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.

Equality Blog

NOTICE: You have reached an OLD version of this blog. To view our current Equality Blog, please click HERE.  Thanks!

- Marc and Amy Vachon

Monday, October 19, 2009

Happiness Denied

Over at The Huffington Post, author and personal-strength guru Marcus Buckingham has been running a series of posts on his upcoming book, Find Your Strongest Life. I was intrigued by the premise of the first post: women's happiness has been in a steady decline for many decades.

Sounds crazy, huh? After all, back in the 1960s women led lives of overt female oppression - stuck at home as men's servants, raising their kids and scrubbing their floors - as described by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. How could we be less happy now that we have so many more options, and now that, in many fields, we are heading to college more often than men and often earning more than our partners? Any minute, statistics are expected to reveal that more women than men are in the workforce. Even at home, things should be better now than in the 1950s - we've got the microwave, the dishwasher, the food processor, and all manner of other supposed time-saving devices and conveniences. Never mind the Internet.

Buckingham offers up interesting data from 1972 to the present as proof of his premise, and then discusses (and debunks) several theories about why women are now less happy (while men's happiness has actually increased). And why individual women tend to grow less happy as they age. He says the trend is explained not by women working longer hours than men (in general, they don't), nor by women doing more household chores than men (they still do, but this difference is getting smaller - not bigger). He suggests, instead, that the trends are there because women are generally harder on themselves than men - and that when they take on more and more roles (homemaker, breadwinner, parent, community volunteer, amateur cheesemaker, school committee candidate), they feel miserable trying to balance their lives and be good enough at each role.

His solution is to throw balance out the window. Oh no, here we go again - 'balance' as a dirty word. But wait. I read further and notice that symantics are getting in the way. Buckingham doesn't like the kind of balance that has to be one-size-fits-all, perfect, this-vs-that - a tenuous and stressful state. Neither do I. I don't choose to throw the word 'balance' away, however, but rather to define it as something much more personal and satisfying. Buckingham takes a different route to a similar idea - he uses different terminology to describe living in the moment, and living your own authentic life (not someone else's idea of what you should be doing or how much time you should be devoting to work vs home).

Several other journalists have reacted to this Huffington Post series. Here's one very good analysis of why women are less happy now - well worth the read. Here's another that's a scathing attack on the data, along with a rebuttal. I think there is a lot of truth to some aspects of the decline in female happiness, and the reasons are complex. But I don't think the main problem is our perfection tendencies. I suspect it has more to do with the fact that we are living in a culture that has stubbornly refused to catch up to our desires, and so often we find ourselves following prescribed life paths that are wholly unaligned with our hopes and dreams. As women, we've availed ourselves of all the opportunities we now have but we haven't let go of our old roles enough to enjoy the mix. And men have let us into the work world but haven't remade their definition of masculinity enough to join us on the homefront.

What to do? Buckingham doesn't venture into all the governmental or corporate policy changes that could help make it easier for every woman to be her authentic self and live in the moment. He focuses on what an individual woman can do for herself. In becoming spokespeople for equally shared parenting, we've taken a similar tact. Marc and I hope beyond anything else to give others the courage to choose the lives that fit them best with open eyes. To learn to sidestep what our society expects of us so that we can build our own ways of relating as partners, workers, parents, people. For us, that's ESP - hands down. For others, that may be a very different solution. Doing something different isn't easy. It's often really, really hard. But if it allows us to create our own personal definition of balance, it can make us truly happy - this I believe.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Challenging Dads

The premise of an NPR column this past week was that men will take on more caretaking responsibilities when society both expects it and demands it. Namely, when the pediatrician, teacher, and other touchpoints in a parent's world start treating men as fully capable and involved fathers. Men will then feel society's stare of judgment and will be shamed, or at least lulled, into changing their ways.

I enjoyed the author's perspective and would love to embrace this "new" society but I'm not sure I can agree with the conclusion. Yes, I believe parenting roles are shifting and people are noticing but I don't think it's because president Obama is asking dads to do their fair share or because a nurse looked at Dad, not Mom, when sending instructions home. Instead, I suspect that society is changing "one individual decision at a time." Despite the lack of cultural support to do so, men (and women) are choosing differently from previous generations. Neither want to be pigeon-holed into roles that rob them of their ability to experience the bounty of parenthood whether it's pursuing a career, bonding with their children, caring for their home, or simply enjoying life.

The author challenges men to "step up" but I prefer to think a "step back" is in order. Let's engage our partners to structure our lives in a way that offers a sustainable chance at happiness for both. Imploring men to do more seems a little short-sighted given the complexity of the roles we have all assumed in recent decades.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Partner Swap

An interesting experiment is going on over at Slate. Named Freaky Fortnight, it involves a husband and wife swapping roles for 2 weeks. Husband Michael Agger works full-time at Slate itself, and his wife Susan Burton stays at home and does part-time freelance writing in between caring for their two sons, ages 1 and 4.

The experiment involves Susan literally stepping into Michael's job - commuting to his office, attending his meetings, and doing the writing and editing he would normally do. And Michael taking care of the kids and home. At first, I was worried that this was a gimmick a bit like those wacky ESP reality switches that were commissioned awhile back for The Guardian and The Independent. But, thankfully, it isn't.

