How many times have you read about, or listened to, complaints that women do more around the house? In blogs and news pieces and books , in our neighborhoods and playdate circles, at work and at the park, moms are pissed about, or hopelessly resigned to, their unfair burdens. Statistics are bantered about and analyzed in minute detail: Women spend X hours doing chores compared to men, Y hours caring for the kids compared to men, Z hours managing a crushing to-do list and wheedling their spouses into 'helping' them with all of it. Men respond, either by turning a deaf ear, claiming they biologically can't see what needs to be done, defending their own different but vital contributions to the family's survival, or returning a volley of their own statistics about how they are indeed doing far more laundry and changing a mountain more diapers than their own fathers ever contemplated.
Yet where is this all getting us? Perhaps we are crawling collectively closer to a truly equitable partnership, as defined by a de-gendered, equal sharing of the family burdens (and, don't forget, the joys!). And maybe all our outcries are leading to productive conversations that cause individual women and men to re-examine the fairness factor and do something about it. But, we'd venture that all this huffing and puffing isn't leading to lasting, happy partnerships for both parents.
There has to be a better way.
The problem, we propose, is that these efforts are typically aimed only at the surface of the issue. At who is doing what, when, how. They are focused almost exclusively on addressing the workload itself -- the cooking, cleaning, sweeping, grocery shopping, bed-making, baby-rocking, feeding, bathing, diaper changing. We're holding all of this work up and trying to fix the problem by arguing about fairness. Or nagging or reminding our spouses about previous agreements to fairness. Or lavishing praise on them for lifting a finger toward fairness. Or going out of our way to appreciate them for once again doing more than their fair share of the work. Or twisting ourselves in knots to make it easy for our partners to do their fair half -- patiently (or snippily) instructing them, setting out 'honey-do' lists that make it foolproof, criticizing their efforts when they fall short in an ill-fated attempt that they will do better next time. Or giving up and accepting an unfair arrangement (after all, acceptance is a good thing, right?). Or maybe some other tactic. But the spotlight is still squarely on fairness -- and that keeps us stuck in the realm of the physical tasks.
What if we turned our focus inward instead, into the depths of our relationship rather than on the surface of our respective family roles? This is the secret that, time and again, buoys a sustained, satisfying and happy life of equal sharing for so many couples that we've met and interviewed who practice the family model we call equally shared parenting. Instead of attacking the chore division problem, these couples tell us time and again that they focus on the bigger picture. They ask themselves -- and listen to each other's answers -- about what they really want their relationship to look like now and in the future. Who do they want to be to each other? What do they each want from their partnership? What do they dream for their relationship in twenty years? What are they willing to do to get there, or avoid veering off course? For equal sharing couples, the answers all point toward remaining full peers and giving each other all of the riches that parenting can bring -- by sharing the burdens so neither is overwhelmed and neither misses out.
These questions have nothing to do with gender roles, and everything to do with the relationship. They help set the compass on the stuff that really matters, so that a couple can steer their lives together in a direction that gives them a fighting chance of sustainable sharing. They give both men and women the motivation and courage to tackle those pesky mundane puzzles like who does the laundry and who makes dinner tonight -- not only because there is a 'fair' way to solve them, but because there is a solution that keeps their relationship growing in the direction they both desire. Both partners own the dream -- as equals. They are a team.
Okay, so that sounds all ethereal and pretty, but how does this work in reality? Much like it does for anyone who really, deeply wants to work toward a cherished goal. Want to run in the Boston Marathon? You won't find it useful to grumble about every practice run, regardless of the weather or how much sleep you didn't get the night before. Want to go to medical school? That required organic chemistry course isn't a drag; it is a step closer to your dream, making it possibly even enjoyable. Want a deep, connected relationship with your kids, spouse and home? Doing your share of the dishes sounds pretty good compared to the subtle but powerful ripple effect on your relationship if you shoved chore after chore, even without malice, onto your wife (or husband) time and again. Want a true partner in caring for the children? All of a sudden, it is easier to muster the courage to let go of directing him (or her) during bath time or criticizing how he dresses the kids. When both of you want an equal partnership, and a balance that includes ample opportunities to experience all the best parts of life, you'll both be dedicated to making it work.
This is how every equally shared parenting couple we've ever met approaches their relationship together -- and makes this life a lasting joy for both partners. We share much more about the how-to's in our new book, Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents, and will be doing so here at The Huffington Post as well. Hope you'll join us!