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

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Approaching Our Glorious, Complex All
by Michelle

I vividly remember sitting at the tiny kitchen table my then boyfriend had nestled next to his huge landscape windows in his tiny kitchen in the hills of Marin County, California. It was dark outside and all you could see in those windows was our reflections. Wine glasses poised, lazy smiles and shadowed lighting filled each evening after work - when time together was full of play, and space and mostly just the two of us. We were talking about marriage and kids and life in that exciting and tentative way that is common in the early days of love. I was insisting that I would stay home with my kids while my boyfriend was talking about providing for his family in ways that made him proud and made life financially comfortable for everyone. I was pleased to know we were compatible in yet another beautiful way.
Fast forward four years: a trans-state move, a new business, a backyard wedding, and a honeymoon-created baby. In a blink, our first daughter was two years old and our second daughter was coming up on seven months. I loved being home with the girls in so many ways. We slept together, we played play doh, we sang and danced - and of course, I changed diapers, made meals, did laundry. The whole shebang. My husband, Jim, did all that, too, only for less hours since he was working outside the house and I was not. As time went on I began to resent Jim "getting" to work. I adored time with the girls but I missed being out in the grown up world, moving fast, making decisions, feeling stretched and satiated and intellectually challenged. To clarify (as if I need to!), mothering stretched and challenged me - and I certainly had to move fast at times! Just not in the same way as the outside work world required.
So, after much soul searching and even more guilt-crushing, I decided to go back to school. My husband was running his own parking lot maintenance business, finally at a place where he handled the business end of things while he trusted his staff to take care of the actual middle-of-the-night maintenance work. He was able to take on some of the daytime care for the girls while I was in school and we hired a babysitter a few hours a week so I could do homework. It was working pretty well, until one day when I came home early and found my ten-month-old daughter crying in her crib while the babysitter was upstairs putting her own daughter to bed. Really, the babysitter had done nothing wrong. She didn't know my daughter was crying and she promised she had only been gone a few minutes and rushed in to soothe my daughter. I loved our babysitter and I knew she loved our girls. But seeing that event was devastating for me. I realized then that I just wasn't willing to hand over the care of my girls just yet. It's not that our girls had never cried - it's that I wanted to be in control of how we handled their upsets. I wanted to be there to gauge whether they needed to cry a bit to settle down to sleep or whether the cry meant they were genuinely sad and needed holding. Jim and I decided we would go back to being the only caregivers for the girls, except for our weekly date night which occurred mostly during their sleep time anyway.
First, Jim simply gave up more work hours and I continued with my school schedule. Soon, though, we had our third baby girl. Now, we had three girls three years old and younger. A few more months, a few more soul-searching and financial discussions and we decided I would take a leave from school. Never content without significant mental challenge, however, I soon launched my communication coaching and consulting business. At the same time we decided to launch my business, we decided to take our shared care arrangement to a new level, one we had dreamed up soon after we had our first daughter - equally shared care. It turns out, in spite of the lovely, equally satisfying conversation we had in that shadowy kitchen those many years ago when we were still discovering one another's dreams on a daily basis, neither of us was remotely interested in missing out on any part of life's opportunities. I had tried multiple times to give up outside work to be at home full-time and could not do it. Jim had tried to work full-time and could not let go of the shared naptimes, doctor's appointments and, most important to him, spontaneous mid-afternoon front lawn playtimes.
Our shared care arrangement is constantly in flux. We recalibrate regularly, as we learn a better way to do something and discover our own likes and dislikes in the overall care of our family and home. Generally, I "manage" our calendar. Sometime before the start of a new work week, Jim and I discuss our various appointments and wishes for the week ahead and I place each of those items in my iCal calendar program. Because we still have three napping kids, we try to both be home at naptime as often a possible so we can tag-team naps and get everyone to sleep at once. (We have something near a 65% success rate for overlapping naps, which isn't bad considering our somewhat sleep-resistant crowd.)
Our schedule generally looks something like this: A few days a week I do an early morning run then work from 8am until around 12:30pm. On those days, Jim works in the afternoon once we have the girls down for naps. Two days a week, Jim plays basketball mid-morning and works before and after, while I care for the girls. I work in the afternoon on those days. Jim works the bulk of Friday morning then we hang out together as a family on Friday afternoons. Saturday morning from 6am until about 10am, is my time to work, have coffee with friends, or do whatever I am inspired to do. Sundays are generally family days. Many evenings Jim and I both spend at least a few hours working after the girls go to bed, which is made more pleasant by our sharing a home office and enjoying intermittent conversations as we work.
As our oldest has become more verbal and can share feelings and events, we are more comfortable having a babysitter care for the girls. We have a babysitter come in two days a week for a total of about nine hours during which time Jim and I both work, plus she comes for date night one evening a week from 7-10pm. The girls adore their babysitter and she really loves them, too. It's the only way we are comfortable having someone else care for them. Preschool is mixed in here for our four-year-old, but since we have the two others at all times, the care arrangement is necessary all the time.
As for the rest of the household responsibilities, we pretty much split them by interest and expertise: Jim does laundry, handles car maintenance, pays bills and handles investments, cares for our yard, and goes to more of the kid birthday parties. I cook more dinners, "manage" the house overall more (what needs cleaning, when we need babysitting, arrange social events), organize our girls' clothes and other house areas, buy more gifts and write more thank you notes. We definitely get equal amounts of "down time" (which right now is a very small amount!) and we work to protect that time for one another, as well as for ourselves. While we are splitting work time almost equally, Jim still gets a bit more on many weeks because he is actually bringing in the money that pays our bills and supports my venture into my new business. This will equal out entirely as my business grows.
Our life is rich beyond measure. We share a deep understanding of the joy and struggle of caring for our babies as well as a mutual understanding of the challenges and satisfaction of self-employment. Oh, there is stress - and we argue and discuss and get irritated at times, as I imagine most couples of all arrangements do. But mostly, we both cannot believe that we "have it all" - in all of "all's" glorious complexity. And while I would never try to convince anyone to do Equally Shared Parenting who is not driven to do it on their own, I highly recommend this lifestyle to anyone who has an inkling toward this approach. The benefit to our kids is evident every day as they happily climb onto their dad's lap for an impromptu mid-morning story one day and beg me to hurry up making lunch for our park outing on the next day. The benefit to us as parents is indescribable, except to share that I cannot imagine feeling more at peace about caring for our girls than I do now under our Equally Shared Parenting circumstances.

©Copyright 2008 Marc and Amy Vachon

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