Both Susan and Michael are wonderful writers, so the writing is thoughtful and wry. Neither is bent on playing out any bumbling stereotype - the dumb wife who can't handle the work world or the stupid husband who can't manage to feed the kids and get them dressed. Both have moments throughout their days when they realize little poignancies. Susan lovingly steps inside her husband's head as she sits in his office chair and tries not to rearrange his desk. Michael gets in-the-moment with his kids - able to be there for the tiniest discoveries such as a new word one of them learns on a particular day. They appreciate the difficulties of each other's usual roles, and each finds out new strengths of his/her partner.

I'm really enjoying Freaky Fortnight (entries are posted for the first week so far). Unlike those other swaps, this one both fully acknowledges, and also manages to get past, the unfair expectations that anyone can plop themselves into a new role and instantly excel. That's not what Freaky Fortnight is about. It's about sharing and intimacy and partnership. Walking in each other's shoes.

Just one of the perks that ESP offers every day.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

An Equal Future

Over in the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is tackling the issue of making sure that there are adequate numbers of skilled workers available to meet the demand as more people reach the standard retirement age of 65. Of course, this predicament is not unique to the UK - there are similar concerns in the US and elsewhere. However, I find it refreshing to hear public discourse on the topic.

I like the concept of companies tweaking the "standard" work week to attract and retain skilled employees. Maybe baby-boomers will want to stay in a workforce that allows for more flexibility while encouraging meaningful contributions. Perhaps caregivers, parents and down-shifters would like the same options? I see potential for creating a vibrant, dedicated, flexible workforce comprised of all types of adults that companies could embrace.

The Guardian (UK) ran a column recently outlining the scope of work for the EHRC. Here are some of its goals:

"Britain cannot afford to go on asking people to fit their families around the demands of ever-more intense 24/7 global competition, and marginalising or rejecting workers who fail to fit into traditional and inflexible working arrangements."

"As part of the first phase of Working Better, which focused on families, we found that today's parents want to share work and family more equally, and that there is extensive unmet demand from fathers for more leave with their children."

"We have proposed the current model be replaced with a world-class policy of gender-neutral parental leave by 2020."

"The challenge for government and for employers is to take advantage of these changes by showing a real commitment to flexible working. Only then will we be able to capitalise on the full diversity of talent available to us in 21st-century Britain."

The UK is apparently getting comfortable with the discussion of real, normal, flexible workplaces. And I am encouraged that the policies being discussed are often without reference to gender or parental status. I firmly believe it is possible to establish a workforce that can meet both the demands of business and the desires of all workers.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Unhealthy Kids? Blame Mom, of Course

The BBC News aired a segment on Monday that examined data from an Institute of Child Health study of 5-year old children. The study looked at the eating habits and physical activity level of 12,500+ kids, breaking them into those with stay-at-home mothers and those whose moms worked at least part-time. The findings? Working moms make kids junk food snackers and couch potatoes. The study's lead author hypothesizes that working moms don't have as much time as SAHMs to devote to providing healthy snacks and limiting TV watching.

What about the dads? The researchers wave them away as background noise. They didn't examine men's work hours because these haven't seemed to change whereas women's work hours have. This argument doesn't make much sense to me, unless they really mean that they could not find a large enough cohort of stay-at-home dads to include in the study.

But the bigger issue is why this kind of research continues to be conducted and then promoted as 'blame the moms' fodder. Father employment levels may not have changed as much as mother employment varies, but father involvement sure has changed. And what if parental involvement counts more than a 'yes/no' response to a "Do you work?" question?

Parents who haven't got time, or energy, or knowledge, or inclination, to care what their children are eating or doing will probably raise children who eat more chips and log more tube time. Parents who have chosen to balance their lives (regardless of whether this includes working) and care about these issues will take the steps to teach their kids to lead healthy and active lives. With ESP, for example, both parents have plenty of time with their kids (together at least as much as a SAHP would have, in most cases), and they are both equally competent to handle the nutrition and exercise issue every day.

Can we stop blaming the moms and ignoring the dads?

Hat tip to Melissa for sharing this news.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Angry Wives with a Plan

If you recall, Parenting Magazine published a piece in January called Mad at Dad. They did a good job riling up the masses of women who are fed up with their lives in large part because they feel burdened with the roles of primary parent, homemaker, and often co-breadwinner as well. I have to admit that this would get me mad as well. At the time, we blogged about this piece with some suggestions for moms.

Since then, Parenting Magazine has garnered their own advice for moms to get past the anger. We were honored to toss in our opinions and really like the resulting piece released this week. Here are a couple points from some of our favorite mentors:

"First, recognize that equality is an attainable goal," says Francine M. Deutsch.

"You want to feel like you're solving things together instead of having dump-on-Dad time," says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D.

Luckily, we don't sound too shabby either:

"Involve your husband as your partner, not your employee. Ultimately, this is a gift to your children," says Marc Vachon. "Moms and dads are different, but they both need to be equally valued," he says.

"The more you can build the sharing into your schedule, the less it becomes a contentious issue," says Amy Vachon

Hopefully, this will get people focusing on the solutions instead of the problem.

Monday, September 21, 2009

In the End, What Really Matters?

Warning: I'm feeling rather philosophical - make that downright spiritual. I've just finished reading Arlie Hochschild's The Time Bind (her 1997 follow-up to The Second Shift), which of course I should have read long ago but, well, didn't. I'm actually not sure I would have appreciated it as much if I'd read it a few years ago, so I'm happy to have devoured it now. Or rather, I'm glad I waited to have the nightmares I'm now having.

