focus only on the status quo - how we've arranged our lives today - sharing the load
can often sound downright foolish. Equally shared parenting never means a strict 50:50 division
of any particular task (rather, the goal is an even sharing of the whole of childraising, the whole of
breadwinning, the whole of housework and general time for recreation). But yet a mother gets
something invaluable by having a place in her family as an equal worker with an equally important
career, and as an individual with a built-in full partner in the childraising duties as she watches her
husband take charge of the children's morning routine. And the chance for a father to connect with his
children as he begins his morning with them on an intimate level - not just every so often but about half
the time - is priceless.

The first step to creating the dream of equally shared parenting is to claim it. Everything else is easy in
comparison. Sure, the rest of the world will throw seemingly practical roadblocks in your plans. It will
say you should build your life on making the most money possible - saddle the lower-earning spouse
with the bulk of the home responsibilities so the higher-earning spouse's career can soar. It will insist
you base your decisions on sensibilities like mileage, time, comparative aptitude for a task, and interest
level. But if we follow the "rules," we'll get lives that our culture picks out for us instead of lives that
might nourish our souls far more deeply.

We would love to hear your stories of crazy-wonderful equally shared parenting, or your reservations
about the craziness. What works? What is absolutely nuts?

Sorry, Amy and Marc Vachon is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Emily writes...

Thank you for providing some leadership and modeling on this issue!

I think I am most a fan of ESP for the benefits to children. It gives children a much stronger and broader view of the world to have two parents engaged. The children get to switch around having one as the ally and one as the "other." It's also great to have a same-sex and opposite sex parent closely connected with you as a child. It gives children concepts of choice and models how two people who are different than each other can get along. It gives them the financial security that comes from two-earners.

I just wish it were easier to do in our economy. If more people did it and asked for what they needed from their employers it would make it so much easier.

In your last paragraph, you say some people throw up roadblocks such as "sensibilities like mileage, time, comparative aptitude for a task, and interest level." It may indeed make sense for one parent to do one task because of greater aptitude or interest, but what is important, I suppose, is that the aggregate not become unequal in regard to time spent on paid work and unpaid work? Also that both parents are spending relatively equal amounts of time with children?

Amy? writes...

You bring up excellent points. Many of the ESP couples we have come to know, and many of those we interviewed for our book, foremost practice this lifestyle because they love what it provides their children and feel this is the best choice for their family overall. You eloquently list some of these benefits.

ESP is not the easy path, however, as you acknowledge. Employers and business policies do not make it simple to fit two careers into the balanced lives that are at the foundation of equal sharing, and social stigma can put up a barrier - one that can be overcome, however, if a couple can keep the ultimate prize of an ESP relationship in mind. We've heard many stories of mothers and fathers who ask for their desired work schedules and are turned down the first, second, third time; or who have had to change jobs or even careers to get the work schedules that make them sustainably happy with the balance.

Your last point is a tricky one for sure. We feel that many couples throw away their dreams of equal sharing with the handy excuse that one parent is just so much better at a given task (or at the whole of childraising or household chores), or that one parent cares about a clean house and the other doesn't see the dust - ever. While we believe it is important to bend to the specific interests of each member of the couple, we think it is slippery slope to attribute incompetence in any task - and then use this as a reason not to work toward full competence. If a parent who claims he/she could not boil an egg is suddenly asked to cook twice a week, we're betting the dinner would be both palatable and nutritious - at least over time. And the more a couple is able to share in a given chore - at least sometimes - the more they will maintain their ability to walk in each other's shoes and keep that intimacy alive. We're big fans of mixing things up rather than dividing chores based on claimed competence or interest.

That said, you hit the big goal on the head: two parents who spend relatively equal amounts of time with their children (and on paid work, housework, and time for themselves). And we'll add, two parents who are equally invested in each of these domains as full partners.

emily writes...

PS - When you say one reaction is that "I work from home and my husband has an hour commute - it feels silly to insist that he ever drop off our daughter at preschool." Or: "Why make him cook if I enjoy it and he hates it?"

These are written as though the woman is making the man do these things. I suspect equal shared parenting works only if men want it, not if it is forced on them?

And, of course, many men may not want it. The traditional male-breadwinner/female nurturer marriage is a system of power and privilege for men, although it has many costs in the form of poor quality, difficult to sustain relationships between men and their children and men and women.

Or some men may want it but may fear losing their competitiveness vis-a-vis other men if they do this. Will men stand up for these better relationships with their children en masse and get out from under this fear?

Would love to hear from men who do this, whether they like it, and what their thoughts are on how to make it an less against-the-grain and more neutral type choice for other men and women.

Marc? writes...

Emily, you are absolutely right. The only requirement for ESP is two willing partners. When we introduce ESP, women are much more likely to embrace the idea while I suspect that men see it as a way to get them to do more. However, as men hear about the benefits of ESP to both partners it becomes a more reasonable option.

I hear men say things like, "The two hours before the kids bedtime is the best part of my day." They may not feel like they have many options to change things based on cultural expectations but shared responsibility for breadwinning, more meaningful time with the kids, and potential for a daily partnership with their spouse may be enough to begin the conversation.

You make an important point to remember when you speak of the traditional model as a "system of power and privilege for men." To the extent this is true may also explain why men have embraced childcare and homemaking more slowly than women have ventured out to pursue meaningful careers.

Things are changing! We know that a large majority of young women and men idealize shared relationships and balanced lives. It's only a matter of time before businesses and social systems meet the demand.

nicole writes...

Really good article. I'm lucky in that my husband really does his fair share with the kids and the house--when he's in town, that is. :)

Chris writes...

