So much of the imagery surrounding modern parenthood is negative: endless drudgery, chaos, stress, clueless dads and harpy moms. Our childless friends ask us in wide-eyed horror if it’s really as bad as “they” say, and if so, why on earth would anyone have a child?
There is a better way, and Marc and Amy Vachon think they have found it. The Massachusetts couple has developed a parenting style they call “Equally Shared Parenting,” or ESP for short. They share their ideas via a website, equallysharedparenting.com and a forthcoming book, Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents. In short, the philosophy behind ESP is that neither spouse acts as understudy or manager to the other, that both are equally competent and responsible in all areas of family life. “ESP couples feel that their lives are happiest if they can both spend about the same amount of time on average in paid work endeavors, in caring for their home, in taking care of their children, and in their own outside interests,”” says Amy Vachon.
Sounds good? We think so too. Here’s Marc and Amy’s suggestions for making such a life work:
It’s not about the laundry. Too often, both Marc and Amy say, people hear about the concept and immediately think it’s about getting a lazy dad to do more. “It’s not what we are saying at all,” Marc Vachon says. “I presume (fathers) are working as much as their wives are, and there’s a need to reshuffle things and work as much as you’re working now, but get balance and equality back in your life. It’s so you can live in a place where you like your life, instead of trying to get through life.”
For true equality, both of you work outside the home, in paid jobs. While the Vachons stress that the ESP model isn’t a the right answer for every family, it requires that the breadwinning burden is shared as much as all the other aspects of running a family. And there are benefits to that as well. For example, both Marc and Amy work part-time schedules and that allows them more time for everything; having just one of them be the breadwinner wouldn’t allow such flexibility. “”Having Amy on board to solve the family breadwinning puzzle allows us to optimize our income and schedule instead of always trying to maximize our income,” Marc says.
Look at the recession as an opportunity. While the conventional wisdom says “show up early, stay late, take on extra work” to prove your value to an employer, asking for more flexibility might actually be a good idea in these times, Amy says. Companies might not be able to offer raises, but they might jump at the chance to keep a valued employee at a reduced schedule – and corresponding salary cut. “If our companies are faced with a decision between layoffs and reducing employees hours, we might be able to jump at the chance to try out a new work schedule that could lead to an epiphany about the value of money versus time,” Amy says.
Rethink what work means to you. Is it part of a balanced life, or is it at the center of your life? Marc Vachon actually stepped back from the career treadmill well before having kids, transitioning from engineering to an IT job and working a reduced schedule. He did so in order to have time to pursue his other interests and actually enjoy both his job and his life, a pattern that fit well once he and Amy married and their children came along. And while that means he’s unlikely to ever see the corner office and company car, he’s okay with that. “My educational background suggests that I could have chosen a steeper career trajectory with accompanying time commitments,” he says, “but I don’t suspect it could have brought me any more joy.”
Embrace your own competence as a person, partner and parent. That goes for both partners, and it’s key to the whole idea of equally shared parenting. If you trust your partner to handle things at home as well as you would, that means you can wander off for a bike ride or dance class without feeling guilty, especially since your partner will be getting the same freedom and accommodation of their interests as well. “Neither of us has to do any preparation in order to leave the house or the kids in the capable hands of our spouse, and therefore we are then able to concentrate on simply finding the time to get out,” Amy says.
Communicate with each other and adjust if things are getting out of balance. Mark and Amy’s children are six and four years old, and the way they work things out now differs from the way they did it when their kids were young. “That first six months of babydom involves so much sleep deprivation and potential anxiety, and is often a set-up in our culture for women to take on the lion’s share of the caregiving, so we had to be pretty cognizant of staying the course,” Amy says. Other times that have required a fair amount of communication and adjustment were a period of unemployment for Marc and currently, while they are writing their book about ESP. But equally shared parenting does not, alas, lead to a partnership and life blissfully free of conflict. “We have to deal with all the same stuff most couples have to deal with,” Mark says. “Since we have a framework that we talk about so often, it forces us to talk about things instead of letting it simmer.”
Perhaps most importantly, remember that you’re on the same team – something the traditional model of parenting, with its separate spheres for each spouse, does not emphasize. Part of what inspired them to come up with this model of parenting was the negative image of parenting in much of the literature. “Those mommy-misery books scared me, and at the same time made me angry because they never seemed to mention men,” Amy says. “I realized that Marc’s role was entirely invisible in these angry depictions of the state of American motherhood, and I held onto the ideal of an equal partnership for dear life all through my first pregnancy.”
At heart, Amy says, it’s that neither parent gets an exclusive hold on the “good stuff” – whether that be career satisfaction, time with the kids, or time to themselves. “ESP is not about scorekeeping or making sure the time comes out exactly even; rather, the couple is sustained by the idea that a happy partner makes for a happy relationship, which makes for a great life – and they want to make sure their partner gets his/her fair share of the fun.”