The Time Bind is like that old horror movie (and book) about conformity, The Stepford Wives, in many ways - only it's real. It follows Dr. Hochschild (sociology professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley) into a seemingly ideal, top-rated Fortune 500 company she re-names Amerco to protect the innocent. There, she is granted in-depth interviews with anyone she wishes to meet, from top brass to midnight assembly line workers. She follows them home and interviews their spouses, observes their children, and offers a therapist's view of what is really going on in their heads as they work themselves to the bone and sacrifice the well-being of their families at the same time their company offers them all sorts of work-life balance perks they generally ignore.

"What's going on here?", Dr. Hochschild sets out to answer. Not what many of us might think. The answers are chilling, and so completely sad. The Amerco employees work because their company has become their real home - much simpler, much more instantly gratifying or at least palatable than dealing with the messiness of home, kids and partner. They work because the work culture at Amerco has brainwashed them into thinking that work is w-a-y more important - often the only important thing in their lives - than the stuff that really counts. They've drunk the KoolAid that proves they are devoted workers first, and that...oh, well, yeah I have some kids but that's beside the point. They think that a balanced life is a crazy notion - or something they'll find a way to have at some future date, with some fictitious version of themselves they cling to but don't value by actions.

Amerco is American business. It is all the well-meaning but capitalistic-success-driven companies that offer flex schedules and work-from-home options and reduced hours that maybe 1% of employees dare sign up to take. It wants workers to be happy, and it feeds them its own brand of happiness in a 'workplace culture' that makes us forget we are people, parents, brothers, sisters, lovers, friends, neighbors too. It values face time, not results (even as it often says differently). It forgets that sometimes the best workers are those who are actually free to see their kids and cultivate happy marriages. And in this downturned economy that has those of us who are still employed working scared, it is alive and well.

Along comes the President of France. As described in the terrific new Work.Life blog over at True/Slant, Mr. Sarkozy is challenging nations (nevermind simply corporations) to think completely differently about their value. He's suggesting that instead of measuring the success of a country by its economic output, we also measure this by the general well-being if its citizens. In other words, happiness could possibly count for something! Imagine a world where the end goal wasn't how many things we buy, consume or produce. A world where a 'rich' country afforded its citizens more leisure and time with our families rather than a chance to work yet harder with each passing year.

Mr. Sarkozy's brilliant ideas will probably come to nothing. They'll end up in some metaphoric landfill somewhere, buried underneath the stuff we've consumed that took long hours at work for us to earn. After The Time Bind, I'm cynical.

But, at least for each of us personally, I'm very hopeful. With ESP, we chose differently every day. It gives us a chance to do good work, the ability stay connected intimately with our families and remember that this is our greatest joy, and the option to align our lives with what we each truly value most.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Feminism and the Immersed Parent

What a joy to read a recent post by Backpacking Dad called Feminism and the Immersed Parent. He cleverly argues that women who continue to perpetuate either the myth, or reality, of their bumbling male partners actually do a disservice to the goals of feminism. I couldn't agree more! He utilizes an analogy of men ridiculing women in the workplace a couple of decades ago and how that behavior has uniformly been rejected by society to the point of being used as a grounds for determining a "hostile work environment." I would suggest that the effectiveness of this terrific analogy proves the persistence of gender inequality: men own the work domain and women own the home domain.

Obviously, culture plays a huge role in the behavior that we each consider daily despite our wishes to do otherwise. Women in the US without shaven legs do so intentionally regardless of the expectation and men don't tend to wear skirts partly due to similar expectations. However, being genderless doesn't necessarily "solve" the problem either. Many same-sex relationships can attest to that. If gender isn't the deciding factor for family decisions perhaps earning power, geography, interest, or expediency will be used instead. Without the unemotional framework of what equity might look like we are likely to miss the mark for any number of reasons.

Unlike the ESP model, Backpacking Dad doesn't continue to push equity down to the details of our lives but instead allows the intention of equity to suffice. "An immersed parent doesn't have to be the one doing the cooking or the cleaning, but will care that the child is receiving good nutrition and living in a clean environment. An immersed parent doesn't have to be the one singing lullabies at night, but cares that the child sleeps well. An immersed parent doesn't have to be the one to attend school board and PTA meetings, but cares about the quality of education the child receives."

Of course, these statements are mostly true. Sure each parent should be fully emotionally invested in his/her role as parent in all aspects. But if an "immersed parent" never cooks, cleans, sings lullabies OR attends PTA meetings, full equity has little chance of prospering. Time is the frontier feminism could embrace. Equivalent time pursuing a career, equal access to experience the wonder of childcare, sharing the responsibility for the home and jointly creating opportunities for rejuvenation.

I expect that there are quite a few men, and women, who could embrace that model.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Parent of Record

Now that we're in the thick of the back-to-school season, it's time to fill out all those forms sent home with our children that ask for our names, addresses, cellphones, emails and places of work. Oh, and that determine which parent will be the lucky recipient of those automated phone calls alerting us to our children's tardiness, absences, the school spirit day family gathering, the next PTO meeting, early release days, the start of the book fair and bake sale, and any number of other announcements. Who to pick? Mom, as usual? Dad, just to freak out the school secretary? Both (but that could be rather inefficient for you)?

We've typically defaulted to me as the parent of record, only because our work schedules mean I currently do more of the drop-offs and pickups than Marc does. But that does leave me either holding the responsibility for taking care of the news, or feeling petty for passing on this job to Marc when it is so easy to handle myself.

At T's school, we're both listed on the general contact list. And at M's school, I'm the auto-call recipient but both of us appear on the class contact list (the only set of parents on the list, by the way).

