Striking the perfect balance

 

Striving for equality as life partners and as parents takes a lot of courage, but it can work well for some couples, writes SHEILA WAYMAN

THE DAY pharmacist Amy Vachon was returning to work after the birth of her first child, she handed her husband Marc a written list of their daughter Maia’s daily schedule – when to put her down for naps, how much milk to warm for each feed, etc – as she headed for the door.

Marc very deliberately ripped up the note in front of Amy. Such “marching orders”, as he saw them, had no place in a strategy they had devised for equality as life partners and as parents.

“I felt this was necessary to establish myself as a true co-parent rather than an apprentice who was holding down the fort while the real parent was away,” Marc tells The Irish Times from their home outside Boston in Massachusetts.

“This was an important moment for us – a concrete reminder of what we were hoping to create and how it can often be hard to let go.”

What they were hoping to create was a life in which they shared equal amounts of time in the four domains of breadwinning, child-rearing, housework and time for self.

Such an aspiration may not be that rare, but the lengths to which this couple go to ensure it actually happens has attracted attention among the US media. The Vachons call their arrangement Equally Shared Parenting (ESP) and, as well as promoting it as “half the work, all the fun”, through their website, they have been seeking other like-minded couples. Now they have written a book called Equally Shared Parenting; Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents, showing how it can be done.

The fact that, when it comes to the laundry, Marc looks after the coloureds and Amy looks after the whites, is a revealing but trivial domestic detail. The reorganisation of their breadwinning, so each works a 32-hour-week is more fundamental.

She works Monday to Thursday and spends Friday at home with Maia, now aged seven, and her four-year-old brother Theo. Marc works in IT support on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, leaving him Wednesday to be at home with the children. They take turns in major tasks such as making the dinners and doing the grocery shopping, with the focus on a “team approach” and both of them being competent at most things.

They even aim at “equal remembering”. Marc acknowledges that “remembering is almost universally assigned, or held, by women”. But they are “no longer living under the assumption that Amy will take this responsibility”.

When Marc is at home with the children, he is responsible for making dinner and for packing their lunches for the next day. “This means that I need to be aware of the milk level in our refrigerator, whether we have enough lunch-friendly food and the makings of a healthy meal, etc. Amy won’t need to think about any of this until it is her day to take on these responsibilities.”

It is also a rule that whichever parent picks Maia up from school is responsible for following through on any note in her bag that day.

ESP is not possible if one parent stays home and the other is the sole breadwinner. Amy stresses that there is nothing “wrong” with that choice and that ESP “is not a value judgment, but simply a family model that, by definition, includes shared breadwinning”. (Their lives went a little lopsided when Marc was out of work for a while.) It also rules out either partner aiming for a top-flight career and the long hours at work that would entail.

The “equality scales” offered on their website as a starting point for couples to examine the current state of play in their household could be quite an eye-opener. So who does what in your house?

However, the Vachons admit they never went as far as filling out such detailed balance sheets, and that they are merely intended as “conversation starters”.

The unequal sharing of paid and unpaid labour among Irish couples was highlighted in a 2008 report by the Equality Authority and the ESRI, entitled Gender Inequalities in Time Use. It found that, on average, women in couples do 37 per cent of the paid work and 72 per cent of the unpaid work (caring and housework) and, overall, they do 55 per cent of the total work per day.

It reported that there was “a more equal division of labour in dual-earner couples, although women still do more unpaid work than their male partner and have a higher total workload than their male partner”.

For Irish women raised on equal opportunities in education and work, motherhood can bring the first taste of inequality as they struggle to keep all the plates spinning on the poles of career, children, home, relationships and care of self.

While most of today’s fathers are clearly determined to be more involved with their children than their own fathers were, that enthusiasm does not always encompass the hard slog of practical care and housekeeping.

The ESRI study found women spend twice as long on housework each day and four times as long on caring for children. It also noted that men spend a much greater proportion of their caring time on social childcare such as playing, while women spend more time on physical care and supervision.

Although the Vachons describe ESP as “the next frontier of feminism”, it is about more than men doing their fair share of housework. They also say it is “a path of balance for men”, and that it can be a test, as well as an opportunity, for both genders.

“The biggest challenge for women is usually learning how to let go of control at home and with the kids,” says Amy. It means allowing your partner to do things his own way when he is in charge. If he is happy to take your daughter out to the park in an outfit that doesn’t match, so be it.

“This is especially difficult when we feel that all of this reflects on mom in our society, and can take a big dose of courage and trust,” she adds.

For men, the biggest challenge of ESP is typically in redefining themselves outside their careers or breadwinning role, says Marc.

“A ‘good’ man is still largely defined as someone who can provide financially for his family, attain a certain level of status in his career, or command respect in his field of work. But ESP asks men to broaden this definition to include ‘nurturer’ in his roles as partner, father, friend, son, citizen, and individual person.”

It can be hard, he adds, to approach your boss to request reduced work hours or a more flexible schedule so that you can pick up your child from school or care for your baby on Fridays. “But we’ve never met an ESP dad who regrets doing so.”

Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents by Marc and Amy Vachon is published by Perigee in the US. See www.equallysharedparenting.com