Is There Really Such a Thing as Equal Parenting?
Before we had our daughter earlier this year, my husband and I lived life on pretty equal terms. Our utility bills were split in half. I cooked; he cleaned the dishes. We had a shared savings account but separate checking. We both had developing careers. And he even used to call himself the biggest feminist in our home.
Then the baby was born and overnight the scales tipped. Biologically, our newborn immediately demanded more from me than from her father. To start, my body, which had already been carrying her for nine months, now had the added job of keeping her alive. Breast-feeding is nonstop at the very beginning, so I was never really separated from our daughter for more than an hour at a time. Something as seemingly small as getting a manicure had to be precisely scheduled. Meanwhile, my husband didn’t have to think twice about taking a long bike ride in the morning or heading out to a yoga class. I was jealous of his freedom mainly because I felt like my breasts and I were being held hostage by the baby in our apartment.
At night, things were also uneven. My brain was hardwired to wake up the minute I heard the faintest cries coming from her bassinet; meanwhile, my husband had the ability to blissfully sleep through most of those late nights. And even though he certainly tried to help in as many ways as he could — like being on diaper duty in the morning and giving her a bottle before going to bed — the truth was the responsibility of those first few months fell on me, which is inevitable for most new moms.
Once my maternity leave was over and I went back to work, I was expecting that pre-baby balance to return. But I quickly became the one who had to be home by 6:00 to relieve the nanny; I am the one who takes her to the pediatrician every month. Most nights, I had fed, bathed, and put my daughter to bed even before my husband got home from work. While we both had full-time jobs, it felt unfair that I, somehow, was once again adjusting my life to our daughter’s schedule.
"Equality in many couples is busted with the arrival of the first child," couples therapist Esther Perel tells me over the phone. "There is one parent whose clock is more easily interrupted by the child. There's one parent that has an easier time absorbing their sense of self for the child. There's one that's more able to fall asleep at night than the other. There's one that’s more able to be flexible with their job than the other. There is going to be a frontline parent."
Perel's point reminded me of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent book, Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, a continuation of her viral Atlantic piece, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." In her book, Slaughter suggests that the success of one parent’s career depends on his or her partner taking on additional responsibilities (e.g., dealing with doctors' appointments and negotiating a more flexible schedule at work) and becoming the "lead parent" of the family. In the past, stay-at-home mothers would fill this role. But in today's world, in which women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households in the country, figuring out who's going to be the lead parent is more difficult to discern.
In Slaughter's case, her husband, Andrew Moravcsik, stepped up to the challenge after her career demanded a heavy amount of travel, and his teaching position afforded him more time to spend with their two sons. But the arrangement in the Slaughter home is still rare. In fact, mothers continue to do the bulk of work at home today. In Moravcsik's follow-up Atlantic article, "Why I Put My Wife's Career First," he cited a Pew Research Center study that found half of married or cohabiting women reporting that they do more childcare than their male partners. (Only 4 percent of men said the opposite was true.)
So why are women doing so much of the childcare work? Perel believes it's because we ultimately have a harder time delegating parenting responsibilities to our male partners. "You see a tremendous amount of resentful women walking around and men feeling inadequate in heterosexual couples," she said. "She wants him to be equal with her, but at the same time she has the privilege of centuries of prior, culturally passed-on knowledge by which she thinks she knows better." In a recent interview with Glamour, Slaughter raised a similar point. "I think there's a vein of sexism among women about what men can and can't do," she said. "If men applied that to us, we would freak out. And yet among women, even with men in the room, it is perfectly acceptable to make jokes about their presumed incompetence."
I cringed with recognition. I frequently would make fun of my husband’s inability to calm our crying daughter. While he would try to soothe her at night, most of the times I just ended up taking her into my arms and putting her to sleep myself, instead of giving him the chance to learn how to do it correctly. "The main reason women feel resentful is because they can't stop," Perel said. "They tell you it's because he doesn’t help enough or because there is too much to do, but the basic thing is that they can’t stop. They feel like they have to put every piece of Lego back in the box before they can sit down. The person who can’t stop is always upset at the person who has an easier time stopping."
Perel suggested that instead of striving for equality in the household, a couple should rethink each of their roles in the family. While one person becomes the frontline parent who takes care of the family, the other partner should become the caretaker of the relationship. "In the best-case scenario you have a distribution of roles," she explained. "One parent makes sure their children has their needs met, and one person becomes the holder of the couple."
I realized my husband had been doing this all along. Just last weekend, when we were out at a dinner with friends, I asked him to text the sitter to find out if everything was okay back at home. He refused, assured me everything was fine, and suggested I enjoy our night out while refilling my wine glass. It’s now that I realize that those moments I’m busy thinking of our baby, he's thinking of us — and that seems pretty equal in my book.
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