Halving it All
Many parents naturally divvy up childcare duties and household chores by following gender stereotypes. The authors of the new book Equally Shared Parenting offer an alternative they say is more gratifying.
Though we are decades beyond the feminist movement — and women currently make up nearly 50 percent of the work force — research shows that women (even working mothers) still do the lion’s share of the housework and childcare in American households today. For some families, this division of labor works just fine. For others, it can be a constant source of stress. Enter Amy and Marc Vachon. This busy working couple was determined not to fall into typical gender roles when their first child was born. And so they developed a philosophy they call Equally Shared Parenting (ESP), which has brought them closer together. Now parents of two, Amy and Marc talked with P&C about Equally Shared Parenting shortly after their new book of the same name came out.
Parent & Child: First, would you define ESP for our readers?
Amy Vachon: It’s a relationship in which two people strive to share in breadwinning, caring for the home, raising the children — and in which both also strive to have enough time to enjoy their own pursuits. It’s about sharing in the responsibility and decision-making of the family so that both partners have an equal investment in their own lives and in their children.
P&C: How does that work on a practical level?
Amy: You build a system that enables each adult to spend an equal amount of time at work (this often means that one or both spouses cut back on work), doing chores, caring for the kids, and relaxing, with an end goal of creating an equal partnership and balanced lives for both people. It’s sharing the dream.
P&C: What inspired you to develop ESP?
Marc Vachon: We had different motivations. I was challenging the age-old male stereotype of working long hours and being the sole breadwinner. Even before we had kids, I was tweaking my career to have a more balanced life. I wanted to fit my work into my life instead of fitting my life into my work.
Amy: My desire was to have a partner to go through life with — not to do it alone as my mother did after my father passed away. Also, if something tragic happened to one of us, I wanted to know that there would still be a parent capable of working and caring for the kids.
P&C: What are the greatest benefits of ESP?
Marc: It gives you a well-rounded life — a career and a deep relationship with your kids. You’re not missing out on a good chunk of what it means to be a parent and have a family. Other parenting models allow you to develop expertise in one area of life — either work or childcare. But with ESP, you’re encouraged to do all domains together so that you both have an appreciation of what it takes to keep the family humming along. For example, I don’t have to go through my life assuming that Amy doesn’t know what it takes to maintain a career [she is a pharmacist]. She has the benefit of being able to walk out the door guilt-free, knowing that she has a spouse who can handle things at home.
P&C: You have a 7 year old and a 4 year old. How do they benefit?
Marc: We prefer the experts to weigh in on that, but some literature shows that the more Dad is involved, the better. And we feel that if adults choose this life because they want it, what could be better for kids than to have two happy parents?
Amy: Also, ESP gives kids two parents to go to in any situation — two deeply involved parents. The kids also get an up-close look at two different ways of being in the world as they watch how each parent handles life.
P&C: You’ve coined the phrase Equally Shared Parenting, but other couples have been doing this, right?
Amy: Definitely. There are pockets of parents doing this all over the world. It’s just that nobody has been talking about it, and we want to get this option out there.
P&C: How has ESP affected your relationship?
Amy: It has led to more everyday intimacy — because we’ve built this shared life together, and there’s no hiding behind things. Couple time can be spent just having fun as opposed to hashing out problems.
P&C: What’s the biggest sacrifice of ESP?
Marc: For men, it’s redefining what it means to be a man. It’s no longer just about getting to the top of your career and getting the highest paycheck you can. It’s broadening the definition of being a man to include not just breadwinner but husband and father. It can be a challenge for men to look at things in those terms.
Amy: With ESP, you’re not striving for the big-power career. Also, one spouse — usually the woman — has to give up having control at home and being the primary parent.
P&C: Detractors of ESP may view it as a way to get men to pick up the slack at home. What do you say to that?
Marc: ESP is not about celebrating ways to do chores, and not a single guy we talked to said they were dragged into this. With ESP, we have a daily connection with our kids on par with our wives’. Because we have an equal partner making money, we’re able to maintain our career without sacrificing the rest of our lives for a paycheck.
Amy: If women use ESP as a way to get their husbands to do more around the house, it will be a very short-term solution. The main requirement for ESP is two willing partners. It’s about asking each other, “What kind of life do you want?” and getting on the same page.
P&C: Can couples follow ESP without committing to equality in all areas of life?
Amy: I’m sure couples will pick and choose elements of ESP. You can also have an uneven balance for a period of time, like when one spouse loses a job and ends up doing more at home. There isn’t one ideal to ESP, and people do what works for them. ESP simply gives couples the framework for the discussion. For example, when Marc lost his job, ESP didn’t go away. We were still making decisions together, and it was crucial for us to be conscious about what that situation meant short-term and long-term, so we could maintain the most important parts of our equality.
P&C: What are the biggest obstacles to implementing ESP?
Marc: Negotiating work is often tough. It’s difficult to walk up to your boss and tell her that you want a less standard schedule, like a four-day work week, and that you’re valuable enough that she should allow it. We’re used to employees negotiating salary in our society, but with ESP, we encourage trading money for time. The challenge is to make it benefit the company, too. For instance, if you’re scaling back on work, then the company may benefit by not having to pay you as much. Or in this economy, for people who are out of work, offering a former employer the chance to hire you back at reduced hours may mean less risk for the company.
Amy: A challenge for women is to not take the escape hatch and stay home when the budget doesn’t add up with the wife’s salary. We tend to look at women’s salaries and compare that to daycare expenses, even when women out-earn their husbands. But why don’t we look at both incomes combined and compare that to daycare? Both partners need to step back and figure out how to make it work.
P&C: What happens when there is a big disparity between the husband’s and wife’s salaries?
Amy: We’re very focused on money in this society, so the moneymaking job is often viewed as the more important career. But with ESP, both careers are considered equally important for reasons that go beyond money. Who are we to say that a teacher can’t pursue a career over a doctor? It just takes figuring out. Our big mission in writing this book is to tell people that this model is possible — it’s not a utopian dream, and it’s also not easy, so we’ve given you a road map to follow.
P&C: How long does it take for ESP to work well?
Amy: It’s always a work in progress, whether you’re a rookie or a seasoned pro. You can start the process at once, but it may take time to get the right job and childcare situation in place.
P&C: Is there a chance that ESP might not work for everyone?
Marc: If a woman’s goal has always been to raise children, and she has no interest in a career, and then marries a guy who wants to move to the top of the ladder, then ESP is not for them.
Amy: We wouldn’t want the president of the United States to be an ESP parent doing half the laundry. We need those career-focused people in the world. And if your goal is to maximize income and career status, then ESP won’t work for you. But if your goal is to maximize your life, then ESP can work — and when you talk to most people, they say they’d love a little more of what they don’t have. ESP says, “Let’s try to have it all.”
For ESP tools, such as a family budget calculator and couples discussion and planning guides, check out equallysharedparenting.com.