There was a big thing in the New York Times Magazine yesterday about “equal parenting,” which apparently is a kind of stealth movement out there in parent-land, where both parents juggle it all instead of just one parent juggling it all.
I was sort of busy revising my novel while W (my husband) was outside finishing the skateboard thing he’s building for the boys and running around town to buy Jack some last minute items for his choir tour, but I did register the thought that we’re those kind of parents. I mean, I think we are, because I didn’t have time to read the whole article and most of what I know about it comes from the captions on the pictures of people who looked awfully young to me.
The thing is, though, that the last time we were able to talk about our shared parenting (in some way other than a two second conversation about who’s going to pick up William from his drum lessons) was in 1990. Okay. Since it’s been 18 years since I last really articulated the thinking that goes into the parenting I do with W , I’m due for a little talking about it. Oh, and also, it was Father’s Day yesterday, so it seems appropriate to talk about fathering.
Here’s the setting for that conversation. Fall 1990. We were probably having a drought here in California, because it was hot, hot, hot and we had all the windows open. We were driving to Yosemite, on one of those very windy roads where to keep yourself from getting sick and to make sure the driver (in this case W) is not falling asleep at the wheel, you must absolutely bring up a controversial topic in a loud voice so you can be distracted from getting sick and he can be distracted from falling asleep.
We were about to get married, so there was a ton of stuff to talk about. (Don’t get me started on why it was that I had to wear the complicated dress, complicated both from a fashion and political point of view and he got to rent the same penguin suit thing all men wear.) The discussion I chose to start had to do with whether we were going to have children. Of course, the reason we were getting married was because we were pretty sure we’d have some children, but we’d never really discussed it, so it seemed like a good thing to bring up.
At that time, I could still remember some of the feminist theory I’d read in college. There hadn’t been a lot of stuff about parenting. In fact, the only thing I knew about feminist parenting came from Dorothy Dinnerstein (remember her? Mermaid? Minotaur?). From her, for some reason, I had drawn the conclusion that the Reason There is So Much Fighting in the World is because men aren ‘t properly parented. Which is to say they don’t have fathers who mother them and so they end up killing each other. Or something like that.
So I said, honey, I’m not going to have children unless you’re going to raise them as much as I am. Half and half, okay? At that time, W was busy thinking about whether he was going to take one of those jobs where you go to far away places and make a bunch of money as a consultant, and see your wife and family not that often. So he took this statement seriously. We drove and drove and drove on that twisty road talking about mermaids and minotaurs and consulting jobs and stuff, and by the end of it, we’d agreed — we would be equal parents. I am not surprised that he agreed to this because he is a person of integrity and fairness and he likes to work hard at things, which, it turned out, is what parenting is all about.
He bought a small company of his own, in the end, and never did become a consultant, in part because when you are the boss you get to decide how you’re going to run things. Which is to say that the single best way to institute family friendly work policies is to own the company at which those policies are in force. What are those policies, you ask? The ability to work at home is one. The flexibility to do things with your children when those things must be done, and then stay up until midnight doing the other things that could wait just a bit so you could take your child to the orthodontist is another.
It turns out, though, that our equal parenting also had a lot to do with having twins. I can see how we might not have ended up the way we did. That’s because my impulse when I became pregnant was to just take over. Look, I can carry two at once! Next, I’ll give birth to them in beautiful pain! And then, hey, how about all that nursing I will do! I had no idea what he’d do, before he started doing it.
That happened when they arrived — both of them. Fortunately for me, the babies and W, you can’t monopolize parenting if you have two babies at once and you discover all that nursing is making you really, really tired. And so, because we started off having to share, it just never ended. It’s not exact — but for both of us it feels pretty even. (Lately, W would say it is not even, and that I spend so much time writing that our children don’t know what a mother looks like, unless it’s the OTHER mothers they see way more than they see me. He might be right, you know. I wonder what Dorothy Dinnerstein would make of that. Still, equal parenting can sustain a little unequal stint every once in a while — it rights itself, I think, if you pay attention to it.)
This is what it looked like today, for example. It is summer vacation. We both work. Jack had to be taken to the airport. I took him and came into work. Charlie and William have no plans today. W arranged for them to meet a good friend at his work, and go to the park with her. (Please note that I did not make this plan. Shared parenting means being totally responsible for the planning of the days you are on duty as the parent.) I am writing this afternoon and tonight. W is taking the boys out to dinner. Tomorrow he is working at home, while they are at home hanging out. I am working, and writing. I’m in charge of Wednesday and am working on childcare arrangements for the time I will be at work. Thursday he is in charge. Next week, after I get back from a weekend away, he and I are on vacation and we will all be in charge. That is usually a very exciting free-for-all of strong willed people that sometimes ends in tears or a lot of yelling and sometimes is a lot of fun. After that, the camps I organized, and the two nice young women I’ve hired to hang out with the boys take over the childcare.
Which brings me to another important point. We share parenting between more than just the two of us. Important people in our lives and the lives of our children have helped us raise our children. I have always worked part time (except for a year or so of full time work) and W has always worked a schedule where he either does the morning shift at home or the afternoon school pick up shift. When the boys were little, one woman — Aurelia Madrid — cared for them during the days both of us had to be at work. It is hard to think of a name for her — she’s neither an aunt nor a nanny. She’s a third parent, really. She brings things into our lives that we wouldn’t otherwise have: she has a better sense of humor than I do, she’s more easy-going, she keeps them busy really beautifully, and she loves them, as they do her. So, you see, shared parenting isn’t a two people endeavor, not at least in our life.
And so it goes. A lot of stuff around here gets done at the last minute. Sometimes it is more W doing the child care, sometimes it is more me. We are both sometimes up very late doing the things we love to do that we did not get to do during the day because we are also parents. Shared parenting may not change the world and stop wars, but it does make people happy — both of us. My husband loves his fathering work as much as he loves being an engineer and designing amazing things, and being a windsurfer who’s very fast out there on the San Francisco Bay and a great skier and rock climber to boot. He does all these things, and feels, as I do about my own passions, that he doesn’t do any of them as well as he’d like, but at least he gets to give it a shot. So, yes, I can honestly say, 12 years into the shared parenting endeavor, that it’s a good, worthwhile thing to do. Not everyone can do it, or wants to do it and that’s fine too. I know plenty of families where one parent specializes in the on-site parenting work and, honestly, I no longer believe those children are going to go out and start a bunch of wars. The funny thing is that if people choose that sort of parenting arrangement (women mostly, I think), rather than have it thrust on them, that works pretty well too.
I can’t think of how to end this post except to say that my husband is a remarkable man, and I am lucky to have met him and married him and had those three children with him. He’s a gem. Tired, but a gem.