Equally Shared Parenting - Half the Work ... All the Fun

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Family Dance Party: 
Sharing the Emotional Zone of Parenting

by Jane

When there were the two of us and one child, work and family life balanced, or perhaps I should say it teetered predictably. Four nights a week I would return home from my job at a local university, Jimmy would hand E., then a toddler, to me, and say, “I gotta go to work.” As the door to his home office shut behind him, I would survey the living room and look beyond it into the kitchen: toys everywhere and, at best, the mere beginnings of a child-friendly meal on the countertop. With my son propped on my left hip and my tote bag sliding from my right shoulder, I would take a deep breath and start my second shift of the day, knowing that Jimmy was starting his, too.

When there were the two of us and two children, work and family life blurred. Jimmy and I were both freelancers for the first few years of our daughter L.'s life, and paid time, house time, and family time were jumbled together.  We rented a small office around the corner from our home and just a few blocks from the nursery and elementary schools our children attended. All day long, we would pace the points on one of our triangles: home to nursery school to office, for example, or office to home for lunch and back to the office again. Sometimes E. or L. would come to the office with us and sit on the floor and play with envelopes paper clips or a toy while we wrote, shuffled, and filed stuff. We socialized with other parents as we sat on the benches at the neighborhood park while all of our kids dug in the sand or splashed in the fountain. Jimmy and I occasionally gave each other “alone time” for reading or exercising.

Free time disappeared for a while after G., another girl, was born. Our by-then efficient routine of sharing tasks – “you watch the kids while I cook the dinner” -- no longer served us. While one of us soothed the baby and the other played in the backyard with the seven-year-old brother and four-year-old sister, who would cook the dinner? Who would cycle the clothes through the wash? Things got done, but haphazardly and simultaneously. If I were holding the baby, I used my free hand to stir the pot of boiling noodles. If Jimmy was in charge of E. and L., he cajoled them into accompanying him to the pharmacy and dry cleaners. I became adept at simultaneously typing and nursing the baby; he held her and typed as she slept. When a parent of a smaller family asked us, “What’s it like with three?” Jimmy had a ready answer: “We've gone from man-to-man to zone defense.” Every time he said this, I would roll my eyeballs for comic effect. There was truth, however, in both his joke and my response to it: We hadn’t lost the game, but we had, to some degree, surrendered to life with our team and coping with life in the zones.
Our careers are important to both of us. Jimmy writes and edits for print and online media, and I oversee a writing center and teach at a nearby college. He telecommutes to a California-based publisher, and his full-time hours are flexible; I work three days a week on campus and the rest of my hours from home. We share housework and childcare in a divide-and-conquer way that (mostly) works for us. I, as the oldest of five siblings, have more experience in the kitchen so plan and prepare more of our meals, and Jimmy, a project person, tackles more baskets of dirty clothes and piles of bills. At the children’s elementary school, Jimmy sits on a PTO committee, and I coordinate the Brownie troop. Every day one of us is dropping off or picking up or bringing one, two, or three of our children to and from a place they have to be at: school, afterschool childcare program, music lesson, pediatrician, audition, game, birthday party, friend’s house.

In every single one of these “zones,” there’s inequality. Jimmy has succeeded in a field, business and technology publishing, that pays him more than the one I’m in, education. Sometimes the financial responsibilities in our life weigh heavily on him. I'm a good and efficient cook and therefore do most of it, with Jimmy as potato peeler and dishwasher. Sometimes my food imagination fades and I'd like to offload the task onto someone else. Jimmy does a lot of laundry. I do a lot of closet cleaning. I lug the children on more seasonal shoe- and coat-buying errands, while Jimmy spends more time on the children’s party circuit. And so on. Over time, each of us comes to specialize in a few areas and we stay for too long in a kind of holding pattern, with Jimmy taking on extra work to underwrite camp tuition and me, consequently, picking up some extra work around the house. We have enough energy to get the tasks done, but not enough energy to seek parity.

A few times a year, however, we reach a pressure point in one of these zones and we renegotiate. We make a new plan; we write that plan down and post it to the refrigerator door. For a few days or even a few weeks, we adhere to the new plan fastidiously. The division of labor, in one of the zones, approaches a quantifiable evenness. Then life gets messy – a child stays home sick, or one of us travels to a week-long conference – and we edge away from that ideal split, relaxing into what we need to do to get us through a tedious stretch of days.

Jenn, a hairstylist, is more than 10 years younger than me, and she started her family just a few years ago. Many a time over many years, I've sat in her salon chair and told her anecdotes about the cute things our kids had said or the milestones they had reached. Now it's my turn to listen to her chronicles of life with child, work, house, and husband. She talks about struggling with the sleep schedule, juggling work and housework and parenting, finding time to socialize, and sustaining her own energy. Days at home with D., her two-year-old son, have their ups and downs. He's at that defiant stage, full of mischief -- like deliberately dripping milk from his cup over the side of his high chair tray -- that leaves his mother or father with a mess to sop up.

