Men Who 'Halve' It All

In journalism we have a saying: Dog bites man is not a story. Man bites dog is. Which is why it says something about our society that reporter Lisa Belkin chose to profile Marc and Amy Vachon for her recentmagazine cover story on "When Mom and Dad Share it All."
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(part 7 in the Core Competency Moms series)

In journalism we have a saying: Dog bites man is not a story. Man bites dog is. Which is why it says something about our society that reporter Lisa Belkin chose to profile Marc and Amy Vachon for her recent New York Times magazine cover story on "When Mom and Dad Share it All."

Most of us, these days, believe men and women are created equal. We may have slightly different temperaments and plumbing, but we can all be breadwinners and we can all be caretakers. Many men want to share deeply in their children's development. Many women want to contribute their talents to the world outside the home (and are capable of earning a fair chunk of change as well).

So why is an educated, professional couple's dogged attempt to split family life worthy of a high-profile story?

The reason, of course, is that it's beastly difficult to pull off. It is difficult because of social norms, workplace norms, personal assumptions, and financial realities. But as Marc and Amy Vachon show, it is not impossible.

Indeed, I would argue that the equally shared parenting model, which the couple touts and explains on their website, is most compatible with all parties focusing on the core competencies I've been blogging about here on the Huffington Post these past few weeks. These are the things we do best, and that other people can't do as well. For most people this is nurturing their families and carefully chosen paid work. Freed from unnecessary domestic burdens (and stupid time sucks on the job), women become better moms and people. Freed from the need to keep a job - perhaps with long hours that steal family and personal time, and that doesn't keep you satisfied - at all costs, men likewise can focus on what they do best.

I first learned about "equally shared parenting" when I saw one of the Vachons' comments here on the Huffington Post several months ago. I found myself perusing their website's tips on pumping breastmilk so dad can give half the bottles, trading which parent is "on" during weekends for baby duty, assigning research topics on child development, splitting day care drop offs and pick ups and sighing over their instructions to men on negotiating a flexible schedule at work.

Why the sighs? Like many modern, dual-income couples, my husband and I did fairly well with equality until we became parents. We either divvied up the housecare, outsourced it or ignored it.

But the physical and emotional care of a small child is different. You can outsource some of it, and many moms do. Say you have 45 hours of childcare a week, which folks who like to pass judgment on working moms would say a lot. But with a small kid, someone has to be responsible for pretty much every minute. Even if you're sleeping, someone has to be there. There are 168 hours in a week; 168 minus 45 is 123 hours.

I am not the only mother to emerge from the immediate physical fog of delivery to discover that my husband assumed I, not he, would take primary responsibility for this new 123 hour on-call job added to my conventional workweek. Breastfeeding is the immediate excuse, but it doesn't hold up for long. Our husbands say they believe in equality, but assume that the existence of a child will not impinge on their ability to be gone overnight on business trips, or come home later than expected if a meeting runs late. If the arranged childcare falls through, we will cover the full 168 hours. But our husbands think we should be OK with it, because they plan to "help" far more than their fathers did. They may be aces with tubes of Desitin. They may run a mean bath. But they are still "helping."

I recognized this very common point of family tension as I read through Sen. Barack Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope. After the birth of his second daughter, during his ill-fated run for Congress, the man who has now become the Democratic nominee for president was often gone from home. "My wife's anger toward me seemed barely contained," he writes. "'You only think about yourself,' she would tell me. 'I never thought I'd have to raise a family alone.' I was stung by such accusations...I made few demands of Michelle - I didn't expect her to darn my socks or have dinner waiting for me when I got home. Whenever I could, I pitched in with the kids... As far as I was concerned, she had nothing to complain about."

It was only after many years of reflection that he realized that "no matter how liberated I liked to see myself as - no matter how much I told myself that Michelle and I were equal partners, and that her dreams and ambitions were as important as my own - the fact was that when children showed up, it was Michelle and not I who was expected to make the necessary adjustments. Sure, I helped, but it was always on my terms, on my schedule."

