The 50/50 Parenting Myth

Several weeks ago, Emily sent this post around to Bethany and me. This is not a piece I would have run across normally, since I don’t usually frequent the Scientific American site, but this article was at once both fascinating and horrifying for me. The article is long; it’s the description from a tenured faculty member at Harvard of how she managed life, work, husband, children, and a tenure-track position without losing her mind. I found that her thoughts on parenting were reflective of a common attitude concerning balancing work career and family life.

At the risk of making my blog post really long, I’m going to quote her entire paragraph on managing parenting with two careers:

  • I aim to raise kids as an equal 50-50 partnership. This is a big one and I don’t want to make this seem obvious — the idea below was born after a long time of growing arguments and anger and resentment, which neither of us are eager to remember. Moving on though, we now happily tell our method to all parents.The basic idea is simple. We play zone-defense during the week: only one parent has childcare at a time. I do five days morning drop off (7-9am) and two days evening pickup (6-10pm), my husband does three days evening pickup and no drop offs. When you are on kid duty, all responsibilities are yours (feeding, bathing, where did the gloves go, yes I understand you want to cry inconsolably right now for no reason). But all rules are yours too; the other parent has to stay clear out of it and no comments allowed. When you are off kid duty, you can schedule the time as you please, stay late at work or take a tennis class or go drinking with buddies. No questions asked.I mostly work those days or schedule work-related social events on those evenings. This tag-team parenting also means we don’t all get together as a family during the week usually. So we decided: no job related work on the weekends. No reading or writing email, no reading grants and papers, no preparing lectures, no conference calls. The weekend is either for getting organized at home or just spending time together. We also carved out a chunk of our budget to get household help 3 times a week, to create more time for us on the weekends to be together as a family. Finally, if you want to break the rules, then you have to trade: for every evening I cover for him, he has to cover an evening that week for me. For every weekend I travel, I have to give him a weekend day off. No free lunch.

This arrangement of parental duties is destructive to both children and families. To steal a thought from Emily’s husband, this sort of agreement between Mom and Dad mimics a divorced household. During the week, the parents schedule the parenting duties: Tuesday is Mom, Wednesday is Dad. Tuesday is Mom-rules, Wednesday is Dad-rules. It doesn’t look like they have family dinners during the week, or even that the ‘off’ parent sees the children. The children get ferried back and forth between Mom and Dad, but the house remains the same.

The children in this scenario are treated more like the family car than as little people. Just as the car does not care who takes it in for the monthly oil change, the children do not care who puts them to bed at night. As the car has no preference for brand of oil, the kids do not mind the shifting rules from one night to the next. It is a mistake to think that children brought up with this kind of inconsistency will not carry that into their adult years. Children in this situation are not being treated as whole beings with an immortal soul–they are being treated as an item needing scheduling.

This sort of thinking is not damaging to the children alone. It is poison for our marriages. The author’s thinking that everything is tit-for-tat, that, as she says, there is no free lunch, is fundamentally wrong. There is no part of a marriage where we should keep tabs. It goes against the whole idea of a Christian marriage. Marriage is a giving of my life for that of my husband, and his for mine. Part of marriage, and family life, is not keeping tabs. Instead, we focus on how we can love and serve each other, husbands and wives, parents and children.

The funny thing about keeping tabs is that you usually don’t keep track of how often your husband has washed the dishes this week. Most of the time, you’re charting your own work, and how much your husband owes you. It’s our nature to do it that way. But part of being married is learning to deny yourself this nit-pickiness and learn to wash the dishes when they need washing, not when it’s your turn. To take out the trash when it needs taking out. To put the children to bed when they need putting to bed. To discipline the children when they need it. To cuddle with the children when they need it.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that family life can be divided this way. Our children are whole beings. Just because their physical needs may only require one parent at a time to be tending to them does not mean that their emotional state will be served equally well by this arrangement. They have been created for routine and consistency and simple lives with the same people, day in and day out. Give them the honor and dignity of a home life that nourishes them.

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6 Responses to The 50/50 Parenting Myth

  1. Julie S says:

    Good post, interesting thoughts brought up here.

  2. Catherine says:

    Thank you for sharing this very unsettling article.

  3. Christine Miller says:

    Since the paragraph you quote above was from the Scientific American, it may be safe to assume the person who wrote it was not a Christian. The agreement they came to was way better than fighting as they had before, and worlds better than divorce. You say it mimics divorce because the family isn’t together except for weekends, but the parents are sleeping together in their same house and in agreement, which is way more secure for the children than divorce. These parents were selfless enough to have children though they still wanted to have their own identities and wanted two paychecks. I’d say they were doing a lot of things right for people who don’t live by the Bible. Hopefully, Christians would not be so divided and tit for tat and “no free lunch”, and their children would ideally be nurtured at home rather than in day care. But I think the idea of sharing everything serves moms way more than dads. The dads in this model are supposed to earn all the bacon but they are also supposed to share all the domestic duties even though moms don’t share earning the bacon? Of course, dads will want to give their wives a break and help when they can, and will want to interact and train their children, but they need to take turns doing the dishes? Maybe when moms take turns mowing the lawn that would be appropriate. Modern Christian dads are being expected to do everything moms do, except birth and nurse babies, AND earn all the bacon? If I were a boy growing up in a home like that, I don’t think I would want to follow in my dad’s footsteps.

    • Anna says:

      I agree that moms are the primary beneficiaries of the 50/50 parenting system.

      I also agree that this couple probably isn’t Christian. The reason I wanted to address it, though, is because I see this attitude in so many Evangelical college students. It worries me.

    • Emily says:

      What reads divorced parents to me is the concept of “mom rules” and “dad rules,” two different sets of standards depending on who is doing the parenting that night. That doesn’t sound like they’re in agreement to me. And is the basic act of having children selfless if you then treat the children like objects to be shuffled into your schedule rather than human souls to be nurtured? What is selfless about that? Nowhere in this excerpt or in the whole article does she talk about what is best for her children. It’s all about how she succeeded in her own career. She was able to feel fulfilled, thanks to her “feel-good” file and “feminist husband,” but how fulfilled or empowered did her children feel? Perhaps one could say that this is a better set-up than an actually divorced couple shuffling kids between houses, but I’m not willing to say that they’re doing many things right. Maybe less poorly than some options, but that’s not a ringing endorsement. And yet this is the ideal for many young women I’ve met, Christians or not.

      And Anna, thanks for convicting me that I so easily fall into the trap of keeping score–but always where my husband is lacking, not where I’ve dropped the ball. That is the antithesis of living out Christ and the Church in my marriage. It’s a surefire way to feel resentment toward my husband! Poison for a marriage, indeed.

  4. Dani M. says:

    Thank you for that second-to-last paragraph, Anna. I too often see my husband’s time at home as my chance to catch a break. I think, “I’ve changed two bad diapers already today, I’ve done my bit.” I’ll be praying and trying now to see what needs to be done and joyfully do it, without feeling sorry for myself.

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