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Equal time

More moms and dads say they want to share parenting duties equally. This Mother’s Day, one new mom turns to an old pro to find out: Why is it still so hard to do?

By Jenna Russell
May 8, 2011

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Amy Vachon has the life most working mothers only dream of. Vachon, 48, works 32 hours a week at a job she loves. Her husband does the same, and they switch off picking up their two kids. She makes dinner on Mondays and Fridays, he cooks on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and they eat out on Tuesdays. In Amy Vachon’s world, “doing laundry” means whites only – Marc, also 48, handles the family’s dark loads. He schedules their kids’ dental checkups; she handles doctors’ appointments.

The Watertown couple willingly became poster people for equal parenting in 2006, when they started blogging about it on their website, equallysharedparenting.com; their public role was cemented in 2008 by a New York Times Magazine cover story. Since then, they have become the idea’s best-known spokescouple. Their book, Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents, was published last year and came out in paperback last month.

Nearly a quarter century after Oakland, California, psychologist Diane Ehrensaft published one of the first books about shared parenting, Parenting Together, couples like the Vachons are still the exception to the norm. Just how much of an exception is a matter of discussion. Ehrensaft takes a sunny view today, pointing to “dramatic changes” in parental roles since she did her research 25 years ago. Francine Deutsch, a social psychologist at Mount Holyoke College, is much less encouraged. Deutsch, whose book Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works came out a dozen years ago, says she doesn’t see evidence that the practice has gained much ground. According to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Families and Work Institute, almost a third of women, 31 percent, say their partners take equal responsibility for their children, up from 21 percent in 1992.

“The big factor that makes it hard for people is the workplace – the demands of the workplace are berserk,” says Deutsch. “It’s very hard . . . to have two parents working 50, 60, 70 hours a week, so there’s a lot of pressure for someone to cut back. That is almost invariably the mother, and that starts a spiral.”

Some changes are clear. Tallies of the hours men and women devote to housework and to child care show men’s totals have increased, but a stubborn gap persists. Narrow the scope to consider only parents in dual-earner families, and the gap shrinks further. Dismayingly, though, even when a woman works and her partner stays home, she often still spends more time than he does on child care, according to unpublished research by Suzanne Bianchi, a UCLA sociology professor.

Set aside real life and ask people what they wish were true, and the picture looks more modern and egalitarian. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 62 percent of adults polled said marriages work better when both partners work outside the home and share child-care responsibilities. So why are so many families unable to put that vision into practice?

My interest in the subject is not strictly clinical. Since having my first child in 2008 and my second a year ago, I have made my own foray into equal parenting. My household arrangements evolved organically, out of strong beliefs and career realities – my husband’s hope of postponing day care for as long as possible; my unpredictable schedule – and from an unspoken understanding that we were equals. He had switched careers a decade ago, from journalism to teaching, in part because he realized, much more presciently than I, that it would make having a family easier.

From the start, he matched me diaper for diaper (in truth, he probably outmatched me). After my first maternity leave ended, in the spring of 2009, he took three months off to stay home with our daughter. When he requested the leave, he was told he was the first male employee of the school system where he works to take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the 1993 federal law that gives millions of workers of both sexes the right to take time off with a new baby without pay. His colleagues reacted to his decision with surprise and curiosity, while I was just surprised: Was it really that unusual?

As I set out to catch up with the Vachons, I hoped they would reveal what really made it work. My husband and I had tried to share the load from the outset, but I wondered about couples who wanted to shift the balance midstream, after becoming dissatisfied. Can people really change that much? Yes, say the Vachons.

“It’s hard, but people who convert are some of the most motivated, because they weren’t happy the way they were,” says Marc. “The sad part is a couple that’s unhappy that does nothing.”

When they met 11 years ago, the Vachons both knew what they wanted out of marriage. They discussed the concept of equal parenting – though not the possibility that they would be parents together – during their first date. One of the revealing things about them is how they reached the same conclusion from such different places. Amy had watched her mother reinvent herself from stay-at-home mom to breadwinner after her father died suddenly. Amy always knew she would be self-sufficient and have a career and that she would need a partner willing to do his share. Marc, an engineer with an MBA who could be described as a reformed overachiever, cut back his work schedule long before he married because he wanted more time to play tennis and go hiking. Instead of an asset, his laid-back lifestyle was seen as a liability by most of the women he dated, because it raised concerns that he might be a slacker.

