Both my wife and I put ourselves squarely in the “progressive” box. We’re horrified by Donald Trump, believe in universal healthcare, and worry about the rise of white supremacy. Back in college we marched against the Iraq war, I traveled to the Middle East to document the occupation in Palestine, and we both majored in very left-of-center fields.
Today, as 36- and 37-year-old parents of a 4-year-old girl and almost 2-year-old boy, we still stick to our beliefs, but have fallen into 21st-century middle-class life. Thanks to a busy schedule, we struggle to attend rallies we believe in or even find the time to talk about current events. That’s problematic, but even worse is our conformist family structure. Our 20-something selves would be very critical of how traditional we’ve become.
Now, I’m not talking about the 1950s household where my wife stays home and I’m the sole breadwinner. We both currently have jobs we believe in (I’m a journalist, she’s a teacher), and we’re both very involved in our kids’ lives. But there’s no doubt my wife has taken on more of the big-picture responsibility.
“I feel like I’m the hub,” she told me the other morning at the breakfast table. “I’m in charge making sure everything comes together.”
More specifically, my wife is the one who sets up playdates and doctor visits and does those things because she’s thinking about the long-term development of our kids. She’s also the person reading parenting books before bed and is more involved in problem-solving around behavior. We share much more equally in the day-to-day duties, like bedtime, clean up, bath time, etc., but I’m just juggling the tasks at hand. She’s juggling the future of the family.
This is nothing new, of course. Or put another way, we’re not alone. Modern, forward-thinking families have been trying to address parenting inequality for decades. In researching the topic, it seems like there was actually a surge back in the late ’90s and into the 2000s around re-thinking parenting. One couple who gained a lot of notoriety were Marc and Amy Vachon, who started the blog equallysharedparenting.com back in 2006. Then they published the well-received book Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents in 2010.
Through interviews with other parents and lots of analysis of their own family, the Vachons came up with a strategy to try and make things more equal. They didn’t set out to create a perfect 50-50 relationship where they kept tallies around the number of diapers changed, but instead took a larger, more holistic look at parenting equality. To do this, they divided parenting life into four categories: Breadwinning, Childraising, Housework, and Time for Self. One parent might take on more of one chore, or responsibility, in each category, but they had to find an overall balance in the big picture.
In Childraising, for example, both parents had to be what the Vachons called “experts,” where they were both totally familiar with the family routine so that “when one parent leaves, the other is not an understudy who needs instruction or reminding.” It’s a tough process, but the rewards are worth it, they wrote. “Two parents on equal footing are forced to iron out differences in parenting styles and arrive at a best-odds solution.” Collaboration, it seemed, sorta makes perfect.
During their research, the Vachons cited Francine Deutsch, a Professor of Psychology at Mount Holyoke College and author of Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works who has studied the history of equal parenting. Curious to see if anything had changed in the parenting world since her book came out in 1999, or since the Vachons wrote theirs in the 2000s, I called her up to ask. Not really, was her quick answer.
“The same issues that faced couples in 2000 and 2010 are still with us,” Deutsch said.
There are multiple reasons why this is, but Deutsch thinks the workplace is one of the biggest. It’s more common for both parents to work these days, but the workplace still seems to have a bigger effect on men and how they parent. More specifically, she said, men are still more willing to sacrifice family time to get ahead at work.
“There are these persistent notions of masculinity that equate workplace success with being a man,” she said. “Whereas there is a persistent ideology of motherhood that often defines women.”
That’s certainly true in my family. Part of the reason my wife has taken on more of the big-picture responsibility is because she took a year off her teaching job with our daughter and six months with our son. I took a week off with our daughter and two weeks off with our son. During her time with the babies, she quickly became the primary parent and also started to set the agenda. She was in charge of nap time, knew what foods the kids liked, etc. I just followed her lead.
To make it worse, I took a stressful job with a big commute just before our son was born. When I drive, I have an hour trip each way. When I ride the train, it’s a two-hour one-way journey. I took the job because it was a big career advancement, but one that has wreaked havoc on the family. At least a couple days during the week I’m gone for a full 12 hours, which means I only have time to help feed the kids breakfast and then help put them to bed.
This stretching isn’t uncommon for dads, but is more often rejected by moms, Deutsch said.
“Women often end up refusing to take jobs that mean they will be home at 8 p.m. at night, even though that might compromise their work lives. Men, however, are less likely to make those kinds of compromises.”
One night on the way home from work I called Marc to try and get more specifics about how he and Amy found their balance. He referred to the four pillars, but when I asked him to talk more broadly about how they viewed and conceptualized their collaboration, he framed it succinctly. “You have to decide what your family stands for.”
Here was his example: If your family decides that you’re a family that writes thank-you cards, then everyone has to write thank- you cards. Not just one parent, but both. As do the kids, once they’re old enough. Why? Because you decided that card writing is an important part of your identity as a parent. Basically: find your things and stick to it.
This struck a chord because it’s something my wife has referred to when trying to address our problems, but she calls it culture. As in the family culture. It’s something my wife is more aware of, and concerned about, because, as I explained earlier, she’s put more time into worrying about our overall operations and how we move through the world as a family. She’s trying to keep the pieces together because she’s taken on the responsibility of creating, or trying to create, the family culture.
When I passed the notion of culture by Deutsch she cautioned against conflating it with management. By management, she meant the management of the family, which is a good word to describe what my wife does. But I think Marc and my wife are on to something, in that if families can decide what they stand for, or collectively define their culture, they might be able to backward plan toward more equality. Everyone has buy-in with the charter and therefore has buy-in with the process. That’s the hope, at least.
So how to actually move forward, especially as the dad? I really like that idea of backwards planning and the idea of starting with a charter. So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to try and figure out, together, what we stand for and then write it down. Everything is on the table. Here are some examples.
I’ve been commuting for two years now, but I just got a promotion, and a bit more money, so we have to decide whether we’re going to leave the more affordable Albuquerque, New Mexico where we live or move to a pricier Santa Fe where my job is located. The move will give me more time with our kids and more time to plan, but it will force my wife, who’s a teacher, to find a new job. What will that do to our family dynamic? Can she find a job she likes? Is it worth it to have me around more but her struggling all of a sudden? Do we need to find some other kind of compromise?
Also, my wife has always been in charge of the family finances. She grew up in a military family. I’m the son of a couple hippies. We’ve always had different ideas about money, but I deferred to her because she spent more time worrying about things like retirement, savings, etc. She likes being in charge, but it’s become a burden, especially with kids and lots of extra expenses, so we want to do a better job of determining what we stand for financially. How do we want to spend our money and how can we spend it more wisely? To do this, she needs my input.
Another big one is political involvement. We’ve talked briefly about the need to make our kids more politically aware. We want to take them to rallies and meetings even if they can’t totally understand what’s going on. My parents did that for me, and it obviously sank in. We want to do the same: We want our kids to know they need to be civically involved, especially now. But how do we make time for these rallies when we’re working so hard and the kids would rather go to the zoo? I’m not quite sure. But I’m interested in finding out.