What does economics have to do with family patterns and male/female roles? Plenty. In the following two articles, June and Steve Myrwang describe their attempts to find a better balance between the marketplace and the household sides of their lives. The Myrwangs live in Seattle.
SIX YEARS AGO when our first child was born, my husband, Steve, and I gradually started noticing some changes in our relationship. In subtle ways, Steve was becoming more of an "authority" figure while I was feeling less confident in business-related situations. It felt as if our worlds were slowly growing apart – "his" world of work and my world of home. After the birth of our second child two years later, we decided to try and remedy this situation by moving towards a "shared parenting/shared providing" arrangement. I would define this term as an intentional choice by both partners to work part-time so that they might both enjoy increased time at home with their children.
We are both now actively involved in the challenges of raising children and producing income for our family. These challenges keep life interesting for us, and I can’t imagine us getting bored with one another. We have recaptured that feeling of mutual respect we shared when first married, and seem to be closer intellectual and spiritual companions.
The pressure to earn money isn’t all on one person’s shoulders, and neither is responsibility for the children and the myriad details of running a home. The combination of having two wage-earners and a simple lifestyle gives us flexibility to change jobs or careers, return to school, or take time off for rest or self-improvement. The economic impact of an unforeseen long-term illness or death would not be as great in our dual-income family as in the traditional one wage-earner family.
The benefits we have found match well with the patterns Gail Sheehy describes in Pathfinders: "The happiest women are also ambitious, courageous, open to new experiences, playful, and they have a sense of humor. The most satisfied men are also comfortable with intimacy, courageous, open to new experiences, physically fit, and able to lead effectively. That says something significant about sex roles and the penalties of stereotyping. The optimally situated adult has incorporated the characteristics most closely associated with his or her sexual opposite – being comfortable with intimacy in the case of men; being ambitious in the case of women." This acceptance of opposite sex linked strengths was born out in the biographies of pathfinders again and again, although sometimes not until the second half of their lives.
I find this time lag a little unfortunate for the children involved because by this time they have usually left home, and have missed the direct benefit of having two well balanced parents involved in their upbringing. I have long been concerned with society’s push to get women out in the work force without an equal emphasis to encourage men to consider working part-time (or not at all) while their children are young. In order for both parents to be actively involved in parenting, we need to create more part-time work options. One strategy is to find a co- worker who does the same work you do and who would also prefer to work half-time. The two of you can create a job-sharing position where you share one fulltime job. Job-sharing has worked successfully in many parts of the country and for many companies and government agencies. Another alternative is to go to work for yourself, which Steve and I eventually did. It certainly isn’t the easiest solution (primarily from an initial financial standpoint), but it has been extremely rewarding for both of us.
When people intentionally choose to work part-time, inevitably there is less spending money available, fewer frivolous purchases are made, and more of our world’s resources are left intact for future generations. I know that many of us choose to work full-time because we truly love our work. However, as Warren Farrell notes in The Liberated Male, a major problem with executives making their way up the ladder (or with anyone working long hours) is that they are working at this heavy pace when their children are young and need them the most. I think it’s important to examine the quality of our whole life in relation to our family, friends, and spiritual development. We need to think of our overall "career as a person" as opposed to just that portion of our life that earns us money.
People give many reasons why "shared parenting/shared providing" won’t work for their particular situation. The most frequent reason I hear is, "I can’t earn as much as my husband, so it doesn’t make sense for me to be the one to work." Or as a friend of mine heard, "If she had a job that paid as much as mine, I’d let her work, and I would stay home."
While financial justifications may be the most common arguments encountered for the impracticality of "shared parenting/shared providing," I think we need to take a look at some deeper-rooted psychological obstacles. Even though a woman may intellectually want a husband who chooses to participate equally in rearing their children, emotionally she may have trouble "giving up" what she perceives as some of the benefits.
The first benefit is being "queen of the home." If her husband controls the income-providing, then she often calls the shots on the home front. She probably decides how to decorate the house, how to dress the children, and perhaps even her husband. She may also manage and orchestrate the couple’s social engagements.
The second benefit women may perceive when the father is the sole-provider is that the children are typically more emotionally attached to the mother than the father. This is perfectly normal as children naturally attach themselves to the person who provides most of the nurturing and care- taking. When I was working full-time, and Steve was responsible for the children, I saw our baby preferring her father and this presented an uncomfortable period of growth for me.
When a woman can clearly see that she wants to move beyond the above mentioned "benefits" of the traditional female role and create an equal parenting relationship with her husband, probably her biggest obstacle is overcoming the role models she saw throughout her own childhood. Many women have told me that they can still clearly visualize their dads relaxing with the newspaper after work, and their moms scurrying around making dinner (even if their mothers worked). My friends feel a twinge of guilt asking their husbands for help because that is something they never saw their moms do.
Another obstacle sometimes encountered is that one partner is ready to move towards developing a more equitable parenting/providing relationship before the other is ready. Warren Farrell states in The Liberated Male, "A man’s willingness to change behavior is tied to his psychological security. Few men change without a woman who is similarly committed – and few women change without at least a partially cooperative man."
The journey towards "shared parenting/shared providing" isn’t by any means easy. Since there are no clear roles for the father or mother, much flexibility and negotiating is required to develop a mutually satisfying schedule. We have found meditation extremely valuable in this process. It seems to help us sense what is fair and equitable for our family and for ourselves as individuals. Even with this help, the problems raised are often challenging and even painful, yet the benefits are so clear to us that we have come to welcome these problems as opportunities for growth.
Indeed, probably the greatest advantage that Steve and I have found in both being at home with the children is accelerated spiritual growth. This is not a tangible. It can’t be measured, only sensed. How does staying at home help foster our spiritual growth? Here are three things I’ve noticed:
1 ) With the birth of a baby, it was our first opportunity to continuously give love selflessly because our baby’s needs clearly came first. Babies are kind, wonderful beings who gently encourage us to give up selfish behavior patterns.
2) With a baby, we couldn’t count on anything going according to schedule or plan. In order to feel less frustrated, we gradually learned to change our expectations to preferences. By applying this simple principle to other areas of our lives, wonderful happenings started to unfold.
3) Our children ask terrific questions – all of the time. In many ways, they are our teachers. Our children cause us to look at the outside world and deep within ourselves to find thoughtful answers to their important questions.
My fondest memories of our "shared parenting/shared providing" arrangement come from perceiving how our children are synthesizing all of this. When our son was four, he said he looked forward to being a daddy. With a little apprehension and a lot of excitement I asked why, and he replied, "Well, daddies get to take care of children, they work, do dishes, babysit, and fix things." Just two weeks ago, my three year old daughter was sitting at the typewriter. As I entered the room, she said, "I’m working. Can’t you see I’m concentrating?" And with that, she very studiously flipped through some papers.