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

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Family Togetherness
by Annie and John

Our current life, as told by Annie:

While I can identify with many of the experiences reported by other equally sharing couples, I came to the realization that we are not a demographic group that could be easily identified with similar interests or motivations. It has now been a year since we left the treadmill to pursue a more balanced life with our family, so with the perspective granted by the passage of time I feel I am ready to share some of the experiences that brought me to this place.

John and I are both doctoral students at Columbia University, researching international development. We both have fellowships that require about 20 hours of research a week and we both take classes each semester. The best aspect about our schedules is that they are completely flexible. We can work in labs or on the computer any time of day or night--and it's usually night. We schedule our classes around each other's as well.

We have three children, ages 7, 5 and 1. We don't use a nanny, but occasionally a friend or visiting relative babysits for us. Our children are so young that they are almost always home with us. Our parents are far away, in El Paso and Santa Fe, but they are surprisingly innovative at lending a helping hand by playing a game of Scrabulous online with one of the children, regularly emailing and calling them, and sending activity books or games in the mail.

As a couple, John and I are almost always together, so it's hard to separate who does what in our home. We find one of us sometimes becomes the lead on some household project, like John is the lead for cooking and I am the lead for schooling--but we're still almost always doing these things together. Our youngest still nurses at night so the one dedicated chore John takes on himself is to take the kids to the park early so I can catch up on a little sleep. Most of the time there is so very much to do with and for three children that we both are at sufficient capacity to never count who's done what. We're simply both doing everything.

One secret to making our ambitious research schedules work without reducing our time with the children is that we have become experts at efficiency. We employ technology wherever possible so we don't waste extra hours on research tedium, like re-finding citations or organizing articles. We don't shop in stores, instead getting everything from groceries to clothes online and having it delivered. In New York parks, schools, labs, everything is just a few blocks away so we don't waste time commuting either.

The other secret is to maximize the children's golden hours of the day. From 9 to noon and again from about 3 to 7 at night the kids need the most attention. We try to avoid multitasking them and work around their high-need hours; then we have them read, sleep, or play without us for the rest of the day. We do most of our homework and reading from 8 pm to midnight, after the older two go to bed--we're still waiting on the youngest for a sleep schedule. We usually work across from each other at the table, or laying in bed, propped up on pillows with laptops and cuddling feet.

Our youngest child was born last July with several serious brain abnormalities and is still in stages of finding a genetic diagnosis.  It has been the most difficult struggle of our lives and I know we could not possibly have survived this agonizing year if we were not already raising the children side-by-side everyday. We have read about the many ways having a disabled child can impact a family--it's a leading cause of poverty, and of divorce. Many fathers check out physically and/or emotionally. We found we were sort of taking turns crumbling and being strong. We were also sharing the emotional burden of constant doctor's appointments and therapy assessments. Fortunately, we are feeling stronger now--more easily understanding and accepting our new life with a disabled child and finding a rhythm with Early Intervention programs. Sharing all our childraising meant that we also shared the waves of coping, supporting, and healing.

How we got here, as told by John:

When we had our first child, I was in what I thought was a child-friendly environment working for NASA in Houston, Texas. All of my supervisors had children and working for the government appeared to provide many benefits. In fact, many contractor employees viewed the civil servants as spoiled and rightly so, as contractors offered fewer days off and much worse benefits packages than the government.

Much of our research into childraising made us feel that spending
10-12 hours per day in a daycare center was not the best environment for young children and we could not afford even a part-time nanny at that time. While my supervisor was very flexible with hours, NASA expected every employee to be in the office between 9am and 3pm and the only people who seemed to be eligible to telework were the astronauts on the Space Station. Annie was not terribly fulfilled by her job at the museum so, as with so many couples, she was the one who made the concession and took a job at a non-profit across the street from our house with a grassroots, anti-poverty mission, flexible hours and a boss who actually encouraged her to bring our son to work with her. This seemed ideal, but her job as the development director for a non-profit community organization proved much more stressful than we imagined and living across the street meant she was always available to work any time of day.

Annie quit that job so that she would not be stressed out and miserable while she was pregnant with our second child and still toting around our first, again putting her career on hold for the sake of the children.  By then I was making enough money that we could barely scrape by with one income. When our second child was born, I planned to use my generous amount of saved sick leave to have a month of time at home and then slowly ramp back up to full-time work. However, 10 days later the Space Shuttle Columbia crashed during reentry and I was part of the team that was trying to figure out how to squeeze the most out of our supplies to keep from abandoning the $60 billion Space Station, still under construction. Suddenly, I was spending 60+ hours per week at work and then volunteering additional time at home at night when something had to be done the next day.

After a couple of months of this, it became clear that it was not sustainable, both from the perspective of Annie's lonely days stuck at home with two kids while her career options evaporated and from my own sense of loss in missing out on such a special time in our life as a family. I discussed things with my supervisor, and thus began the era of the informal arrangements. If all the work that required me to be physically at the office was getting done, then I could count the hours I worked on the bus or at home at night. It was mutually beneficial because out of our gratitude for this flexibility arose a sense of willingness to be called on any time, day or night, to answer the phone or put together a last minute presentation. Sometimes I would get home, make dinner and take the kids to the park but after bedtime work on my laptop until 3am. I think I did my best work at those times since I was free of the constant distractions of the office environment and I received many awards and accolades during this time, although I don't think many people were aware of when or where my work was getting done.