Today, one of T's friend's parents called Marc's cellphone with a birthday party invitation. Since calls like this usually come to me, he hesitated a few seconds before diving in to check our schedule, tell me about the event, and then respond with a "yes, T would love to come" and book the date. His hesitation? Men don't own this stuff - they pass it on to women to do. Recognizing his slight urge to pass it on was interesting for Marc to observe and then push past.

How do you handle the 'parent of record' issue?

Monday, September 07, 2009

Can We Say "Enabling"?

Oh, no! Mom is going away on a business trip. How will Dad ever make it at home alone without her direction? Will the kids go hungry? Eat only junk food? Leave for school unwashed, uncombed and in badly matched outfits? Be abandoned at the end of the school day because Dad forgot to pick them up?

These are the worries of a female work/life balance expert in a recent Working Parents blog entry (a parenting blog we usually love). To combat her fears, she suggests that moms plan ahead before boarding that plane. Start with a well stocked pantry - one full of fully prepared meals rather than individual fresh ingredients so that your hapless spouse can simply heat them up. Then, make sure you've got plenty of paper plates and plastic utensils on hand, because God knows a man can't be expected to wash dishes and feed the kids. Next, leave out explicit instructions about when each child needs to be where every day. Add in emergency contact numbers because, well, he surely should not be expected to know or find these on his own.

Then, prepack the diaper bag and kids' backpacks (he would never do this right). Wash the kids' clothes so, heaven forbid, your poor kids won't be without their T-ball shirts on game day because your husband couldn't possibly be expected to think ahead for this responsibility. Then, and only then, you'll have a shot at relaxing during your business trip - knowing that the kids are okay because once again you held up their world.

The blog author actually forgot a few useful tips. She should have filled up his car with gas, laid out her husband's outfits for the week, called his work colleagues to make sure they reminded him to get to the office on time each morning, left him messages explaining how and when to brush his teeth, and alerted a neighbor to stop by the house each day to make sure he's moving his bowels.

Pardon me...the lack of subtlety in the Working Parents blog entry carried me away for a minute.

This work/life balance writer seems proud of her tips. I'll bet she also hopes for an equal partner in raising her kids. Yet she sabotages her chances at such by treating her husband like a child so that she can relax on her business trip - because she remains in control. She takes on a huge amount of extra work, but the work is easy compared to the discomfort of letting go and actually allowing her husband to take on any decent parenting responsibilities.

I'd be embarrassed to be treated this way.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Letting Men Into the Experience

We've said countless times on this blog that women who want to share in the work of parenting with their partners need to let go of running the show at home and with the kids. Don't make more than your share of household or childraising decisions, don't direct your husband or belittle his way of handling the kids or chores, etc. In fact, we've said more than once that there are only a couple of things that you can't share as a mom: pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.

Well, maybe you can share these too. Not physically, of course. But sometimes the most important things aren't confined to the physical. Take pregnancy, for instance. It's pretty common for pregnant women to kind of fold in on themselves and take in all the changes going on in their bodies - the wonder of those first fluttering movements, the cravings and repulsions, the careful eating, the strange aches and odd proportions and unique clothing requirements. Sure, they might involve their partners peripherally by letting them know when the baby is kicking or inviting them to join in at an ultrasound visit. But they typically focus on the pregnancy as theirs alone - later, the baby will be shareable.

All of this woman-focused baby-making is understandable. Yet, in a very small way, it sets the tone for the future - or at least it can. "My baby" can become a way of thinking that extends past birth. And it allows the woman to slowly become better prepared, emotionally and mentally, for motherhood over 9 months - while her husband can more easily ignore the enormous life change in store until, say, he attends childbirth classes with her. Or maybe until the day their baby is born.

Joe Kelly, aka The Dad Man, advocates in a recent blog post that men and women think of their baby as 'theirs' from the first moment they know they are expecting. He suggests using language like "we're expecting" and even "we're pregnant" rather than "she's expecting" or "I'm pregnant." You may object - in fact, I can see pregnant women out there rolling their eyes and saying, "Hold it right there, honey...we're not pregnant...I am." And then sending their husbands out for mocha fudge brownie ice cream. But Joe is onto something. Yes, for the next few months, a baby is growing inside of one of you and not the other. But if you want that baby to grow up in the equal care of both of you, perhaps the experience of anticipation can be a primary focus for now...and this can be fully shared.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Score and Win?

Working Mother magazine has a new online 'test' that allows you to compare how much housework you are doing with how much your lazy...I mean, sweet...husband does. In Cosmo style, you're invited to add up your points on such tasks as:

Tossing the two-week-old takeout from the refrigerator. 1 point
Scooping up scattered toys. 2 points
Washing the funk out of a sippy cup you found in the backseat. 5 points
Scouring splattered tomatoes sauce off the stove. 2 points
Walking the dog. 1 point
Walking the dog in the snow. 5 points

And so on. Then, you're invited to tally your score against that of your spouse and the veil is lifted. Ding, ding, ding. We have a winner!
Now isn't this just what we don't want to do if we're aiming for equally shared parenting? Who actually "wins" when one partner proves she's doing more? This kind of scorekeeping may serve to shed some light on a problem that both spouses already know deep (or not so deep) down, but it sure doesn't set the tone for solving it. Besides being a cute, far-from-validated test of unequal household labor, it takes a partner-based lifestyle like ESP and turns it into a he said/she said contest. Blech.

