Equality is gaining ground at homes across the USA, but the move toward parity leaves some mothers in a quandary; they're ready to share the workload with their partners, but to do that, they'll also have to come to terms with the loss of hierarchy at home.
"Women who want to create this sometimes don't appreciate the level at which they must let go," says Amy Vachon of Watertown, Mass. She and her husband, Marc, have become the standard-bearers for a philosophy called "equally shared parenting."
"It's not so much the stereotypical 'Let my husband dress the kids in things that don't match' that's the surface, easy stuff. It's more the deep-down letting go being just fine when your child runs to your husband instead of you when she falls down on the playground," she says. "My first reaction is, 'I hope the other mothers didn't notice because maybe they would judge me.' "
The idea that Mother Knows Best for all things home and family is deeply ingrained and complicated by gender roles, socialization and culture, experts say. And now new research is beginning to help make sense of that maternal angst.
"There are a lot of pressures that keep reinforcing the division of responsibility in parenting that leaves moms in the control position the 'expert parent' role," says demographer Catherine Kenney of Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, who has studied how mothers' beliefs affect fathers' involvement.
New research into the idea of "maternal gatekeeping" shows how attitudes and actions by the mother may promote or impede father involvement.
"For women who insist they have the gold standard around parenting and housework, men just tend to walk away," says Joshua Coleman, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco and Oakland. "They feel their own ideas about how the house should look or … how the children should be raised aren't given equal share."
Kenney presented research she co-wrote at a meeting of the Population Association of America over the weekend. The study of 1,023 couples from 20 large cities in the USA found mothers were protective of their caregiving and educational engagement with the child but were less so for playtime activities that "were not considered threats to the mother's caregiving identity," the paper says.
"Maybe he's not more involved because mom is holding him back," Kenney says.
Through interviews at the child's birth and at ages 1, 3 and 5, mothers and fathers reported about their own parenting expectations and beliefs as well as the time personally spent in various caregiving activities.
Dad needs woman's support
Other gatekeeping research co-written by Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, an assistant professor of child development at Ohio State University in Columbus, is significant because it studied actual behaviors rather than just beliefs, and of the 97 couples participating, fathers were more involved in daily care of infants when they received active encouragement from the wife or partner.
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"This study provides perhaps the best evidence to date that the phenomenon of maternal gatekeeping exists and that, under some conditions, it may have the potential to affect fathering behavior," says the study, published last year in the Journal of Family Psychology.
Video: Let go of control, split parenting tasks (on this page) Corinna Buchholz, 34, of Portland, Ore., says "gatekeeping is real because you love your child so much and want to say, 'Wait, do it this way.' I try very hard not to because it's somewhat counterproductive."
At the Shippensburg, Pa., home of Catherine Zobal Dent, 37, and Silas Dent Zobal, 35, equality has reached a greater level of sharing.
Both are college English professors who recently left their respective campuses and will share one tenure-track faculty position this fall at Susquehanna University, about 80 miles away. They have a son, Emerson Dent Zobal, 3. A daughter, whom they plan to name Lake Zobal Dent, is due in two weeks.
"My mom strongly identified with the feminist movement," Silas says, explaining a fairness mentality that sometimes even surprises his wife.
Says Catherine: "I have this image in my head of my mother preparing and serving the food and my father being the social conductor. When Silas and I are entertaining colleagues or friends, sometimes I find myself wanting to revert to that position. I'll stand up to clear the table and think it's OK if he continues to sit, but he doesn't. He stands up, too."
Other names for the same approach include "co-parenting," "peer parenting" or "shared care," but the concept "equally shared parenting" the Vachons adopted was first suggested 10 years ago in a book by psychologist Francine M. Deutsch called "Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works."
They've created a website, equallysharedparenting.com. Their book, "Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents," will be published in January.
Not 'just a hired hand'
"There are those that absolutely want equally shared parenting. They want a true equal partner who wants an equivalent say," Amy Vachon says. "But I also hear a huge group of people focused on these task divisions. They want a better helper at home, and that is not equally shared parenting."
The Vachons are both 46, and each works outside the home 32 hours a week. She's a clinical pharmacist. He works in information technology for a market research firm. They have two children, Maia, 6, and Theo, 3.
"I want to be an equal partner here," Marc Vachon says, not "just a hired hand."
He says planning a birthday party for their daughter starts with his wife's list of what has to be done to which he agrees or disputes before they decide how to divvy up the jobs.
"I don't want to be nagged or reminded," he says. "If I'm watching TV or going to play tennis, she has to trust me as a person living up to my responsibility. I'll get things done. She does not need to worry about it."
That's not what happens in many homes, says Andrea O'Reilly, associate professor of women's studies and director of the Association for Research on Mothering at York University-Toronto.
"She might delegate to her partner, but if you have to do the remembering and the organizing, the planning and the worrying, that's not equality," she says. "The intellectual labor of running a household that work is still done predominantly by women."
Sampson Lee Blair, an associate professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo, studies division of labor in families. He says decades of research have found a "very sharp gender divide of 'his work' vs. 'her work.' "
For the same-sex couple
Negotiating roles is somewhat different in same-sex couples, says Esther Rothblum, a women's studies professor at San Diego State University.
"It's unusual in same-sex couples that one person does everything and the other person does nothing," she says.
Psychotherapist Anne Coyle, 45, of El Cerrito, Calif., says she and her partner of almost 16 years have "divided it more like a traditional, heterosexual couple" as they parent a son, age 8.
"I pick up Isaac and tend to do more of the cooking and cleaning, whereas Linda tends to work more and bring in more of the income. We're choosing that, and it's each of our preferences," she says.
Schoppe-Sullivan, 34, says that although she and her husband try to share parenting of their 3-year-old equally, she understands what mothers have at stake.
"I have certainly felt ambivalent about relinquishing control over what my daughter wears or eats. There are times when my husband dresses her in an outfit and I think, 'What is he doing?' I try to bite my tongue," she says. "The way your children look, a lot of mothers feel like it reflects on them.
"The way I would describe it is, in the end, society is still not going to come down on the father," she says. "Society is going to come down on you."
This story, “More parents share the workload when mom learns to let go,” originally appeared in USA TODAY.
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