You can halve it all

You can get your husband to do his share if you demand it -- or threaten divorce.

By Jennifer Bingham Hull
July 12, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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My husband, Bill, can barely boil water. When I met him, he was living off of
shredded wheat and bread and whatever he could buy at the office cafeteria.
His default at home was to throw things on the floor -- not in the garbage,
but on the floor. He figured that if it was on the floor he could find it
again. Hoarders never know what they might need. It took several months of
dating before Bill showed me the room he was renting in a house in
Washington. "It's all over now," he said, hesitantly ushering me in.
For the next five days, I filled one garbage bag after another from that
room to help him move to Miami, where I would ultimately join him. There I
was, a nice little feminist cleaning up after her man. Where would it go
from there?

I began my campaign for an equal parenting arrangement with Bill soon after
seeing his room and long before we got married. Bill repeatedly agreed to
this arrangement. Still, I wasn't optimistic. In most couples we knew, women
were doing most of the domestic work. And some of them had husbands who liked to
cook. How was I going to get a guy who could barely operate the microwave
to boil baby bottles? The therapist I was seeing to deal with my fear of
motherhood suggested I read books on child development. Focusing largely on
a mother developing her child, they didn't help. I wanted a book on
marriage development. I wanted something that said: Yes, a guy who can't
boil water can share child care.

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Now there finally is such a book, though it's not one of those cheery tomes
that say how wonderful it is to share domestic tasks with your husband.
"Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works," by Francine Deutsch, is about being in the trenches with your spouse. It's about the day-in-day-out negotiation that goes into sharing child care, the challenges and
benefits of such arrangements, and why so many couples who set out to
parent equally fail to do so.

Deutsch wrote the book to address her own concerns. The author had invested
six years in graduate school to get her Ph.D. and five on the job market
before becoming a psychology professor at Mount Holyoke College. She
wanted children but couldn't imagine giving all that up to be a
stay-at-home mom. Nor did she have the energy to be superwoman. Equality at
home seemed the only means of really having it all.

For her book, Deutsch interviewed 150 dual-earner couples. Those who share
child care 50-50 are the focus of her study, but she also interviewed
families in which working women do most of the domestic work. The 50-50
couples range from those who split tasks down the middle to those in which
husband and wife carve out separate but equal spheres. (That's the solution
if your husband can't wash baby clothes -- he gets to put baby to bed instead, as I
discovered after the birth of our daughter Isabelle 17 months ago.) Most of the equal couples in the book didn't start out that way; in many, the women
took time off work when the children were young. While most of the equal-
sharers and their unequal counterparts are affluent, highly educated
professionals, the book includes a group of blue-collar couples who share
child care by alternating shifts at work.

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First the good news: As I've found with Bill, it is possible to share
child care, even if your husband is all thumbs in the kitchen. But women
usually don't get parity unless they demand it. Most men do not wake up the
morning after becoming fathers and suddenly rush out to buy wipes. A third
of the equally sharing women reported battles with their partners to
establish equality. Some used their husbands' desire for children to
bargain for equal sharing. Others threatened divorce. The equally sharing
wives are an assertive lot who send their mates clear, unequivocal
messages. "I couldn't get away with it with Janet," said a father named
Daniel. "She would hand me the baby and head out the door."

Now the bad news: If you married a couch potato or workaholic, or are
ambivalent about equality, you're in for some tough times. You can't "halve
it all" unless you insist that your husband do his half -- and even then,
some won't. Confirming women's worst fears about men's attitudes, Deutsch
identifies five strategies fathers use to avoid child care:

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  • Passive
    resistance: They perform tasks so grumpily that their spouses decide it
    isn't worth it, or they simply ignore their wives' requests altogether.
    "In one ear and out the other," one man tells Deutsch.
  • Incompetence: These men burn dinner, forget to pick up children and generally create more problems than they solve.
  • Praise: "It would be a struggle for me to do
    the laundry. I don't think I do it as well as Roz. I think she is better
    with sort of the peasant stuff of life," said one man.
  • Different standards: These men
    conveniently don't care about details such as what the kids eat, and thus
    figure they can ignore them.
  • Denial: By comparing their domestic
    contributions to those of their fathers, who did almost nothing at home and
    whose wives did not have jobs, these men make themselves look good. They
    also attribute their partners' greater domestic loads to personality
    differences. Says one, whose wife complains that he doesn't make dinner:
    "Cooking relaxes her. She likes to do it and she likes to keep busy."

As "Halving It All" makes clear, equal parenting primarily benefits women,
which is why men fight it. Sharing child care gives women more career
options, more personal time and more sleep. Indeed, by interviewing so many
real couples, few of whom are particularly liberal, "Halving It All" takes
the polemics out of the battle between the sexes and reveals the division
of labor in parenting for what it really is: a sleep and sanity issue for
mom. Men who share equally benefit from being more attached to their
children -- but hey, you can be attached to your child without emptying the
Diaper Genie. Many of the men sharing child care in "Halving It All" are
making real sacrifices in their careers and leisure time -- the kind that
women have always made. You don't get something for nothing. My husband
complains about being behind on his work, having too much to do and being
tired. It's great. He knows exactly how I feel.

The book's equal sharers challenge the economic assumptions about family
that underlie all the tiresome articles in the press about how women can
(and presumably should) juggle careers and kids. Often not even mentioned
in these pieces, dad is assumed to be too busy supporting the family to
share child care. Deutsch acknowledges that women are more likely to take
time off work for child care: They tend to work fewer hours, earn less
money and have more flexible jobs than men. But rather than viewing these
factors as causes of inequality, she looks at how couples make
gender-driven choices that lead to these patterns. Men maximize their
career options without considering children. Women look for jobs that can
accommodate motherhood. Baby arrives and mom goes part-time because --
surprise, surprise -- she's earning less than dad is. That may be fine for
some women. The best stay-at-home moms I know have a special talent for
child care and often special training in related fields such as teaching or
social work. But many other women end up ambivalent or unhappy about these
career sacrifices -- not to mention poor, if they wind up divorced.

