What is the currency of equal division of parenting?

Terry McGlynn’s post on gender, parenting, and academic careers has had some renewed discussion of late, both in the comments on his post, and on twitter. I read his post when it first appeared (and thought I had linked to it, but don’t see the pingback, so maybe not?) I agree with much of what he has to say, but there are a few things that I’ve been mulling over that I wanted to follow up on.

In particular, I wanted to follow up on part of the twitter discussion. There, Terry said:

How? I mean “how” in a very specific sense. I think this is part of why these questions are so tricky. What is the currency in which we try to keep things equivalent? I am the one who is up at night with the baby, since I am the lactating parent. How much time in terms of dinner prep is my increased exhaustion equivalent to? I have major constraints on my schedule every day, driven by a need to break every 2-3 hours to pump. How many loads of laundry counter that fragmentation of my day? What amount of vacuuming makes up for missing talks and informal interactions at meetings because, every time I need to pump, I have to go to a different building to find a lactation room and wait for it to become available? How many diaper changes offset cracked nipples?

There are no answers to these questions, of course, which is my point. I’m sure this is part of why this issue is so tricky. But I sometimes find it frustrating when the discussion seems to imply that it’s just a matter of making sure dad does as much as mom. I certainly agree with Terry’s point that equivalent parenting (not equal, because there’s no real way to do that) is important. And, of course, having a partner who is really on board with trying to split things fairly is essential, as Terry says. I just have no idea how you really know if you’re achieving that (or whether it’s even likely to occur) when a child is very young.

With tasks that are not specific to gestating, birthing, or nursing a baby, I think it’s easier to have a common currency: time invested in a task. As Margaret Kosmala indicated, it often doesn’t make sense to split each individual task evenly, but I can offset the amount of time my husband spends at the grocery store by spending a similar amount of time mowing the lawn. But, as indicated in the examples I gave above, some of the things that are specific to gestating, birthing, and nursing a baby are things that are much trickier to account for and, therefore, for the non-gestating/birthing/nursing parent to offset.

And that argument that the pregnancy and lactation are relatively short-lived? Well, maybe in the grand scheme of a lifetime, but 9 months of pregnancy plus somewhere around a year of nursing isn’t exactly a short amount of time for an early career academic, especially if a woman has multiple children.

So, yes, absolutely, women need partners who are fully investing in parenting. And surely different families will work out different solutions. But, in my opinion, the tasks that have to fall to the birth parent make this balancing particularly tricky.

18 thoughts on “What is the currency of equal division of parenting?

    • I realize on reflection that this might not answer the “how” question with enough specificity. So, during work hours Mon-Fri, I had the baby or was responsible for finding other care. During non-work hours, I managed the milk supply and cleaned the parts. Before the baby was sleeping through the night, I fetched the baby for nursing (more of a safety issue because my wife is a really heavy sleeper), and I handled nearly all of the domestic things (shopping, cooking, and such). We also happened to do cloth diapers, but our area didn’t have a diaper service, and I was the sole person who did this laundry. This was no small matter.

      My research program pretty much stopped during this time, and I arranged my teaching schedule so that I was only on campus for one, very long, day per week (which was covered by Grandma) and plus one lecture on another day in which I hired a student to watch after the kid while I taught. (My chair didn’t approve of me teaching with the baby on my front or back, which could have worked out just fine).

      I also accompanied my spouse and baby on a couple business trips of hers for a few days each, with my main job being to take care of the kid. This did involve some substantial arrangements at my work, only of of which were looked on with approval.

      Once the kid was in day care, but still nursing, then I went back to regular work. My wife was pumping but also got to visit the kid at daycare for nursing during her lunchtime. I usually did the dropoff and pickup at daycare, and I handled a bunch of stuff at home in a way that we both thought was equitable and worked well for both of our jobs and the kid.

      Clearly, nursing is a major temporal/physical/social stress at work. Guys really need to step up and do their share during this time, and “their share” is a mountain of stuff.

      • This is really interesting to read, just because it’s so interesting to me to see how people work out things for their families.

        I recently gave a seminar while wearing my baby. It worked, but I was definitely kind of stressed about whether he would stay quiet the whole time. (He did — phew!)

      • I also love hearing about different ways people make things work. It seems to be different for every family. I think it’s very helpful to have a portfolio of “here are some ways it can work” to help people imagine how they might structure things when they’re prospective parents.

        I have to say I’m very jealous that you were able to pull off that 6-month parenting thing (while still being paid full (or mostly full) time?!) Can’t do that as a post-doc. And you had a grandma nearby. Would have killed for that with my baby…

      • Well, I pulled off the six-month at-home-dad situation with the help of my chair who helped me arrange my schedule. I learned, in the middle of this, that my dean did not approve. So, I’m not sure I successfully pulled it off, on all axes. But, that is a story for another time.

