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.