This article is interesting for several reasons (The Independent, 4/19/11). What’s perhaps most interesting is its headline – “Shared Parenting: A Disastrous Double Act.” Needless to say, as someone who relentlessly promotes greater parental equality, that grabbed my attention. After all, the Guardian/Independent has never been what you’d call father friendly, so what would it find to be “disastrous” about shared parenting. Readers may be disappointed to learn that the headline has little to do with the article.
Oh, there’s conflict, different parenting styles, disagreement, exhaustion, questioning the very concept of equal parenting, the mention of divorce and plenty more. But disaster? Not even close. The author, Claire Hodgson and her husband Simon had it all planned out before little Sam was ever born. Simon would be the house husband who did the majority of the childcare while working at home. Claire would be the chief breadwinner. That arrangement fit their personalities, earning capacities and preferences. So they had it all figured out ahead of time. But there was a problem called ‘reality.’ Having never been parents before, they didn’t really know what to expect and, however carefully they’d planned, weren’t prepared for the facts of caring for an autonomous human being. They also weren’t prepared for each other. So they had to alter their carefully-chosen plan. And here’s where my exasperation with them set in. Reading the piece, it’s a bit hard sometimes to tell who is the child and who are the parents. Simon and Claire managed to get crossways with each other about every imaginable thing. Simon always feeds Sam with an orange spoon, bathes him a particular way, swings him higher than does Claire, etc. Somehow the pair couldn’t manage to set aside even petty differences like that. Somehow those things mattered deeply to them. To simply state the obvious, if a couple is having that type of conflict, it’s about them, not about the baby or how best to care for him. In short, child care for Simon and Claire became a point of competition. Who’s the better parent? Who does it the right way? And yes, whom does Sam prefer? When he masters words, does he say “Dada” or “Mama” when it’s time to read him to sleep? And Claire, being the mom, battles with her preconceived notions that she must be accorded power in all things related to the baby.
Somewhat unexpectedly, in spite of all my fine feminist training, I started to believe that because I was the mother, maybe we weren’t meant to be equal. I wanted Simon to defer to me; to admit that I had the right of veto, that I was the Cameron to his Clegg (or Obama to his Biden).
Those are echoes – and not very faint ones – of maternal gatekeeping, in which mothers are assumed by both parties to not only be better parents, but to deserve higher status in the family hierarchy. Dad may be allowed certain caretaking functions, but it’s Mom who decides which ones and it’s Mom who rates his performance. If he’s not up to her standards, she edges him out. In Claire’s case, though, she’s smart enough, honest enough and big enough to admit that neither Simon nor Sam is buying it. Simon doggedly parents his way and Sam sometimes prefers his dad to his mom. That hurts Claire but she never tries to cut Simon out of Sam’s life. All of this is exacerbated by tiredness and stress. They are, after all, first time parents; they’re learning on the job, so whatever issues they have with each other can only be made worse. And sure enough, at one point the concept of divorce comes up, not as a realistic alternative, but still, they mention it. But just when it looks like they really won’t sort themselves out, they do.
Last week, during another trying night getting our notoriously bad sleeper to bed, Sam asked, for the first time, at 17 months, for “Dada”, for Simon to come and read him Goodnight Gorilla and handle bedtime. As I left the bedroom, and said goodnight to them both, I felt not rejected, but elated. Sam could choose, and maybe we were equal in his eyes, if not our own.
As Sam gets older, it has become easier. We talk about him together, but no longer to admonish; we share our stories of the day, and we laugh. I now realise that increasingly I’m more proud than pissed off at my husband. I’m impressed that he can walk among professional mothers, and make allies with them. I like the way he gives Sam free rein, encouraging his feistiness and energy. Simon has found his own way…
Despite its title, this is no disaster story, no “Towering Inferno.” It’s the story of a couple who thought they had it all figured out in advance, only to find that their plans neglected the reality of themselves and the new autonomous being they were bringing into the world. It took them a little over a year to learn who they were as parents and to get to know their son. Those were trying months, but slowly they’ve begun to master the situation. Now they seem to honor each other’s contributions and unique styles. They notice that their little boy benefits from each. Perhaps most important is that, throughout it all, they’ve clung to the concept of equality. They never fled to the “safe” ground of “Mom the Primary Parent and Dad the Earner” that may be less conflicted but often ends up with Dad at best a remote figure to his child. And each has benefited from that, Sam more than anyone else. Disastrous? Hardly. It was difficult and made more so by their own personalities, but Simon and Claire should take a minute out of their busy day and pat each other on the back. They’ve achieved a fine thing – a family that feeds both their career and parental needs, and Sam’s need for two parents. In the end, it is that latter thing that is all-important. Some day I suspect that Sam will realize it himself – that having both his mother and father deeply involved in his care and bringing both of their unique ways of loving and teaching to that endeavor is truly irreplaceable. It can’t be done any other way.