Ii have 'shared' parenting with our child's mother for years, even though we live apart. I am absolutely 100% dedicated to my beloved child. I have been a preschool teacher for 3 years,and of course have formal training in early child development that is required for this. I have witnessed our son's mother abuse him on a number of occasions and bad mouth me to him, as indicated later in his own words. His mother couldn't care less about his welfare, even after counseling by me, my parents, and childhood material I've sent her. I'm not sure how to deal with this, other than to endure it and give my son the best I can when he is with me. I indeed cherish every moment we are together. The state family court system unfortunately blindly gave her primary custody, even though a psycholical evaluator recommended full joint custody.

Brian writes...

My wife and I have been together for nearly 13 years, married for nearly 8. We have two children; our son is 3 and our daughter nearly 1. Since the very early days of our relationship and well before we had kids, our motto has been 50/50. That doesn't always mean splitting every "chore" in half. She is much better at laundry and I am much better at home repairs. However, we always ensure that the jobs are shared equally. We ensure 50/50 through open and continuous communication; during the week we both "work until we're done." In fact, it can get somewhat exhausting checking in with eachother sometimes but it is critical to our successful relationship. A strong relationship takes work, it will fail if you don't work at it constantly. We carry this philosophy through to our parenting. My wife takes the kids to day care and I pick them up. We take turns caring for each child. My wife works from home and I commute. This works out to about 60 minutes of extra time for her but she doesn't fill this by taking on extra parenting duties. Rather, she does small jobs before going to work like emptying the dishwasher. Recently, she has been cooking dinner for the family during the week - I cook on the weekends. Overall, this works very well for us. It is not always easy and requires that we both continuously remember that our family is priority #1. We are both successful at our jobs though either one of us could definitely make more money if we were willing to give up the balance at home. As a household; however, we would be in about the same financial situation but each of us would have to shoulder the full burden of either earning a paycheck or running the household. It is much less stressful to share and, more importantly, it is much, much more fullfilling. The only way we can change society is one family at a time - think of where the country was just 30 or 40 years ago. I can't wait to see how things are when my children have kids. Thanks for the article.

Marc? writes...

Brian, I love hearing how your joint goal of sharing and walking in each others shoes regularly leads to more fulfillment. The details vary for so many ESP couples but I am in agreement that it is worth the effort.

Joanna writes...

My husband and I job-share and parent-share. We make up one full time teaching position at a boarding school; he teaches a class, I direct the tutoring program, and he does sports and the dorm. Literally, we are one person at work and at home. I love it and our son, gets to know both of us equally well. Our main goal is to our LO out of daycare and on a teacher's salary this is what works. The article is right, my husband and I understand one another better and work better as a team than I would say the average couple does.

Marc? writes...

Thanks for your story. You may want to check out this week's Time Magazine (10/18/10). There is an interesting article called Week-On, Week-Off Parenting. It looks at a study done in the early 70's where 16 couples lived the lifestyle you describe. The conclusions are encouraging for ESP dreamers; low stress, strengthened marriage, and shared understanding. Of course, there probably aren't many opportunities for parents to actually share a job but the ESP options are endless.

m writes...

When my husband and I first began to live together - it was definitely much more equal in terms of household work load. But as time went on I've picked up more of the household chores because his job was more demanding or because I preferred the way I folded laundry. Now with a child, the pattern has continued. Can you provide some ideas or tips how we can begin to do ESP? What are the steps to take to move towards ESP? How have others successfully done ESP or what made others less successful?

Amy? writes...

The first step is to decide ESP is what you both truly want. This is the step that I think gets glossed over in the media and by real-life couples because they want to dive in to the quick fixes or the concrete 'who does what' plans. But I can't emphasize it enough. Knowing that an equal partnership is at the core of your relationship will sustain you when 'life' gets in the way (that more demanding job, for example) and will give you pause if you're own behavior might be interferring (your desire to have the laundry folded your way, for example).

Once you're set on your deep desire for ESP, the rest is relatively easy. But still hard! It involves lots and lots of communication, not as adversaries but as teammates who are dedicated to making your relationship equal and keeping it that way. Sometimes, you'll need to iron out family standards for certain tasks - really dig into the details about why the laundry folding is important to you and really listening to your partner's point of view so that you can come up with what YOUR family stands for in terms of laundry folding. For many tasks, of course, this discussion is unnecessary, but for the ones that are pushing your buttons, it is. Then, you're finally ready to decide how to share the chores.

You may decide together that laundry folding is a great chore to give to you alone, while your spouse takes on something else to fully manage. Or you may want to share this chore; in which case, your challenge will be to step back from managing him at ALL...even if it means imperfectly folded laundry. Maybe he'll discover a more efficient, just-as-good, way to fold! If the folding-sharing isn't working over time, it's back to the communication to come up with Plan B - together.

The job is a trickier one because there are so many legitimate excuses involved. A more demanding job is, after all, more demanding! How can you argue against that? You can't, but you can put your heads together to examine the situation more closely and decide where you do have options. Maybe his job could slowly be made less demanding somehow, or yours could be ramped up to meet his? Maybe a tweak in one or both of your schedules could free you up to share an important piece of housework or childraising more fully? The goal isn't perfect equality, but rather a life for each of you that feels balanced with enough of each domain so that you're equal partners. And the goal of the discussions is to correct imbalances before they get so big that you find your equality eroded too much - and your dream way off track.

Natural Skin writes...

Really good article. I'm lucky in that my husband really does his fair share with the kids and the house--when he's in town, that is. :)

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