A funny thing happened over the weekend. I, my husband and our children went to see Mega Mind: together, all four of us.
It struck me as we settled into our seats in the little theater (sadly not in 3D) that it was the first and only time. Our cinema-going experiences usually involve one or the other of us and the kids. Taking our kids to the movies had become a sort of alternative currency which we traded for TIME TO GET THINGS DONE.
In nearly seven years, I have the lion’s share of credits: Many, many cartoons including Kung Fu Panda, Hero of the Rails and Monsters vs. Aliens. There was something with talking hamsters and Transformers II, which counted twice because it involved losing hours of my life to bad dialog interspersed which explosions and shots of Megan Fox’s moist lips and heaving bosom. My husband payed the price for the imbalance by taking them to Despicable Me.
Of course we rent films and watch them together, but there was something incredibly fun about doing it together spontanoously that was as much about the experience as it was throwing out our to-do lists for awhile. It put me in mind of a book I have sitting on my shelf. The book is Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the rules for the New Generation of Parents by Marc and Amy Vachon.
It evoked a visceral reaction, part mistrust and part cynicism, rather like when I meet men who introduce themselves as “feminists”. I couldn’t help it and then I set to feeling guilty about it. You see, the premise isn’t a bad one, the notion that having both partners engaged in raising kids is better than the more traditional gender division of labor that most of us tend to fall into – that is one partner looks after domestic issues while the other focuses on everything else.
Who among us has not boggled at the capacity of the non-domestically parent to forget how to use the washing machine or where the roasting pan belongs? How many dads (usually) dread childcare or domestic tasks because they come with micromanagement and harsh judgments.” You let them watch WHAT???”
Clearly it would be better for everyone if parents were on the same page, running family life instead of being run by it, sharing the responsibilities and the fun of raising children. The problem is, it’s very difficult to do. For instance the Vachon’s rightly point out that in an equal partnership one does not ask the other partner to “help” get the kids to bed. Sharing is sharing, not “helping.”
The answer they argue is to adopt an Equally Shared Parenting (ESP) lifestyle and they have tons of practical and philosophical advice for parents who want to get away from the invisible balance sheet that comes with modern parenting – the balance sheet on which we record visits to movies.
They have lots of sound advice about how to manage work schedules to enable parents to share equally and the importance of cherishing the dreams your partner has beyond parenthood.
So why didn’t I like the book, apart from being hard to please? I suppose it’s the danger that equality may become just another parenting lifestyle. The factors that lead us to adopt the division of labor, the work that can’t be finished at work, the unfulfilled need for time to nurture our individual dreams.
It’s not simply a matter of family leave or child care provision, though both those things and many others are important. It’s the need for the recognition and the structural support for the idea that the potential or all the members of a family, parents and children matter to society. For equality to be real, it needs to be a given, effortless, not something we “work on” in the way we work on improving our recycling or turning off the phone more. It has to be built into the infrastructure of our lives.
The family meetings, the book, the lifestyle, seems like, no matter how worth while the results, it can't help but take the focus the changes that would make the ability to parents equally something we could take for granted. Of course it doesn't hurt to have equally shared parenting and it probably helps. It may well be worth it but I can't help but think that spendng so much energy to do the equal thing takes it's toll. After all, some of the best moments, like our family escape to MegaMind, are spontaneous, off the balance sheet, not a "lifestyle choice" and just pure fun.
PS It's a fun movie but The Incredibles still own cartoon super heros.