My success in this arrangement led to the ultimate stretch for NASA, allowing me to work remotely from New York while Annie (ready to restart her career path after all those kid-years) attended an intense 1-year graduate program at Columbia. I will never know how many favors my supervisor had to call in to convince management and human resources to allow this, but I now know it wasn't looked upon favorably by many managers. There is a mentality among older employees (I'm sure this is also true in other workplaces) that someone is a good worker if they are at their desk or in front of people every day. 

Even though I was able to get things done faster and better from New York, to these people it seemed like I was on some kind of year-long vacation.

In New York, I was able for the first time in my life to take the kids to school in the morning or stop by the park on the way home. I could take a break from working when they had something that was really important to them to share with me. It was no vacation, since I was expected to still work 40 hours per week, take 12 hours of classes, and watch the kids in between. However, we quickly developed a rhythm and we realized that this was our ideal life. Classes or meetings have to be attended, but the rest of the time we were free to schedule around the important things in our life, such as the kids or each other. Once or twice a week we would steal away while the kids were at school.  We would share coffee or a quick lunch at a cafe. Most of all, it worked. From then on the bubble had burst and we could see clearly how we wanted to live.

When we returned to Houston, I expected to continue the arrangement and work from home or on the bus to mitigate the 2-hour waste of time spent commuting to work. I even hoped to be an agent of change within the conservative NASA work environment to show that a new way was both possible and beneficial. But my supervisor had moved on and my new boss was a woman who never had kids because she didn't want to be stuck doing all the work while giving up her career. It is important to realize that NASA is now-- on the surface --a very diverse organization (unlike in the 1950's when the only women were the secretaries) and there are many women entering the ranks and even moving up into management positions.  However, as the beginning of the NYT article very accurately points out, this doesn't mean that these women share the work of raising children equitably with their husbands. Men are still expected to be in the office and women are much more likely to have to take time off to deal with a sick kid or volunteer for the PTA.

Of course, the way that most successful dual income couples managed in that environment was to hire a nanny or use a full-time daycare for the kids. I can't say we really considered this solution, mainly due to our views as shaped by out desire to practice attachment parenting and perhaps my own upbringing with an involved stay-at-home mom. There is now reliable research on the issue that shows middle class kids who spend more than 6 hours per day in childcare show only modest gains in math and language but have significant problems with social skills, exhibiting aggressive behavior more often and having difficulty sharing and cooperating in kindergarten. We observed this personally last year when we had our second child in a highly regarded preschool where most of the kids were there for 11 or 12 hours each day. The kids were just mean and stressed out -- constantly having tantrums and fits. We pulled her out mid-semester, and thus began the final act of rebellion against the work-first system.

While Annie was pregnant and unhappy with her PhD program, I tried my best to take up the slack in the family. I asked to work at home 2-3 hours/day under a "flexiplace" agreement, which requires the buy-in from your boss, their boss, and their boss, along with human resources. My supervisor did not resist, but did not fight for it either. Eventually, the answer from management was passed down (always in the form of second hand recounts of conversations.. the NASA way). 

There were many reasons

    1. If you do it, everyone will want to.. I said, "good for them, they should do it if they can
    2. How will we evaluate whether you are really working? (I can assure you, there are people who sat at their desk all day and did one or two hours of work)
    3. Flexiplace (teleworking) is really for people with health problems or women recovering from pregnancy. (this goes completely against all of the guidance Congress has offered Federal agencies since teleworking became legal, but was consistent with JSC's own home-brewed policies on the issue)
    4. We pay you plenty of money with good benefits, so you shouldn't complain about not having enough time with your family.
    5. I had kids and still had to be in the office all day, so why should you receive special treatment?

It was those last two that got me thinking. I really didn't want my career to proceed the way that my managers made theirs. I thought, when I'm in my late forties and my children are leaving home, will I wish I had made more money and risen through the ladder to arrive at a middle management position working 60 hours a week even when there was no crisis going on? Or will I wish I had spent more time with the kids as I had in New York, going to their special events, knowing all their friends, and having them know they can always come to me for anything?  It was obvious what we needed to do.

I was still a part-time MS/PhD student at Columbia, so it was easy to jump right from my masters into the PhD program -- I just needed the courage to leave the lifelong security of a good government job, show up and search for funding (that was the hardest part for me). We didn't know if Annie would be able to transfer PhD programs, but that turned out alright. The important thing is that we now have our ideal life. It's been a great year of spending time with the kids, learning new subjects through coursework, and doing meaningful work to help the desperately poor on our planet. A typical day (it's summer now) has getting up early with the kids so we can hit the park while it's cool outside, returning to help Annie do summer school workbooks and activities with the kids, eating lunch together and then settling in for an afternoon of reading papers, analyzing data, or running experiments in the lab. We frequently find ourselves working at night (after the kids are in bed) on those things that really require intense concentration with no interruptions. Often, I bring along our two oldest children to the lab. They are glad for the change of scenery and happily read or play on the computer while I play with my experiments.

It's not easy to make ends meet on a grad student's salary, but at least nobody can say, "We’re paying you a lot, so don't complain about the hours." And I can go work in the lab or write papers any hour of the day or night with my results-oriented dissertation supervisor. I know that eventually I will graduate and need to find a new home for our unique shared parenting arrangement, but at least I have the renewed confidence of standing up to the work-first system-- surviving and thriving in spite of the system's rejection of our values. If I do go back to a more traditional job, it will have to be on our terms or we'll just say, "no thanks, we have more important things in our life right now!"

©Copyright 2008 Marc and Amy Vachon

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