Just in time for Valentine’s Day, I’m thrilled to share a special Q&A interview with my friends Marc and Amy Vachon whose book, Equally SharedParenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents just came out last month. Listen in to our conversation here and then check out their book and the additional resources on my Remodeling Motherhood Tools page!
What were the hardest assumptions of your own that each of you had to overcome to make ESP work? And can you each share your most memorable example of a time when your ESP arrangement challenged someone ELSE’s stereotypes about mothers and fathers?
Marc: Early in my career, I presumed that it was my responsibility to maximize my earning power to support a family someday. This led to the standard male prescriptive to forge ahead with long hours and an unbalanced dedication toward work. Letting that assumption go took courage (especially since I didn’t have role models to follow as I approached my boss with a request to work part-time – as a single guy). But it allowed me to create a life that I love daily. My work focus changed from wanting to retire early to wanting to work forever.
Amy: The most difficult assumption I had to shake was probably the notion that I had more responsibility for the home and the children. I still catch myself stressing out about little projects or an upcoming dinner party, and have to remember that these tasks can be jointly planned and handled – as long as I let Marc work alongside me as a true peer.
Both: We can think of two separate examples that highlight how others’ stereotypes can rub up against the notion of an equal partnership. In the first, Amy was picking up our daughter from Kindergarten in the school playground when our then 2-year old son threw a temper tantrum and stomped off a few yards away. A random mother was heard commenting snidely, “Who is that kid’s mother?” Yet a couple of months prior, Marc was handling the same pickup, in the same playground, with the same 2-year old throwing a tantrum (what can we say – a 2:20 pickup time doesn’t always mesh with a toddler’s nap schedule!). This time, a random mom approached Marc to ask if she could intervene to calm our son down. She explained that she was “very good at these types of things.”
The second example happened when our daughter was about 2, and fell off a swing at a friend’s birthday party. She ran right past Amy, all the way across the yard into Marc’s arms for comfort. The other parents at the party were too polite to say anything, but we often wonder if they thought Amy had failed as the “mother” in that moment. Amy felt a twinge of self-consciousness, but we both mark that event as one of those times when we could say, “We did it – we gave her two parents she could go to and this is cause for celebration!”
I love the phrases “MommyClub” and the “DaddyPass” to describe certain self-reinforcing stereotypes. Tell us about them, and also what distinguishes a healthy gathering of mothers with each other from a “MommyClub” that reinforces the assumption that mothers are responsible for and naturally better at caring for children and home?
We use the term “MommyClub” to refer to the social world of mothers that assumes they are the only “real” parent to their children. It arises when women surrender to the cultural stereotypes around motherhood, and, as a result, inadvertently perpetuate them. Examples of MommyClub moves would be those chain emails touting mothers as martyred souls and fathers as idiots who couldn’t feed the children without a stop at McDonald’s. Or a school’s expectation that Mom is the first-response parent when a child falls ill. Or that uneasy feeling a mother might have that the contents of her child’s lunchbox and the clothes he is wearing reflect solely on her mothering skills.
The “DaddyPass” is the get-out-of-parenting ticket that our culture hands to fathers – in other words, extremely low societal expectations for men to perform childcare activities. It is seen when men are praised for the smallest childcare feats that their wives are simply expected to perform. Or when life makes it hard for men to do their share of parenting – such as when only women’s restrooms have changing tables, or when fathers have to leap through hoops to volunteer at their daughters’ Brownie troop events. Or it can be a simple cultural expectation that no serious male graduate student (or medical student) can possibly handle baby night duties – yet no similar expectation for a female student.
These phrases, of course, don’t mean that we can’t have a great time socializing with our own gender or that we have to vehemently object to every stereotype that doesn’t work for us. But ESP partners learn to substitute the word “parent” when others use “mother” – even if just in our own minds. A healthy gathering of mothers, for example, would not spend time degrading their spouses parenting contributions or sighing like martyrs over their own overwork. Nor would they gush at how lucky any particular mom is to have a husband who can actually cook a meatloaf. They would support each other in building partnerships that work for them, whether these are ESP or more traditional arrangements. They might even share what they learn from the parenting skills of their husbands!