I want to be fair to men here, too, of course. Many women lock their husbands into jobs that don't allow them to focus on their core competencies, because they refuse to take on the adult responsibility of earning enough to support a family. They have certain ways of doing things with the kids and with the home, and don't allow their husbands to nurture their children in their own unique way. There is nothing quite so awkward as talking with a couple as the wife constantly refers to "my" children - as if her husband isn't even there.

Marc and Amy Vachon view the world a little differently. I caught up with them shortly after the New York Times magazine article appeared and they had been on the Today Show (thus causing their phone to ring all day as distant relatives checked in). They'd been fielding questions about their infamous laundry split (one parent does lights, the other darks). They assured me that this was an extreme example. "We're not accountants who run around and nitpick each other...we're a normal couple," Marc says. Many household tasks are split by total time, with one party assembling breakfast, and the other dressing the kids.

But, normal though they are, they do think about these things more than most people. Each household, they say, has four main areas in which couples must divvy up their time: housework, childcare, breadwinning and recreation time. An equal couple should have equal investment in all those domains. That means "I don't have the right to say my career is more important than yours," Marc says. "We both take career hits as necessary to make the family function properly."

They likewise talk through what the basic jobs are around the house, and with the kids, and agree to the standard at which the jobs are "done." For instance, laundry may be "done" when it is pulled out of the dryer, folded and put away. Dusting, they may decide, is a once a year activity. Either party is free to go above the standard - cooking an elaborate dinner, for instance, or dusting every book on the shelf - but neither party should fool themselves that this is anything other than recreation time.

Marc and Amy stress that their philosophy of equally shared parenting isn't just about getting men to do more. In some cases, it's about getting men to do less and women to do more, particularly on the work front. As Amy warns moms, "If you want an equally shared parenting relationship, I don't think you can be a stay-at-home parent."

That's tough talk, because in truly equally shared parenting relationships, both of you are maintaining careers, but "neither of you can go gunning for president of the United States," Amy says. You also have to consciously try to create a shared world at home. It seems less efficient.

But traditional families have problems, too. A key one: they're not diversified. No smart investor puts his entire portfolio in one stock, but that's what families with one breadwinner do. If Dad loses his job, disaster can ensue. If Mom and Dad are both working 30 hours a week, though, either can easily scale up until the job seeker lands something else that fits with his or her core competencies. You don't have to take the first job that comes by.

The Vachons had this experience recently, when Marc was job hunting. Because Amy was working, they were able to hold out until he found a flexible job that fit with his skill set.

Another problem with traditional families: Men miss out on a lot when they don't spend enough time with their children to develop the competence to care for them without long lists of bottle times and outfit preferences. Obama writes wistfully that his wife encourages his involvement, but "there are times when I get the sense that I'm encroaching on her space - that by my absences I may have forfeited certain rights to interfere in the world she has built."

Some fathers aren't OK with forfeiting those rights. Anyone who's seen a father shout "whee!" to distract a kid who's just fallen down on the playground knows that men can thrive in the caregiver role every bit as well as women can. Nurturing children is one of their core competencies too. It is as much a slander to deny men's talents in this sphere as to claim women can't be doctors, engineers or heads of state.

Still, as the spotlight on Marc and Amy Vachon shows, few men and women really "halve" it all. It isn't for everyone (the Obamas, for instance, seem to have made their peace with their arrangement, and if you're an Obama supporter, you may believe they made the right choices as well). "We don't want to come across as saying we've got something better than our neighbors," Amy says, but Marc points to statistics showing that the majority of Gen Y men want an egalitarian relationship with their kids. "If that's what they want, let's have a serious discussion about it," he says.

Maybe their wives, too, will come home from the hospital to realize that was a vague desire, easily quashed. Or maybe, maybe, the Vachons are the leading edge of true social change.

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