The rest of the article that contains this test is actually pretty good. It enlists the help of our beloved mentor, Francine Deutsch, who points out that couples should aim for equal time spent doing chores rather than picky individual chore division by so-called expertise. Dr. Deutsch also advises skipping old gender assumptions when choosing chores, approaching the issue with a spirit of cooperation rather than fighting, pointing out the benefits to your spouse of equal housework, not micromanaging his involvement, and meeting together to evaluate how things are going to tweak them over time. Amen to all of this.

p.s. One more nagging thought. Granted, the average person might consider walking the dog in the snow to be more onerous than doing so on a beautiful summer day. But is the weather really the sole determinant of our ability to approach a task with joy? I can imagine someone (not necessarily cat-loving me) who might actually like strolling down a quiet, snow packed street with his dog. As the saying goes, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." Time is the only impartial measure of dividing chores. Go ahead and make the best of your own to-do list.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What Do Women Really Want?

I was flipping through the Harvard Business Review at work today when I found an article called Understanding the "Female Economy." It was written by a man and a woman who wrote the forthcoming book, Women Want More: How to Capture Your Share of the World's Largest, Fastest-Growing Market. The article documents the main areas of opportunity for businesses to sell their wares to women who apparently make the purchase decisions for "94% of home furnishings...92% of vacations...91% of homes...and 60% of automobiles."

The authors also conclude that women "have too many demands on their time and constantly juggle conflicting priorities - work, home, and family." Their solution is for companies to focus on "time-saving solutions or for products and services designed specifically for (women)."

The strategies make perfect sense from a business perspective but from a practical or personal view none of these supposed products or services will help women or men get what they really want...a partner. Sure, they can save a few minutes with some fancy new gadget or streamlined grocery or dining options but if they continue to own most of the major purchase decisions around the home, not to mention much of the actual work that needs attention, satisfaction will continue to be elusive.

Henry David Thoreau weighed in on this issue about 150 years ago in Walden: "I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes."

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Name Conundrum

After we had turned in the first draft of our manuscript, our editor asked us how we wanted to print our names on the book's cover. Would we be Amy and Marc Vachon, Marc and Amy Vachon, Amy Vachon and Marc Vachon? Seems like a simple query, but we know it is actually a mini-minefield.

Over these past few years, we've gotten used to the occasional question about why we've placed one of our names before the other, or why Amy chose to take my name when we married. After all, we're all about bucking tradition. So why do we sometimes sound like Ozzy and Harriet when it comes to our names?

There's been plenty of discussion elsewhere about how no perfect naming solution exists for parenting couples (either for themselves or for their children). Many ESP couples indeed do buck tradition - giving one child a mother's surname and the next a father's, or making up a new last name that combines the two names, etc. Many ESP moms keep their maiden names, some take their husband's last name as a new middle name (with their husbands doing likewise)...and some do as we have done by appearing to stick with tradition. Truth be told, our shared last name of Vachon just felt right to both of us. Amy had several reasons for wanting to shed her previous name, and genuinely loved my family's surname. We both like the idea, for us, of sharing a last name. It's our team name, and ESP is all about being a team together.

So back to the 'simple' question of how to appear on our book cover. Do we go with the classic feminist (and in this case, alphabetical, too) approach of 'Amy and Marc Vachon,' or do we perhaps separate our names to retain our individual identity, or is there something meaningful about my name appearing first...something that might draw attention to the idea that equally shared parenting is not just a woman's desire (as so much of the parenting literature is positioned) - that it appeals equally to men.

In the spirit of Team Vachon, we decided to go with joined rather than separate names. But who appears first? This book was written by both of us. The order of our names doesn't matter to either of us; what's inside - our message - is the key. And our equality message is neither 'women first' nor 'men first.' In the end, we took a very scientific approach. We got out our highly calibrated equality data collection instrument and flung it high in the air. "Heads," we called.

It will be 'Marc and Amy Vachon.'

Friday, August 21, 2009

Taking Responsibility for Equality

Last month, I happened upon a blog entry at The Momoir Project from an ESP mother who is very thankful for her arrangement. It was a pleasure to read, but I was even more moved by one of the comments left on her entry. The comment was from another mother who has found herself in a much more traditional relationship. But rather than simply complain, she is extremely thoughtful about how she might have gotten there. Here is her comment, which I think is so beautifully written that I don't want to paraphrase it:

"Somewhere between dropping my wedding dress off at the drycleaners and extracting myself from the cocoon of my warm bed to nurse [my son], I lost a piece of myself. I stopped listening to Ani DiFranco and my dreams of taking down the system were exchanged for conversations about sleep and aspirations to find time for myself. I became wife and mother. Like stepping into a pair of yoga pants, I fell into the comfort of my roles. I took motherhood seriously and appointed myself chief caretaker queen without stopping to assess how this would all play out.

Now, two children under four later, I sit uncomfortably on my throne and I feel the hot orange wave of resentment as I drag my knackered spirit out of bed to get up with the kids by myself for the 250th day in a row since [my son's] birth. I've talked to friends who report that whoever hears the kids first gets up with them or that they simply take turns. I muse over what kind of miracle needs to take place in order for me to be able to sleep in. I sit silently and wonder where it all went wrong and how I ended up being the one who is constantly giving to everyone else around her at the expense of her own sanity. When did I become this person who can't negotiate her own needs? When did I become the kind of wife that lapses into the role of mother to her husband? I can't count the number of times I have said, "shh, Daddy's still sleeping." Somewhere between loads of laundry and wiping noses, I embarked on a journey to take care of everyone else's needs leaving my own almost unfulfilled. Should I be surprised that nobody has magically appeared to take care of them for me?

