Equally Shared Parenting - Half the Work ... All the Fun

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Better than Tenure
by Carl

I am at a late stage now, but early in my career as an academic psychologist, I and my wife, Debby (also a psychologist), developed a wonderful work/family balance that I would recommend to others interested.

For 11 years, she and I each worked half-time, at opposite times, so that one of us was always at home while our two daughters were small.  We had the week divided into 21 "shifts" (morning, afternoon, and evening shifts for seven days). Debby was in charge of 10 shifts, I was in charge of 10, and we had a regular babysitter for the last shift which was Saturday evening.  Whichever one of us was at home was in charge of child care, housework, and of course the children's "owies."  The other partner was free to go to work (5 half-days each), engage in recreation or volunteer work, or participate in family activities as fun rather than duty .  The house was always full of kids, ours and neighbours'.

At the start, my male colleagues thought I was crazy to resign from my full-time position as a faculty member in a Canadian university just after being awarded tenure.  In fact I thought I might be foolishly giving up my academic career.  However, it turned out that I was actually more productive academically during those years of half-time clinical work, as I was happy and efficient in my work.  Once both girls were in school for full days, my time was no longer needed that much at home. I started over as a probationary faculty member, probably becoming the only person to be awarded tenure twice in the same department at my university.

I wrote an article about this arrangement for a journal called Canadian Family Physician.  I tried to identify the philosophical foundations and not just the practicalities of our sharing arrangement.  It was gratifying to receive letters over the following year from three male family doctors in different parts of Canada who said they had cut down their work hours to spend more time with their families after reading my article.

A significant detail from the earliest days:  when our first daughter was born, our wise obstetric/maternity nurse took me aside and said, "I'll show you how to give your baby a bath, and then you can teach your wife."  This made me feel significant and empowered.

Now as I head toward retirement I wonder if our daughters, both in their 20s, might be thinking about having children.  Of course I can't say anything to them, but spending time with grandchildren would provide a wonderful new work-life balance.

The arrangement described above was from 1982 to 1993, when I went back to work full-time. Debby continued half-time for a few more years.


You may view a scan of the full journal article by clicking here, but I've included some adapted highlights below:

Since our first daughter's birth, I had been struggling with one of the hardest decisions of my life: whether I should continue as a full-time professor, split between hospital and academic tasks, or cut back my work to half time and share housekeeping and parenting with my wife, Debby.  My misgivings allayed by an experimental week's joyful experience of fatherhood, I completed negotiations for a half-time hospital job and sent in my resignation to the university. 

Our family's week is divided into 21 'shifts' (morning, afternoon, and evening).  Debby and I are each 'on duty' for 10 shifts spread over the seven days.  Our 10 off-duty shifts are taken up mainly by our jobs (five or six half-days) and volunteer involvements in our church and professional organizations.  While on duty, we are responsible for child care, housework, shopping, driving the children to their activities, and so.  Each of us cooks dinner half the time.  Of course, not all couples engaged in shared parenting develop such a structured schedule.  In our case, we found that it helps our relationship to have a clear agreement about who is in charge of the children: this arrangement allows the other partner to feel completely free of domestic responsibility if he or she needs the time.

The benefits of a shared-parenting lifestyle are many.  I get to sit in a sunny park, chatting with the young mothers and watching our children play, while my colleagues, immured in their offices, are frowning over computer keyboards and lab results.  I was there when our daughter took her first tottering steps without support.  I had the honour of accompanying her kindergarten class on their field trip and watching her cautiously make the acquaintance of a lamb.  Of course, every father has some of these experiences, but in the traditional family the mother spends far more time with the children, and the father misses so much.

Parenting also offers a long-term education for the parents themselves and a setting for self-actualization.  Careing for young children brings out our spontaneity, honest, tolerance, patience, ingenuity, and creativity.  In a way , I owe my present closest friends to my children.  As an active participant in a babysitting co-operative, I have developed trusting and caring relationships with many families in our neighbourhood.

Holidays seem much less vital to survival than they did when I was working full-time.  On the other hand, when my patience with the children wears thin, it's reassuring to know that my peaceful office and my predictable computer are just a shift away!

One problem is the difficulty we sometimes have in 'shifting gears' from home and children to our jobs and back again.  A part-time worker comes with a full-time conscience: at times, both Debby and I get so immersed in our work that we have trouble concentrating on the children when we come home and are 'on duty' again.  To the extend that we value professional achievement, time spent with the children is a cost.  We have had to make a deliberate choice to de-emphasize the importance of these rewards while not negating them entirely.

For me, one normal frustration outweighs the others.  Parenting often seems to deteriorate to mere pointless housework.  The laundry always needs to be done, and there is always something to pick up.  But the great moments of fatherhood often arrive unpredicted, like unexpected songbirds in the midst of a great wasteland.  I have to be at home (doing the housework) when the moments arrive, or I'll miss them.

My bottom line advice
Try it out, with your own baby or a borrowed baby, for several days in a row.  You'll probably know soon whether shared child care suits you.  And look around for other couples who have chosen to share child care in non-traditional ways.  You'll be reassured by seeing the confidence and pride both partners can bring to their work as parents.

©Copyright 2008 Marc and Amy Vachon

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