What do you think are the most intractable external barriers (workplaces, stereotypes others have, childcare options, etc.) that ESP couples face?
The biggest barrier is definitely in the workplace. While some careers lend themselves to flexibility or reduced hours, many are not yet built that way. We’ve heard from lawyers who have stepped off the partner track, academics who have given up tenure, software engineers who have ditched their careers altogether, and even a would-be astronaut who gave up his crazy-hours job to return to graduate school – all in the name of being able to see their own children and live the lives they truly want. Most ESP couples, however, are never called to make such drastic decisions, but they all seem to have reached the conclusion that they would do so if it was necessary to preserve the relationship they want with their children and partners. In most cases, they have had to gather their courage to ask for something from their bosses that would allow them to fit work into the proper personal balance. But women have been doing this for decades; with ESP, both partners do so, and end up bending both careers half as much.
I imagine you’ll get some women saying – as they did to me after reading my book – This is Not How I Thought It Would Be: Remodeling Motherhood to Get the Lives We Want Today – that remodeling together or ESP just isn’t possible for them because their husband isn’t willing or able. What guidance do you have for women who say this? I’m sure many of my readers would love to hear Marc’s take on the most effective way to engage their husbands in a conversation about ESP.
Marc: A husband who truly isn’t willing is a deal-breaker for ESP, but so often I hear from men who have given up trying to participate in a wide swath of the household chores because they’ve been told one too many times that they don’t do them right. Once this mentality kicks in, the problem is self-perpetrating since a man who never cooks becomes a man who probably isn’t going to be very good at cooking. Baring some true handicap, however, men are fully able to share in the chores – as long as they are invited to share in how and when those chores are done. I would suggest that women approach task sharing by getting at why a couple might want to create a relationship that includes sharing them in the first place. What would equal sharing bring to their relationship – now, in 5 years, at their 50th wedding anniversary? What is joyful about doing your share of the chores? About walking in each other’s shoes? About then sharing in the breadwinning burden as well? Once a couple can have conversations that get at the real goals, they are much better equipped to handle the picky details. And even then, they need to do so together – as a team – rather than as one partner directing or critiquing the other. Finally, for those hot-button chores that have been causing all the fights or resentment, I suggest that the couple sit down and iron out the family standards for “what it means to do XYZ task.” Once the standards are set (and of course they are up for renegotiation as needed), they are ready to decide who does what and then go about tackling their own responsibilities without managing their spouses’.
I love your book because you provide so many stories to illustrate the variety of forms that Equally Shared Parenting can take, and it is filled with so many practical tips and actions to try. Which two or three concrete tips are your favorites for couples who are just getting started thinking about and implementing ESP?
We purposefully aimed to make this book as practical and how-to as possible, writing to the parenting couple who truly wants the roadmap for creating and sustaining an equal partnership and balanced lives. Our favorite tip for the ESP newbie mom is to remember that your husband is just as important as you when it comes to caring for and loving your baby – this one idea can help you step away from owning the bulk of the decision-making and responsibility for baby care, and help you remember not to direct his actions. For new ESP fathers, a good tip is to get as much solo parenting time as possible. Just you and your baby, with no expectation that your wife prepare either of you in any way for her absence. Then, step in and be a true co-parent – not just a substitute until the ‘real’ parent comes home. For both partners, we like to advise that you dream big when it comes to how you could fit your career into your life, rather than accept a life that is led the other way around. We each have only one life, with 24 hours in each day; this is too short to live the way someone else expects us to, missing out on what would make both partners happy.
What is your hope, as you send your book out into the world?
Our greatest hope is that we can share the news that ESP is wholly possible, practical and sustainable. We hear from both women and men that an equal partnership is what they most want after they become parents, yet so many give up on this dream because they don’t know how to get there – fearing that workplace barriers, finances, or cultural pulls will make it impossible. We want to shout from the mountaintops that none of these factors can keep any couple from their best life. And then we want to show them how to get there, and tend it over time. The best things in life are not always easy, but they are worth every bit of effort.