What is probably the most baffling part of all this is that I'm not married to some kind of uncaring lout who is unconcerned with my happiness and well being. Far from it. I'm married to someone who loves me deeply, someone who is happier when I am happy. And yet, somehow we have been delivered to a place that serves neither one of us. When we play the game of kid swap on weekends, we come together beautifully as a parenting couple. But recently when I listened to Ani DiFranco, I had my own mini Aha moment. She sang "and you will take the heavy stuff. And you will drive the car. And I'll look out the window and make jokes about the way things are." If I have misplaced small parts of myself then it is up to me to find them. If I want a tag team approach [meaning ESP approach, in this context] to parenting 100% of the time then I need to take the wheel and stop making jokes about the way things are."

It's Amy again. I love this mother's writing because it exposes how most of the world tends to approach why ESP is so rare - as a rude joke against women. "It's not fair that we're stuck with all the burden!" so many women and mothers scream or cry or laugh with sarcasm. Yet the problem is far from that simplistic. We are not just victims - of our husbands, of men in general, of even our culture. We're part of why things are not equal. No need to blame women, of course. But we do need to be at least half of the solution. We need to take responsibility, take action, take the wheel - and stop passively accepting the standard path for couples...it will lead to inequality, of that we can be sure. It is up to us, together with our partners, to turn that wheel toward ESP.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Child's Play

Our 7-year old daughter, M, came home from camp the other day and excitedly showed us a new hand-clapping game she'd learned. The lyrics started with:
It's as easy as 1-2-3
My mama takes care of me
My daddy watches MTV


We joined in her enthusiasm, and she taught us how to clap along. But later, we laughed together as a family about how those words don't make too much sense for us...how maybe 'my parents take care of me, sometimes we all watch TV' might work better.

It's a silly rhyme - not worth mentioning, right? In the grand scheme of ESP, probably not. But when our kids are subtlely buying into the idea that it's perfectly normal for moms to do all the caregiving and dads to tune out the family, we're setting up the next generation to unconsciously act out this age-old inequality (with both parents missing out on a lot of fun).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book Update

We began writing the ESP handbook about a year ago. Much of the doubt, false starts, and anxiety are distant memories as we enjoy the march toward publication, scheduled for January 5, 2010.

Back in June 2008, Lisa Belkin brought ESP up for discussion with her cover story on the NYT Sunday Magazine called When Mom and Dad Share It All. We heard many of you excitedly weighing in saying that you lived this way too. In turn, we interviewed close to 50 couples who wanted to share their flavor of ESP in hopes of bringing the priorities of an equal partnership and a balanced life to anyone who wanted to listen.

We are honored to have Lisa Belkin kick off the topic again with the Foreword and are happy to reveal the cover that was recently approved by Perigee, an imprint of Penguin Books.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Guest Blog: Don't Let Old Gendered Power Trip You Up

In the wide, wide blogosphere, there's something for everyone. Countless parenting blogs are now entertaining us and giving us a glimpse into the private family life of so many. But it is a special treat when you run across a blog that fits so perfectly with your own - matching thoughts, same concerns, similar ideas. With respect to this Equality Blog, we haven't run into such an animal (although we follow a growing list of wonderful blogs)...until very recently. Anne Mahoney, Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Denver, has started writing together with Carmen Knudson-Martin, Professor and Director of the PhD program in Marital and Family Therapy at Loma Linda University, at Equal Couples, and we are so happy to welcome them to the world of blogging. We've recently reviewed their new book, Couples, Gender, and Power, and now welcome Anne to ESP.com as a guest blogger. Anne...the microphone is all yours!

Don't Let Old Gendered Power Trip You Up
by Anne Rankin Mahoney, PhD
In the 21st century when most women, including mothers, work beside men in the labor force, it seems obvious that men should also be working beside women in the family. Nevertheless, this part of the change has not really happened on a large scale. Research shows that men do more family work than their fathers did, but still way less than their wives. Why hasn't the shift to equally shared families happened with the same speed as other 21st century changes like Internet shopping or textmessaging?

A big reason is that family equality involves a major power shift. For generations, families have been organized around gender. Women took care of the home and this "women's work" (in spite of all the nice things everyone said on Mother's Day) was considered lower status. As long as men just "help" women with housework or kids, they can keep a distance from women's work. When they "share parenting," they're doing it. Men who have overcome this old-fashioned attitude about family work have discovered that the shift positively affects them in a variety of ways. Marc regularly regales us here about the joys of equally shared parenting.

If we want an equal relationship and equally shared parenting, the first thing we need to do is become aware of the ways old gendered power can trip us up, despite our best intentions. For generations, men have been and felt entitled and women have served. If we want equality, we can't just say we are equal. We have to understand how the system has been, and still is, stacked against equality. And we have to do a lot of talking together to search out the ways in which those old gender roles are still stuck in our heads.

Then, we have to throw them out.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Careful What You Wish For

That's the warning sent out to men by Sasha Brown-Worsham on Babble a couple of weeks ago. She is speaking to any man who says he would like the opportunity to swap places with his stay-at-home wife. As it turns out, her husband gets laid-off and they get to experience a partial role reversal for 5 weeks. The article covers much of the expected struggles that he faces and does a great job highlighting some of the more difficult aspects of parenting young children.

The author's husband was a motivated father who wanted to be home and to succeed. He brought creativity and energy to the experience but he never got to the same level of competence as his wife. Maybe this was because she remained so available to rescue him.