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In contrast, rather than supporting one traditional male career, equal sharers look for two of what Deutsch calls "family careers" -- jobs that
provide some flexibility for both partners to accommodate children.
Husbands reduce their hours, pass up promotions that would interfere with
family life and even change jobs to share parenting. Women support these
choices, work outside the home themselves and, difficult as it is for some,
relinquish their role as primary parent to make room for dad. With fathers
more involved at home, these couples spend as many parental hours with
their children as do the couples who do not equally share child care.

Not surprisingly, the equal sharers in the book have the most equal
incomes. Money is power. Deutsch's blue-collar fathers find themselves
sharing child care despite their traditional views, largely because their
wives' incomes are crucial to their families. But money isn't the whole
story. In a quarter of the unequal couples, women earn the same or more
than their husbands do. And among the equal sharers, some of the women are
earning significantly less than their husbands. Men's attitudes count. Some
are willing to support their wives' careers and some aren't. Equally
sharing husbands, for instance, push for flexibility at the office. Unequal
ones don't. A mail carrier tells Deutsch that his work schedule is fixed
and suggests that his wife, a seamstress, can better cut back on her work.
Later, however, he mentions that some of the mothers who are mail carriers
at his post office have reduced their hours. A male lawyer and obstetrician
tell similar stories.

The book's main fault is an obvious one. While Deutsch's blue-collar
workers provide some economic diversity, most of her couples are upper-middle-class professionals and 96 percent are white. Deutsch acknowledges
this lack of racial diversity and notes that it would be particularly
useful to examine African-American families, where sex-role equality has a
longer and different tradition. Still, it's a glaring omission.

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The other problem with "Halving It All" is more subtle. It's nice to see
men 'fess up to avoiding child care. But the mothers interviewed look a bit
too saintly. While many men avoid child care, women also sometimes squeeze dad out. Let me name a few roles we play:

  • Mad martyr: "If I do more, maybe he'll notice and appreciate me for once, damn it."
  • Ambivalent feminist: "I want equality but he doesn't help." Help is not equality; arguing for help does not get equality.
  • Wardrobe witch: "Pink socks with her red dress! Yuck! I'm
    all for equality as long as he does it my way."
  • Guilty giver: "My kid's in day care all week. Am I really a bad mom? Give me that stroller, bub."
  • Mrs. Grumpily Grateful: "Oh, well" -- sigh -- "he does more than
    most men." (But so much less than I do!)

I've filled all of these roles since Isabelle's birth. I've also seen
working moms who claim to want a fair deal snatch the bottle from dad's
hands and point out his incompetence with baby in front of friends. These
patterns come out in "Halving It All," and Deutsch notes that women's need
for control undermines equality. But she fails to show how obstinate we can
be, often sending our husbands mixed signals (at best) about what we really
want. With society encouraging them to stand back from the changing
table, and wives and mothers-in-law swooping in to do it "right," is
it any wonder that some men revert to their fathers' patterns and retire to the couch with a beer and the newspaper?

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That said, "Halving It All" is a breath of fresh air and, for a snoop like
myself who is interested in other peoples' marriages, great reading. I've bought
two related books: "When Mothers Work," by Joan Peters, and "A
Mother's Place," by Susan Chira. Chira's book was too heavy on studies for
me to get through as a busy new mom. But I liked "When Mothers Work" so
much that I read it twice. Reading it after Isabelle's birth, however, the
book suddenly seemed too rosy. An equally sharing couple sits in their
beautifully decorated home, with Junior bouncing brightly from one parent
to another as the parents calmly reflect on their successful careers.
Really?

For Bill and me and the couples in "Halving It All," equal parenting has
been a far messier affair: made up piecemeal at odd hours; negotiated over;
struggled for and won, often it seems, on a fluke. Equality in our
marriage, for instance, is partly attributable to the baby sling we got as
a hand-me-down, which became my husband's special breast substitute, and
the difficulty of getting computer technical help. We'd been trying to get
Isabelle to take expressed breast milk for weeks when Bill tried again --
just as I'd gotten CompuServe on the line to deal with a computer crisis.
"I finally got CompuServe -- I can't get off!" I shouted over baby screams.
"I've been trying to get them for days!"

"Don't worry, we're OK! Keep doing what you're doing!" Bill yelled back
from the next room.

For an unbearable hour, I manipulated my hard drive, dying to hang up and
grab my wailing baby from her father's arms. CompuServe finally restored service
and, in tears myself, I finally rushed in, mommy to the rescue. But reaching
for Isabelle, I stopped. Sweat on his brow, Bill looked like a guy who had
survived a firefight. The bottle of expressed milk beside him was empty.
Vanquished, Isabelle was falling asleep. "We're fine now," said my husband
with a new air of confidence.

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I realized then that my man of few domestic skills intended to live up to
his promise to parent equally. And ever since that battle of the bottle, he
has. It's not perfect. I can be controlling. He sometimes acts removed. We
argue over things like when to put Isabelle to bed. But couples don't
divorce over baby's bedtime. Overall, equal parenting has strengthened our
sense of partnership. If we're not always equal, we're trying to be.

Things are as wonderful and difficult as one would expect them to be when
two people are in the same foxhole. Certainly they're a lot better than I
ever imagined they could be when I swallowed my feminist pride and filled
all those garbage bags in Washington.


Jennifer Bingham Hull

Jennifer Bingham Hull is a Miami writer who reports on women's issues and international affairs.

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