She stops cutting and holds the scissors, immobile, in the air. “You know, there is one great technique that really breaks the moods D. can get in. Do you remember telling me about Jimmy's dance parties?  I use his trick all the time.”  Jenn takes a minute to tell me how, when D., her son, seems resistant to her attempts to cheer him up, she announces, “Dance party,” puts some music on, and engages him in zany, energetic dancing. Ah, that’s pure Jimmy, I think, who, in my mind, is the inventor of private family boogie moments.

Like Jenn's son, our kids, too, although they are 7, 11, and 14 and way beyond their toddler years, get occasionally stuck in their moods: cabin fever, disappointment, and boredom. Turning on the tv, for sure, would turn those moods off. Why not use that energy, and turn their energy inside out instead? That's the impulse behind the dance party, which Jimmy inaugurated on a whim when our second child was still a toddler. In our then first-floor apartment, in the cramped tv/play/guest room, he would put on a CD, most likely the Spice Girls' “Spice Up Your Life,” yell “dance party!” and invite the kids to prance with him. On the oval blue area rug, kicked free of toys, the three of them -- a father, five-year-old boy, and two-year-old girl -- would shake their bottoms, flap their hands in the air, and sing along loudly.

It's hard not to dance when everyone else is dancing, so it was inevitable that I, though comfortable on the sidelines, would start joining them. Yet, because his overt sense of humor seeks an audience, Jimmy remains the one who turns up the stereo, bursts into exaggerated dance, and engages us all in locomotion through the house. Good dance music keeps being recorded, and, although our repertoire today runs more to Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado, spontaneous movement -- just when we need it most -- keeps happening in our house.
By telling me about the dance party’s effect on life with her child, Jenn's compliment also gives me an opportunity to think about the zone of parenting that Jimmy and I share equally: the emotional one. 

Fifteen summers ago, as we were anticipating the birth of our first child, together we took nightly strolls for exercise and for ice cream. Our ambulatory conversations were filled with our hopes for parenting. If those talks had a theme, it would be this: “We want to be there.” At that time, that phrase, “being there,” applied more to our mutual wish to be physically present to our child as much as we could, and to arrange our work schedules to make that possible. Looking back over many years of hard choices and renewed commitments, I have come to know that the daily gestures we have made in physically being here represent emotional gestures: We show the children what we most want them to know, that we are both wholeheartedly here to not only sustain their lives, but buoy them as well.

From Jimmy, I've learned that a good song with a fast beat can turn your day around. And from me, I’d like to think that Jimmy has become more tender with the children in their weepy moments. When a child has fallen and injured her knee as well as her dignity, for example, she requires gentleness and an opportunity to cry more than she needs the chance to answer the question “How did it happen?” Jimmy can bathe a grubby child, soothe a sick one, and commandeer a play date as well as I can, and he does them. I can turn up the car stereo, roll down the windows, and belt out a song with the children on the ride home from day camp as well as he.

It’s hard letting go of our natural and nurtured emotional roles. Perhaps it would be easier if Jimmy and I had decided that he was the Fun One and I was the Patient One and left it at that. Sure, the division of emotional labor in our house would be more efficient, and, with three kids, we could use an injection of efficiency. What, however, would have been the loss to our children, who rely equally on their two parents to provide for their quality of emotional life? And what would have been our losses, if I had held fast to my expertise or Jimmy to his?

Last spring Jimmy had surgery to repair a broken ankle after a couple of fraught, tiring weeks of pain and frustration for him and extra chores and nonstop days for me. We were both exhausted. On my birthday, a few days after he was discharged from the hospital, Jimmy was groggy from pain medication and in bed. Deciding to treat the day like any other -- homework needed doing, food needed getting -- I set the kids up at their desks and ran out to get burritos, salads, and chips from a nearby taqueria. I returned, walked into the kitchen, and discovered that the table had been set, a la fancy restaurant, in my absence. There was a tablecloth and cloth napkins. A salad plate rested on top of each dinner plate. Wine glasses stood where our mismatched water glasses usually did. The radio squeaked out a pop song.

Having heard the creak of the door and my keys on the counter, the three children filtered into the room. “Happy Birthday, Mom.” One at a time, they said it. They looked at me, smiling and waiting. “Oh, thank you. It is a good day,” I responded. We sat and ate. Later, I opened cards and two presents that they had ordered a few days earlier from online catalogs with Jimmy's help, anticipating that there would be no way to get to a store.

There are many ways that parents care for their children, and many tasks make up those ways. Children benefit from our labors, and from us they also learn how to care for themselves, and how to care for others.

©Copyright 2007 Marc and Amy Vachon

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