This week’s New York Times Magazine has an interesting article about the benefits and problems associated with “equally shared parenting,” also known as “shared care”. The basic idea, according to the couples profiled in the article, is that “gender should not determine the division of labor at home.” Marc and Amy Vachon, for example, decided
…they would not be the kind of parents their parents had been — the mother-knows-best mold. Nor the kind their friends were — the “involved” dad married to the stressed-out working mom. Nor even, as Marc put it, “the stay-at-home dad, who is cooed at for his sensitivity but who is as isolated and financially vulnerable as the stay-at-home-mom.”
Instead, they would create their own model, one in which they were parenting partners. Equals and peers. They would work equal hours, spend equal time with their children, take equal responsibility for their home. Neither would be the keeper of the mental to-do lists; neither of their careers would take precedence. Both would be equally likely to plan a birthday party or know that the car needs oil or miss work for a sick child or remember (without prompting) to stop at the store for diapers and milk. They understood that this would mean recalibrating their career ambitions, and probably their income, but what they gained, they believed, would be more valuable than what they lost.
As good as it sounds, the Vachons’ arrangement is unusual, to say the least. Social scientists consistently find that American women do about twice as much around the house as men on average:
The most recent figures from the University of Wisconsin’s National Survey of Families and Households show that the average wife does 31 hours of housework a week while the average husband does 14 — a ratio of slightly more than two to one. If you break out couples in which wives stay home and husbands are the sole earners, the number of hours goes up for women, to 38 hours of housework a week, and down a bit for men, to 12, a ratio of more than three to one. That makes sense, because the couple have defined home as one partner’s work.
…But then break out the couples in which both husband and wife have full-time paying jobs. There, the wife does 28 hours of housework and the husband, 16. Just shy of two to one, which makes no sense at all.
The lopsided ratio holds true however you construct and deconstruct a family. “Working class, middle class, upper class, it stays at two to one,” says Sampson Lee Blair, an associate professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo who studies the division of labor in families. “And the most sadly comic data is from my own research,” he adds, which show that in married couples “where she has a job and he doesn’t, and where you would anticipate a complete reversal, even then you find the wife doing the majority of the housework.”
“The most striking part,” Blair says, “is that none of this is all that different, in terms of ratio, from 90 years ago.”
And yet, despite the overwhelming social and cultural factors keeping this unequal system in place, couples such as the Vachons are managing to create their own rules. They make shared parenting – “Why isn’t it just called ‘parenting’?” wonders Marc – work for them by living well below their means to accommodate reduced hours at work. Marc, a mechanical engineer and M.B.A., spent month after frustrating month looking for an employer who was willing to take him on part-time; he now works 32 hours a week, leaving at noon on two “short days” to care for the two Vachon children while mom Amy is at work.
Of course, shared parenting isn’t for everyone. Many people are more comfortable sticking to the traditional working-husband, stay-at-home-wife dynamic; others might value career ambition or money over a more laid-back lifestyle such as the Vachons’. But for those who find themselves feeling one-sided or resentful as the sole breadwinner or caregiver, a more egalitarian work and childcare plan could be the answer.