Our grandparents would cringe at our use of “parenting” as a verb. As if this is some ninja super-skill that humans suddenly need to accomplish the basic tasks of keeping kids fed and dressed and out of the newspaper headlines.
But here’s the thing: the job has changed since our grandparents’ day. It may not be harder, but for sure it's more logistically complex.
The new gold standard is 50/50 parenting, an arrangement where the childcare load gets split down the middle. This is actually a very recent idea — like, post-fall-of-the-Berlin Wall recent.
Only since 1989, when sociologist Arlie Hochschild found that the many couples’ work/life-balance experiment was turning home into a place no one wanted to be (too stressful!), and that women were getting the short end of the deal to the tune of an extra month of work per year, have couples really committed en masse to trying to do this juggle more fairly.
But it’s safe to say nobody has yet cracked the nut of 50/50 parenting.
Here’s the problem: For shared parenting to work optimally, both partners ought to be working only part-time. (That’s what the Families and Work Institute found would produce the most aggregate happiness.) But not many couples can afford that arrangement. Indeed, many of us don’t want that arrangement. We want to work; we’re in the wheelhouse of our careers. At the same time, we love our kids and want to see them. In short, we’re reluctant to compromise anywhere — not on the work front and not on the kid front.
So a couple of competing models have emerged.
One is parenting as a game of doubles tennis. Both partners are on deck at the same time, dodging each other as each tries to do half the work, calling the shots in a kind of a “mine”/”yours”/”mine” haphazard way.
The other model is parenting as rock climbing. One partner spiders to the heavens while the other belays. (Belaying means staying on the ground holding the rope that’s keeping the climber safe.) The belayer manages everything — homework, shopping, playdates, housecleaning; everything on the domestic front — while the climber just goes for it at work. Then the climber comes down and now he’s on belay at home and she goes big at work.
Let’s look at each more closely.
The tennis model is a lovely romantic idea: we’re in this together, one big happy family making it all work in real time. But I also think it’s pretty much guaranteed to torpedo both careers. Because, when you’re continuously on the clock at home, you’re AWOL professionally. You’re not there the way you need to be as some delivery deadline approaches. You can’t be counted on in the crunch. You just can’t.
The climbing model works better in this respect. It’s as if each partner gets a “wife” for awhile, so things are covered at home while they do a big push on the Clorox account. Then the roles switch; the person who got the wife becomes the wife. It’s almost like a throwback to the traditional roles of our grandparents’ day — except that now nobody feels oppressed because you’re taking turns being the wife.
BUT … and if you’re with me this far you probably see the hitch coming. Climbing creates its own momentum; professional rewards compound the longer the climber is on the rockface. So how long should the climber climb? Two, three, four days? A week? Now you and your spouse are like hot-bunking sailors. Goodnight Ralph, Goodnight Sam. That’s not a marriage: that’s a custody arrangement. That’s not gonna work over the long haul.
So, while I think the climbing model is better than the tennis model, neither is ideal. The only solution is a hybrid of the two.
Here is a schedule my wife and I have begun to beta-test. Most of the time we’re a doubles tennis team, though with clearly delineated responsibilities. But one day a month each of us gets a climbing day. No interruptions, no duties, just total freedom to do what we need to do.
I call those 24-hour blocks of infinite possibility Big Days.
We have high hopes for this concept. But we have not turned it into a verb.
You’re welcome, Grandma.
For more on this idea, see www.onebigday.net