Shared Parenting: Why Modern Families Are Choosing Equality
Written by Malia Jacobson
Lynnwood dad Billy Farrow can throw a tea party like nobody’s business. He gets plenty of tea-drinking practice as the main caretaker for his daughters, Gwen, 3, and Jane, 1, while his wife, Tanya Farrow, works as a second-grade teacher. In between his night and weekend shifts as a restaurant manager, he spends most days dressing the kids, making lunches, planning meals and volunteering at Gwen’s co-op preschool. But it’s not all dad, all the time: On weekends, nights and for much of the summer, Tanya is on mom duty, caring for both kids, cleaning and grocery shopping.
Neither full-time domestic servants nor harried breadwinners, Billy and Tanya are a new breed of modern couples: one for which parenting and household tasks are shared equitably, if not equally, while both partners contribute to the household income and spend ample time with their children.
It sounds almost too good to be true, but Marc and Amy Vachon of Watertown, Mass., co-authors of Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a Generation of Parents, hope to prove that shared parenting is a viable lifestyle option for today’s families.
For the Vachons, who blog at equallysharedparenting.com, shared parenting was a concept born out of a desire to retain a sense of joy amid the chaos of early parenthood. “I didn’t want work to be all consuming; I didn’t want to give up the joys in my life, I didn’t want to give up the joys of being a parent. So we started focusing on balance,” says Marc.
But equally shared parenting (or ESP) is not without its detractors, or challenges, and research suggests it may increase marital friction. Is equally shared parenting a viable, attainable lifestyle option, or a pie-in-the-sky philosophy that piles more expectations on already overworked parents? Does stepping outside traditional gender roles truly equate to greater happiness and better relationships? And how can parents sidestep the challenges inherent in building an equitable partnership?
Equally shared parenting
The Vachons borrowed the term “equally shared parenting” from Francine M. Deutsch, whose book Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works was published in 2000. In practice, ESP entails both parents taking responsibility for childcare, housework and breadwinning, but it’s not about divvying up duties 50/50.
Too often, the discussion centers on chores, says Amy, but the core of ESP is much deeper. “We’re talking about equal investment in the domains of our lives, equal power, responsibility and joy. We’re not talking about ‘equal’ in terms of who does what. It’s about being equal peers.”
Equal parenting arrangements like the one shared by Billy and Tanya Farrow are unique, but not exceptional. Some days, Billy is the only dad at a park or bounce-house filled with moms and kids. But when he volunteers at Gwen’s co-op preschool every Tuesday, he’s surrounded by as many as a half-dozen other dads who are happy to spend the morning flanked by preschoolers.
Phillip Smith and Heather Klingele-Smith of Shoreline share nearly every aspect of 10-month-old Trevelen’s care. Phillip gets him dressed, prepares his bottles and takes him to daycare each morning on his way to his job in software sales; after Heather arrives home from her job as an audit supervisor for Group Health, she starts dinner and prepares Trevelen’s baby food. They split housework and alternate waking up to feed Trevelen at night. “I was raised by parents who shared work equally, and I looked for that in a partner,” says Heather. “But we’re one of the only couples I know sharing parenting pretty much equally, all the way.”
A growing trend for modern parents
Equally sharing parents may need to search to find other parents doing the same, but they probably don’t need to search far, notes Marc. “Equally shared parenting is not the norm, but it’s a growing trend.”
Modern parents have different ideas about work and family than their predecessors did, according to the Families and Work Institute. Its 2008 study on work and home life found that today’s employees are less likely to agree that it’s better if “the man earns the money, and the woman takes care of the home and children.” Just 38 percent were in favor of these traditional gender roles — a drop of 25 percent since 1977. In 1992, only 21 percent of women reported that their partner spent as much or more time on childcare as they did; by 2008, that number had jumped to 31 percent.
That means more than two-thirds of moms still perform the lion’s share of childcare, but it also means change is afoot. “I know very few guys who work 60 hours a week and come home with dinner prepared and then sit on the couch and read the paper,” says Marc. “That model is dead.”
Shared parenting is attractive to increasing numbers of parents who want success in both work and life, says Jessica DeGroot, founder and president of Third Path Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank devoted to work-life balance for parents. Today, younger parents are leading the charge toward what Third Path calls “integrated work-life balance.” Millennial fathers (in their 20s and early 30s) spend 4.3 hours per workday with their children, compared to 3 hours per day for all employed dads. Fewer young people report intense career ambition: Since 1992, the percentage of people younger than 30 seeking a higher-powered job has fallen 13 percent for men and 6 percent for women.
The culture and biology of shared parenting
But historically, ESP isn’t an isolated trend. At turns out, our traditional view of family life that includes a breadwinning dad and a stay-at-home mom isn’t so traditional after all; early American couples shared parenting much more equally.
“Americans didn’t develop this strong idea that women were the primary parents until the early 19th century,” notes Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia and director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. In Colonial America, women were productive providers who often delegated childcare, and they weren’t considered more nurturing than men.
But the spread of wage labor in the 19th century divided household tasks in two, with the division falling along gender lines. Men earned, while women tended the hearth and raised children, creating a firmly entrenched ideal that’s been slow to crumble. “It’s a very powerful 200-year tradition that works on men and women in many ways,” says Coontz. Women are taught that they’re naturally superior nurturers who should derive intense enjoyment from parenting at all times — and that they should feel guilty if they don’t — and men are taught that childcare and masculinity can’t coexist.