To Amy, a Type A personality who plays the violin and oversees 11 employees in her job directing the clinical pharmacy program for Atrius Health, that is simply . . . funny.

“I so would not have considered dating you if I thought you were a slacker,” she tells her husband.

A recent visit to their home, in a quiet neighborhood not far from Watertown Square, reveals an almost alarming lack of clutter. There is no visible pile of bills in their kitchen, and in their daughter’s closet, labeled plastic bins designate the proper places for “Patterned Tights” and “Extra Jewelry.” On a recent weeknight, their children, Theo, 5, and Maia, 8, go to bed with barely a word of protest. Their two gray cats, Twinkle and Zippy, are more unruly than the kids as they stalk the rice and turkey burgers left over from dinner. Asked if they have any conflict-causing flash points in their home lives at the moment, Amy says she has grown uncomfortable with Marc’s gradual takeover of the household finances and plans to reinvolve herself this year, to get back to the basic competence each believes he or she should maintain in each domestic duty. In fact, they feel it can make sense for partners to gravitate to tasks they like better or are better at, as long as they don’t take those things over completely – “not for equality’s sake, but more so you can pinch-hit for each other,” says Marc.

Since putting themselves in the public eye, the Vachons have heard from grateful couples who thanked them for illuminating another path, but they have also faced criticism, some of it personal and surprisingly harsh. Naysayers labeled them rigid and petty for “scorekeeping,” judged their careers to be destined for mediocrity, and expressed pity for “those poor children,” whose parents, they concluded, “must argue about everything.” They were taken aback – Amy, in particular, struggled with the critiques – but they concluded that some people felt threatened because what they were saying challenged the core of their family identities. Today, she’d tell doubters: Bring it. “We’re happy to take the criticism, because we believe in this so strongly.”

The most common misunderstanding about their approach is what they now call the “50-50 myth” – the idea that their family life runs with mathematical precision. “It’s not about putting a hatchet down every task,” Amy Vachon says. The goal is not to fixate on who does what, but for both to be fully invested, not only in the doing but also in the thinking and planning, so both know what needs to be done, without being asked.

It’s the difference between being willing to drop off the enrollment form for summer camp and realizing, months ahead of time, that the right camp must be found; between picking up a box of Huggies on request and knowing when supplies are running low.

That kind of true sharing, instead of delegating, is the “last frontier” of equal parenting, says Amy. “I can assign him to do tasks . . . ”

“And I can be the dutiful soldier,” says Marc, “but that’s not equality.”

It’s easy to see how some resistance to shared parenting is rooted in society’s insistence that men be family breadwinners. But if men are expected to draw their identities and self-esteem from their work lives and paychecks and find it hard to lessen their grip on that realm, what I learn from the Vachons is that there is a parallel strain of resistance for women, mothers in particular.

Amy Vachon, a confessed control freak, admits that she still struggles sometimes with relinquishing household power to her husband. Hardest to hand over are the tasks she cares about deeply or that shape how their household – and specifically, her mothering – is perceived by the world. That includes things like planning the kids’ birthday parties and responding to requests for parent volunteers. If people choose to judge their family’s failure to pitch in at the school yard sale, the indictment is likely to fall on her, not Marc, she says.

“I think we vastly underestimate how much the woman has to let go to make [shared parenting] really happen,” Amy says.

Unlike most moms, including me, Vachon resists the urge to tweak a less-than-perfect outfit dad has put together. Instead, she stops and asks herself some questions: Are the children safe? (Yes.) Do I want to dress them every day? (No.) “Matching clothes are not on the list of top values I want my kids to have,” she says. “So Marc has helped me figure out what’s important in life.” Unless it’s picture day at school, in which case, she unapologetically admits, she will insist their clothes be camera-ready.

As she talks, I think of how I hang on to some tasks, like packing lunches, imagining that I will do it better. I never had a reason to doubt my husband’s competence, but still sometimes I did, especially later, when we had a second child, and he took a second leave from work to care for them both. On more than one evening this spring, I sped home down Route 3 with my adrenaline racing, envisioning the baby screaming, the toddler unraveling, their father’s patience thinning. Rushing in to save the day, I usually found a scene of lamp-lit domestic bliss instead: my husband reading our pajama-clad 2-year-old a story, the baby playing happily at their feet. It was idyllic – and it was not what I expected. But why not?