  1. Perhaps worth noting that the analogous issue crops up in all sorts of contexts. For instance, to pick an example familiar to many readers, universities evaluating the performance of their faculty members have to figure out how to weight contributions to teaching, research, and service. As another example, NSF panels have to eventually settle on a single ranking of grant applications in order to decide which ones to fund, which means that that have to have some “common currency” for things as diverse as the quality of the research proposed and the “broader impact”. Etc.

    And of course, the very phrase “common currency” reminds us that money–the medium of exchange–is the paradigmatic example of a way to make apparently incommensurable things commensurable. Money can be exchanged for any other good, and any other good can be exchanged for money, with the amount of money required being “whatever is mutually acceptable to the holder of the money and the holder of the other good”. Which suggests a possible answer to Meg’s question: the appropriate division of parenting labor is whatever is acceptable to both parents.

    • Yes, I do think it’s interesting to think about analogous situations where one has to figure out a way to compare apples and oranges. Many departments have different teaching loads for faculty depending on whether or not they are considered “research active”.

  2. Meg, I would go a step farther and argue that not only is a perfect 50:50 division of labor impossible to define or achieve, but that focusing so much on equivalence can poison your relationship with your spouse. Last summer, circumstances required me to do more than my usual 50% parenting share. At times, I found myself thinking, “Hey, this isn’t so bad, I’m happy and I’m enjoying the time I’m spending with my son.” But a minute later another part of my mind would whine, “But it’s not fair, you are doing more than she is!” As Jeremy points out, somehow the conversation has to be elevated from the tallying of hours and minutes to the real questions, are we happy? That’s a much harder question that requires a lot more communication and perspective–an understanding of what we need instead of what we want. Making the 50:50 split the ultimate goal seems easier, but it can turn parents into competitors instead of partners.

    • Yes, I think this is a good point, too. I knew a couple who had a chart in their kitchen where they tallied who did what, task by task. It seems like that worked for them, but I think that could lead to competitiveness for other couples.

      • I had a chat with a colleague about how what it was like to do temporary single-parenting at home while the spouse was out of town. He said that actually, he was really happy with the situation at home when that happened, because he was happier just doing it all rather than having to fuss/worry/mess with knowing which parts to not do, with the stress of having the other spouse not getting something doing. I can totally relate with that. When one of us is at home,
        i think our house is cleaner when both of us are home, because we both fall into bad habits when the other is around. That’s a personal failing (at least on my part), I realize, and shows that trying to keep too close tabs on what needs to be done isn’t that healthy.

      • Something I liked about that “7 year postdoc” piece was the idea of having certain nights where one parent is in charge, and certain nights where the other is. It does seem like it could help you get in the mindset that you are in charge of everything for that night, down even to having “mom rules” or “dad rules” on those nights. We haven’t tried this strategy out yet, though, so who knows how it would actually work for us.

        While writing this, I did think of single parents, who obviously don’t have the luxury of trying to figure out how to split things equivalently.

    • Two thumbs up for Peter’s comment that the trick is to move beyond the constant tallying of who did what, although this is sometimes easier said than done.

      • I should have said that I’m sure in some cases the division of labor is probably far from equitable. But also everyone probably overestimates their own contributions. I think I do 50%, but my wife would probably say 40% if she is being honest. She said 50:50 when I asked.

  3. I think the common currency should be “parent sanity” when children are very small. Each parent has the job of gauging how close to being over-the-edge s/he is, and parents should talk frequently to make sure they’re as balanced as possible, but while at least one parent is not a complete mess. (That last bit means that the balance may be off at times.) As kids get older, perhaps “parent happiness” becomes a more relevant currency.

    PS: Dear Academia: parent sanity is greatly increased for both parents by having an adult support system and emergency babysitters nearby — like family and old friends. So *STOP* forcing us to move around so much as early career researchers. That is all. Thank you.

    • I like the idea of sanity as the currency! 🙂

      And, yes, I totally agree on the problems caused by frequently moving. This was a problem we faced when moving to a new town with a toddler and while I was pregnant. When I enrolled our toddler at daycare, they asked for a local emergency contact. I was seriously considering asking our realtor if she would be willing to be listed, because we didn’t really know anyone in Ann Arbor. In the end, a colleague and his wife were kind enough to let us put them down. And then coming up with a list of people who were willing to be on call for when I had the baby was another big ordeal; that part would have been so much easier if we could rely on family or old friends nearby.

      • Oh, yeah, the emergency contacts… after our first move, we just told the daycare we didn’t have any. They told us we *had* to put someone down. So we did; we listed grandparents who were half-way across the country. After the second move, grandparents were listed again, this time only a 4-hour car drive away. So much for “local”.

  4. Pingback: Sciencing with an infant, revisited | Dynamic Ecology

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