The one thing women are uniquely qualified for — breastfeeding — doesn’t impede long-term shared parenting, says Tanya Farrow. She breastfeeds 13-month-old Jane and pumps breast milk at work for her weekday bottles. Nourishing a baby is a big job, but increased time nursing moms spend feeding an infant won’t necessarily push a couple toward inequality. Dads can pick up extra household chores or other childcare tasks to compensate. Bottle-feeding, bathing, skin-to-skin “kangaroo care” and diaper changes provide plenty of tactile parenting experiences and bonding opportunities for dads in the early months of parenting.
Fighting for equality
Equitable parenting may be appealing, but it’s hard to achieve and even harder to maintain, says Seattle couples therapist Jessa Zimmerman. “Parenting is a moving target; kids are constantly changing. It’s something that has to be continually renegotiated.”
Even parents who want to share tasks equally tend to drift toward inequality over time, according to Cornell University researchers Philip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan. Their research found that no matter how couples plan to share parenting tasks, most slide back into traditional gender roles, causing both partners to feel less satisfaction and more anger.
For some, anger translates into fights. One study from Ohio State University found that when dads share in parenting tasks, parents fight more. But Amy Vachon, who spoke with the study’s authors, notes that families in the study had more traditional gender roles. “Positioning one parent as the primary caregiver while the partner is relegated to secondary status sets the stage for the conflict seen in the study, because the primary parent often clings to control over childcare and nitpicks a spouse who tries to assist,” she says.
This practice of criticizing the domestic prowess of a helpful spouse is known as maternal gatekeeping — and it’s the enemy of equally shared parenting. According to research from Brigham Young University, 21 percent of mothers are gatekeepers, reluctant to relinquish control over household and childcare tasks even when asking for a spouse’s help. “These couples have not decided to cede power for equality,” says Amy. “So there’s going to be conflict.”
Another reason partners don’t live up to their equal-parenting goals is the real financial and professional risks of taking a step back in their careers in order to share childcare more equally, says DeGroot. Dialing back hours at work dials up career fears, with good reason. “We know, based on research, that the minute a woman becomes a parent, she becomes a less valuable employee — she earns less and gets promoted less,” she says. “But the same risks also apply to men who ask for reduced hours.”
That’s not to say that these career risks can’t be mitigated. Marc and Amy forged their hard-fought balance by negotiating with their employers for reduced workweeks. Both work 32 hours a week in fulfilling careers — she works as a high-level pharmacist; he works as an IT manager. Third Path provides resources and information to help parents negotiate with employers for a more family-friendly schedule. “We have highly successful lawyers and managers who’ve done this, and they’ve been able to move ahead in their careers,” notes DeGroot. “There really is no limit to who could redesign his or her work to accommodate family needs.”
The child’s take on shared parenting
A couple’s discussion of equally shared parenting shouldn’t overlook the people being parented, says Zimmerman. “Parents need to consider their children in the balance, the quality of relationship the child will have with each parent and how much access kids get to each parent.” Parents might consider themselves on fairly equal footing if one works full-time while the other cares for the kids full-time, but an arrangement in which kids rarely see the breadwinning parent “shortchanges the kids involved,” she says.
Kids can benefit when mom shares at least a portion of the breadwinning, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Family Psychology. Moms involved in work outside the home have lower rates of depression, whether they work part-time or full-time. Maternal depression weakens the parent-child bond and impacts children’s social, emotional and cognitive development well into adulthood.
Numerous studies show that when dads actively participate in childcare, children benefit socially, emotionally and academically. Kids cared for by dads show better cognitive functioning as infants, superior problem solving as toddlers and enhanced academic performance during the school years; they’re less likely to rebel as teenagers.
Equally shared parenting translates into a stronger parent-child bond, says Heather Klingele-Smith. “When I’m with my child, I’m able to enjoy it. I think it helps me be less stressed and just enjoy the time that I have,” she says. “It’s just a better life.” Together, she says, she and Phillip are able to work in satisfying careers while keeping a tidy home, working through mountains of laundry and making homemade dinners—things she doubts would happen without both partners pulling equal weight.
For the Farrows, shared parenting provides kids with consistency: They’re parented the same way, whether mom or dad is in charge. “The kids are with Billy as much as they’re with me, so we need to be on the same page with discipline. We’ve spent lots of time together talking about how to handle different parenting issues that come up, like tantrums and hitting,” says Tanya. “Gwen knows that Dad will handle a tantrum the same way Mom does. She doesn’t ask Dad for something if Mom says no — she’ll get exactly the same response from either of us.”
But the benefits extend beyond the here and now. As a strong day-to-day male presence in his girls’ lives, Billy hopes to influence their eventual choice of a partner. “I’m setting a good example in terms of how to act, while also taking the time to show them how they should be treated by a male figure; hopefully, that will be something they’ll look at when they’re dating.”
Malia Jacobson is a Tacoma-based freelance writer and mom of two.
Tips for parents on working toward equality
Can parents on unequal footing work toward more equality at home? Licensed couples counselor Jessa Zimmerman says yes — and parents should take steps to resolve issues, because unhappiness over parenting roles and responsibilities is a leading cause of marital distress.
1. Don’t ambush your partner. Arrange a time and day to talk about the issue in a setting relatively free of distraction.
2. Start the discussion by acknowledging the valued contributions of both partners and that no matter what, there’s never enough time or energy to go around.
3. Using “I” language, outline the problem in detail, with statements like “This is how I’m feeling” and “This is what I would like.”
4. Work together to brainstorm solutions. Avoid slipping into “scarcity mode,” a counterproductive mindset concerned with protecting your own interests.
5. Consider resources outside the household that may help balance the scales. Is there money for outside help? Can extended family or neighbors help with childcare needs?
6. Don’t expect to resolve everything in one sitting. Agree to spend a set amount of time on the topic, then table the discussion and set another time to meet.