Deutsch, the Mount Holyoke professor, recalls one mother she interviewed who described her realization “that there could be two ‘number ones.’ ” That revelation, and the resulting transformation of fatherhood, is essential to progress, Deutsch says. “But we also need to transform motherhood, [so] that the mother does not have to be the only fundamentally important person. . . . Whenever we are trying to counter norms, there are costs to be paid, and if men are willing to pay some, women have to be willing, too.”

Deutsch has recently been recruiting a fresh crop of shared-parenting couples for a new project. Finding them has not been easy. “I’m surprised by how difficult it is, and I do find it discouraging,” she says. “Come on, we’re in the 21st century!”

But there is evidence things are changing. The Families and Work Institute found that, on average, men in the newest generation of dads – in their 20s – spend more time per workday with their children than older fathers do.

Or consider Tom Bleakney, who worked as a nanny for years after earning his master’s degree in special education and now runs a Scituate day-care center, The Kids’ Place, with his wife, Jennifer. Call this 41-year-old businessman at work and you may be asked to wait while he changes a diaper. The couple started their business after realizing that neither of them wanted to leave their children – Thomas, now 7, and Cassady, now 4 – to go to work. “We decided it would be best, the ideal situation,” Tom says, “if our kids could get both Mom and Dad almost all the time.”

Based on his observations of their daily routines, Bleakney estimates that as many as 40 percent of the couples whose children he cares for divide the family workload roughly equally. But some fathers feel their commitment isn’t recognized. “They say they do more with their kids than their dads ever did, but they get more grief” from wives and other family members who still think they don’t do enough, according to Bleakney.

Of course, shared parenting was going on long before blogs like the Vachons’ called attention to it. Even 50 years ago, the Don-and-Betty-Draper traditional model was the province of the upper middle class, while in many working-class families, mothers and fathers worked different shifts and split up the child care between them. The Vachons say they have seen couples with all kinds of jobs – doctors, firefighters, house painters – succeed at equal parenting, but they acknowledge they have never encountered an equal partnership in which one partner has an elite, top-tier “super career.” And that’s OK, says Amy: “We wouldn’t want the president of the United States to be an [equal-sharing] parent.”

The recession may make part-time work seem risky, but two part-time jobs may be safer than one income in a volatile job market. “Having two and losing one, you can potentially scale back,” says Marc Vachon. “In the traditional model, where do you go?” He should know. Laid off in 2007, Marc was jobless for almost a year – a period when the couple had to consciously recalibrate their balance “and think about what we were going to share,” Amy says, to avoid slipping into more traditional roles (in reverse). Amy did not increase her work hours while Marc was unemployed; instead, they cut back on extras like their twice-a-month housecleaner (whom they have since reinstated). Marc walked away from several interested employers because they didn’t offer flexible hours before landing his current position, as an IT manager for a market research firm. This, I know from my own experience, is the true test of commitment: sacrificing income – and in our case, dipping into savings while my husband was on leave – to give both parents equal time with the children.

Recent economic pressures have accelerated changes in the 21st-century family, experts say, as more men lose jobs and more women earn advanced degrees and boost their earning power. Instead of seeing the trend as a negative, men might view it as an opportunity, Amy suggests. “They’ve been missing out for years,” she says. “Now they can remake themselves and become real equals at home.”

Among their friends, however, the Vachons don’t trumpet their success at sharing or assume it’s for everyone. Talking about having time for themselves and their children and feeling their lives are in balance “is like bragging about how much money you have,” says Marc. In a sense, they don’t have to talk about it. After all their exposure, people know what they stand for and seek advice when and if they want it. “We’re just the equally shared parenting couple, like another couple are the vegetarians,” says Amy.

For me, embracing shared parenting and letting go has meant accepting that my 2-year-old wants Dad to make her oatmeal and that she will sometimes throw herself facedown in her crib if I go to get her in the morning instead of him. “No, Mommy!” she might tell me. “Go away!” What I feel then is a mix of joy and pain – the sting of rejection and the pride and elation of knowing she has two equally nurturing, capable caretakers.

Jenna Russell is a reporter for the Globe. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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