Guide to 50/50 Parenting Gives this Childless Woman Something to Ponder

8 years ago

A college friend who just had his second child recently gave me some good advice on the "kid question". You know, the one that comes up, typically, after two years of marriage or less, from your friends, your in-laws, your gynecologist ...

He said,

"There's NEVER a perfect time to have a child. If you wait for it, you will never have one. It's very much a 'leap now and find the net later' mentality. You pretty much just have to be completely mental to want kids, but it is a beautiful insanity, I assure you. Even with the straightjacket."

So, I'm not averse to change, or risk. Most entrepreneurs thrive on both. But the kid thing is different. When it comes to parenting I'm a voyeur--I like to watch. I marvel at how parents do even the most mundane activities while being responsible for little people. And if the parents both work I'm even more fascinated: See Mommy make lunches; see kids scream for seemingly no reason, and Mommy continuing to make sandwiches. see Daddy get the kids in the car. See Mommy and Daddy fall asleep on the couch that evening during the first minute they have together alone. See them do it again in the morning.

Add to this mix Mommy going to a job that has penalized her for having her kids. She still works, but she wonders, if she's only making a percentage of what she did and won't get a promotion (because often "part time" is re-interpreted by HR as "part competent") then maybe she should have just stayed at home. Add to this mix Daddy having to come home late several nights each week for client dinners, or because of a critical proposal that's due the next day.

I've seen this play out, time and time again, with people I know, and I wonder how it could be done differently. And I realize that these are the advantaged ones who have the option of one or both parents working. And who have, perhaps unconsciously, made the decision of whose career was more pliable, or sacrificeable.

I've also seen the kid-less version of domestic cooperation played out in my own home. And though it's simplified without children, the mold that determines who would do what is being set, and that has terrified both of us. As the one in my relationship who travels more and cooks less, I wonder how I could make up for what I don't contribute to the household. And would I be available for my children the way I envisioned I would be, before I understood the difference between a job and a career? My parenting ideal was set back in 1982, when my career aspiration was to live at the top of a really, really tall skyscraper in Chicago and to have front-row tickets to all the Cubs games. I just assumed I would be the boss of something. So some of this was off, but one aspect was self-prophesying: I assumed I was going to work so hard as an adult that my husband would beg me to work less so we could spend more time with our family. It seemed very romantic at the time.

I didn't dream of being a ballerina when I grew up, or a housewife; I always expected to work. I never struggled to offload some of the housework; I never expected to do it. Clearly there are blank spaces on the canvas of my grand vision of cooperative parenting. I just never expected to sacrifice for my career. And just like many working men with working wives, I'm seeing that that's not realistic. For one thing, if we decided to be parents I would be the one physically having the child. Even in the most barbaric circumstances I couldn't just procreate then hop back on my concall. Parenthood is interruptive, period. And even the most self-absorbed people are transformed by it. But while asserting my rights as a woman to have a fully realized career and a family I'm unwittingly nudging my husband away from his aspirations.

The latest study by the Families and Work Institute confirms why we need to explore options that allow both partners to achieve in their careers and tend to their families in equal measure. The report showed several shifts over 30 years, including a growing number of women who are making more than their spouses, thus making it essential to allow them to fully realize their careers. And there is no dip in career ambition among young mothers. We want our careers, regardless of whether we have kids.

Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober's book, Getting to 50/50: And why it's great for your marriage, your career, your kids and you, interests me as someone who expects to have a career with or without kids, but also because reading it, I've put myself in my husband's shoes.

"I would have to work less," I said to my husband, thinking of the adjustments necessary for children.

"I would have to stop working," he retorted.

I will ask him to read the book now that I've finished, not so that he can appreciate my right to a career, but so he can see that I understand his rights as the spouse that doesn't work seven days a week.