Regardless, the article does a tremendous job framing up some of the challenges of traditional arrangements, namely, that specializing in either childraising or breadwinning leaves a lot of potential joy on the table from the minimized domain.

As commenters weighed in on the piece it struck me that nobody even referred to my favorite line, which happened to be the last sentence, "And somehow amidst this terrifying economic crisis we have been given a gift we never would have received otherwise: true equality."

Hopefully, other couples given this opportunity will be inspired to reach for this kind of lifestyle beyond the trial period. It's possible, sustainable, and worth the effort.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Babble Spotlights ESP

Welcome, Babble readers!

We're thrilled to be featured today on
Babble, the hip online parenting magazine we've been long impressed is actually written for both parents. Author Amy Kuras rounds up seven tips for achieving equally shared parenting and covers key concepts such as:
  • ESP is not about task division. It isn't about getting lazy men to do more around the house. It's about giving both partners a chance at a happy, balanced life.
  • Flexible work schedules, which are necessary to achieve ESP for most families, are possible even in times of national economic stress. Keeping the brightest and best workers by offering them the flexibility they need can be a bargain to employers compared to letting them go, recruiting and training others, and letting those go when they don't perform as well.
  • For ESP couples, maximal income is far less important than optimizing their lives as parents, partners and individuals. Work fits into their lives, rather than the reverse, and they are willing to make the sometimes-tough changes needed to live by their principles.
  • Two fully competent parents at home is a beautiful thing! For the kids, for the parent who can take a break from the action without preparing for her/his absence, and for the parent who knows he/she can handle what comes along - and even relish it.
  • Communication is king in ESP families. All couples fight or disagree (and that definitely includes us!), but all the communication that ESP couples tend to build into their daily lives may prepare us for more effective problem solving together. Just a theory, but it makes sense.
  • The core of ESP is a team mentality. A happy partner is your best shot at a happy partnership...and that's why we're doing this marriage thing together in the first place.

Hearty applause to Amy Kuras for hitting the ESP highlights so well. Choosing a life of equally shared parenting is not always easy, but it is nice to read in Babble a bit about why it's so worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Book Review: Couples, Gender, and Power

I just finished reading the new book Couples, Gender, and Power, edited by Carmen Knudson-Martin (Professor of Marital and Family Therapy at Loma Linda University) and Anne Rankin Mahoney (Professor Emerita of Sociology at University of Denver). The book is an academic text that pulls together a group of sociological studies to provide guidance to marriage counselors and others who work with couples so that they can think in fresh ways about relationship issues that might be arising from power differences based on gender.

Each chapter in Couples, Gender, and Power examines a new sub-topic or population of couples (e.g., young American marrieds, same-sex couples, couples in Singapore (a culture that emphasizes collective rather than independent goals), African American couples, first-generation immigrant couples, couples in Iran (patriarchal society). And each is packed with interesting ideas. I will take up just a few of the book's key points in this post. But if the overall topic interests you, I urge you to get a copy! Couples, Gender, and Power is a welcome addition to our Resources page - an extremely useful compendium of the social research on ESP to date.

Okay, on with my thoughts on some of the key messages....

By way of background, the authors provide evidence that gender 'norms' mess with our relationships - and we often don't notice them for what they are: limiting stereotypes we can learn to see and discard. And that classic gender roles are social constructs that result in a power difference between opposite-sex couples that can erode a relationship over time. Knudson-Martin and Mahoney point to solid data that describe egalitarian relationships as the most successful, intimate and stable. And to an imbalance of power as a motivator for both partners to hide thoughts and emotions, making intimacy difficult and lowering satisfaction.

The authors define equality as something far bigger than a couple sharing the load of dishes and laundry - and I could not agree more. Relationship equality, the authors say, has four dimensions: relative status (mutually defining what is important in your relationship), attention to the other (being emotionally present and supportive to your partner), accommodation (both partners organizing their lives around each other to an equivalent level), and well-being (sharing the burdens and supporting the well-being of each other).

Of particular interest is a chapter that describes a study of young American couples (mostly childless), and introduces the concept of the myth of equality. These couples all spoke of having equal relationships, but upon examination, most did not. They used words like 'give and take' to imply equality, even if one person gave more and the other took more. They spoke of having 'free choice' to each be his/her own person within the relationship, and looked upon resultant inequalities as simply arising from choice. They expressed 'all for one and one for all' as a shared belief that explained how decisions that benefited one partner more than the other were fully mutual. And they referred to themselves as 'partners' in a way that implied mutual decision making without the action behind it. All of this talk, the researchers found, acted as a symbolic representation of the couples' commitment to an equal relationship, but didn't often translate into actual equality. They called this the language of equality. I've seen plenty of this, often in reaction to media pieces about ESP, in which commenters say 'Doesn't everyone share these days? What's so special about ESP? We share everything, but it only makes sense for my wife to do the cooking because she likes it better.'

This chapter goes on to define the strategies that these equal-in-words-only couples use to deal with the reality of their inequality. Namely, they avoid the issue by:
  • rationalizing inequality as a positive ("She's better at running the house." "I don't mind doing all the laundry.")

  • not examining the consequences ("We've never discussed moving, since my business is here.")

  • settling for less ("I don't mind doing all the straightening up but draw the line at doing his ironing.")

  • hiding the issues (e.g., through humor)

  • placing responsibility for equality on the wife (e.g., by making it necessary for her to appreciate the work her husband did in order for him to keep doing it...our point exactly in Marc's previous posts on appreciation!)
The chapter ends by describing a way out of this myth of equality - through open negotiation, fighting (yes, although hopefully with respect), and working through power struggles rather than avoiding the issues. If a couple is willing to risk the unpleasant moments that will arise by confronting the problem, they have a chance at true equality - or at least at knowing the truth.

Interestingly, a study of Singaporean couples in a subsequent chapter showed a very different result. There, in a collectivist culture that discourages individual goals, dual-income couples speak of being traditional but actually act far more egalitarian. This is termed the myth of traditionalism. Why would this be? Collectivism truly is 'all for one and one for all.' In Singapore, it seems that young couples tend to marry their equals. They also highly value family needs, rather than the individual needs of one partner. And they are built for a team mentality...perfect for ESP.

Marc and I had the pleasure of meeting Drs. Knudson-Martin and Mahoney this past spring at the Council on Contemporary Families annual meeting, and were happy to hear from them that their research fully supports the ESP lifestyle. Since this time, they have started a blog, Equal Couples, and I encourage you to check it out. They are true kindred spirits in the quest for gender equality in relationships!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Countdown to January

Just a quick post with an update on our forthcoming book, Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents. The book cover is a work in progress, but we're very pleased with the cover art and hope to be able to post a copy here soon. We're now set for a January 5, 2010 release, and we already have an Amazon book page. Check it out!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Balance is Not a Four-Letter Word

You may have seen commentary lately about former General Electric CEO Jack Welch's speech to the Society of Human Resources Management at its recent annual conference. The thrice-married, family-sacrificing, career-driven Welch pontificates about the myth of 'balance' and warns women (but, somehow, not men) that taking time off to raise children will hurt their chances at top-management positions.

Now, if Welch weren't so gendered in his remarks, I might find quite a bit to nod my head about in his ideas. For example, he tells the audience that, "There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences." He's right. We can't have something for nothing. If we want to devote our lives to our jobs, we can't devote them elsewhere - and vice versa. No one, ESP couples included, should think that the world will open up and hand us lives that include incompatible prizes. Welch goes on to say that taking time off for family "can offer a nice life, but the chances of going to the top on that path" are smaller. He adds: "That doesn't mean you can't have a nice career." Again, I think he's spot on. And I'd apply that same tenet to downsizing your career (not just taking time off completely). ESP couples typically choose to prioritize balanced lives - and downshift their careers by either reducing their hours or finding flexible work - rather than gun for the single goal of a superpower career or maximized paycheck. To us, it's a sacrifice well worth making.

And that brings me to the conclusions being thrown around Mr. Welch's comments. Conclusions like 'balance is impossible' and 'we need to stop using that outdated phrase, 'work/life balance.''

Here's where I completely disagree.

There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with the vocabulary. We don't need a new word - 'fit' or 'juggle' or 'integration.' Nothing wrong with these words either, by the way - they are dandy too. But changing the word is just playing with symantics. Balance is alive and well and fully attainable. It means something unique to every individual. It changes over time for each of us. To me, it means sorting out all of life's options and taking personal responsibility (together with your partner, if applicable) for aligning your internal priorities with the way you actually live. It means not accepting the cultural status quo if it doesn't happen to match your soul. It doesn't mean erasing the possibility of harried days - although, unless harried days are your goal, it means making choices that don't result in long runs of them. It doesn't mean perfection.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with 'balance.' Welch, in his old-fashioned, gendered way, is simply illustrating what happens when we don't prioritize it. The truth will out.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Book Review: The Daddy Shift

Fellow Dad blogger, Jeremy Adam Smith, recently launched a new book called The Daddy Shift. It covers the trend of men taking on more of the childcare in recent generations both through a historical perspective and an in-depth look at a handful of examples.

The couples profiled are real and Smith does more than introduce us to them. He shares their history, context, struggles and desires for the lives they are tending. The couples are complex with varied motivations and don't fit neatly into any preconceived notions of existing family models.

Beyond the personal stories we also get the long view of how men's views have changed in relation to caregiving. I found the information compelling and thought provoking. I loved the "myths of caregiving fatherhood." Ranging from the myth that Dads opting out of work is a luxury of the educated elites to the myth that the decision for a man to stay home with children is always an economic one.

This book stares down the stereotypes around male nurturing and offers explanations, willing examples, and historical trends to highlight the changes happening all around us. Being among the masses of men who do more childcare than their own fathers, I recognized myself in this book and would recommend it without hesitation. We will be adding The Daddy Shift to our list of resources as a proponent of egalitarian marriages.

Note: For those of you in or around NYC, Jeremy will be leading a discussion along with Amy Richards, author of Opting In, on the shifting roles of fathers at the 92Y Tribeca on June 22nd from 6:30 - 8:00. I wish I could make it myself.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

De-Feminizing the Decision to Work

It seems that I see survey after survey in which women are asked about their choice to work full-time, work part-time, or stay home after they have children. Are they happy with their decision? Do they feel they are missing out on time with the kids, or a meaningful career? Almost never do we see similar surveys of men - especially in connection to their transition to fatherhood.

Yet we're being treated to plenty of news articles these days about men's changing roles at home. Laid-off fathers are retreating to childcare and housework - some in frustration and shame, some in joy and newfound understanding of their priorities. It seems as if the gender assumptions around us are suddenly changing at a dizzying pace. Or are they? The articles don't talk much about purposeful downshifting - just outside forces causing a man to remake himself.

What would it take to truly de-gender the work decision? I'm the guest blogger today at BusinessWeek's Working Parents blog, where I write about this issue. Stop over and leave a comment!

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