I've often become bored with the circular debate around women and the workplace. It seems the conclusion extracted from the trendier, Third-Wave feminist crowds, is that we all have a right to full-time, well-paying careers, but there are no shortcuts to achieving them, and parenting is no joke either. Without some really good household help, or a husband with no career aspirations of his own, you might as well give up your career or run for Vice President of the U.S. under the Republican Party. There is no satisfactory middle ground. One of my favorite career writers, Lisa Belkin, digs into more "alternative" formats, where both parents cut down on work and bring more commitment to their families. There still remains in this equation the desire to achieve outside the home. Fast Company ran a cover story reprinted online, "Balance is Bunk!" that confirmed our fear that greatness isn't achievable without being obsessive. By extension, balance is possible only when one isn't doing anything that meaningful.

Both Meers and Strober, successful executives in the demanding finance industry, have a keen understanding of the issues at hand for dual working, dual-parenting couples. Their facts from the ground level are refreshing. In the first chapters of the book, they debunk several myths around working mothers: No your kids won't likely be failures because you weren't there during every waking hour of their formative years. Studies show that children of dual-income earners have more confidence and are more self-reliant. However, increased involvement from Dad makes a big difference. And couples who both work, and who both have fulfilling careers, have better sex lives. I found it interesting that divorce is not most commonly a factor of wives spending more time at work as much as it is a factor of how much or little working husbands will share the home load. The authors argue that the closer couples can get to a 50/50 ratio of effort between career and household responsibilities, the better off their marriages and parenting will be.

The middle of the book delves into deeper issues for women. There is no denying a steep on-ramp for the majority of women who opt back into the workforce after having their children. Some of the stories of demotion, unworkable situations meant to edge out working mothers, and even outright discrimination depressed me, but the authors bring them up to show where women often get pulled down into the muck. In a chapter called "What Happens When Women Don't Tell the Truth," we see how women corroborate bosses' assumptions of their inability to handle post-maternity work because they don't share their desire for a full-time commitment.

Say the authors:

It's going to take a lot more straight talk to help men over another hump: Men often want to believe women leave voluntarily. It's more convenient to believe that it's all okay, that women gladly depart, so nothing needs to change. ... Stanford researchers found that some men had a hard time with the results of their study... Interviewing men, both old and young, they found that men embraced the belief that women "choose" home over work for reasons of both comfort and competition. "When older men hear from a woman that she is leaving 'to spend more time with my family,' they are relieved," the researchers wrote. "Their notions of what is 'proper' for women are re-inforced and they need feel no guilt..."

A strategy that Meers and Strober offer is rethinking the rules at work. Women tend to suffer by sticking to them and not seeing what isn't working. We struggle to make meetings that coincide with picking up the kids, or to have counterproductive face time. One of their interview subjects, a man, shares how for four years he would leave the office in the middle of the day to carpool his kids, and none of his colleagues were the wiser. He "got away" with it because he never assumed there was something wrong with it.

In a chapter called "The Girl Scout Tax" the authors describe another common tendency of women, even at the executive level, of handling time-sucking administrative matters because someone has to own them. One executive found herself cross-checking the addresses on her team's holiday cards because her mostly male counterparts' attempts were so error-prone. The authors ask, why not just let them fail and learn to do it right the next time? The same thing goes for parenting:

Unless you are successful fighting the "I'll do it myself" urge, you have to make a conscious effort to give your spouse some breathing room, especially if he's as new to parenting as you are or if he's taking over a new task. You may intervene if the baby's diaper is slipping down to his knees, or if your husband mixes bleach and ammonia while cleaning the bathroom, but every time you correct your spouse's "errors" or criticize his way of doing something, you're dealing a blow to 50/50.

This book, which pulls from the wisdom of some of the best thinkers in this space, women such as Margaret Heffernan, Anne Mulcahy of Xerox, and Cathy Benko of Deloitte & Touche, provides an empowering, but realistic take on navigating shared responsibilities, and shared ambition. Rather than read this and bristle at the thought of giving up my stake in my hard-earned career I find this to be a potential strategy for both me and my husband. The real fear isn't the responsibility, it's the underlying sacrifice that has, time and again, come with the responsibility of children. This book makes the "leap" that my friend described to me very possible, without the straightjacket.


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