For more couples, the key to a happy marriage is dividing the load equally.

By Pamela Kruger
October 05, 2005
Brent Humphreys


Rebecca and Rob D'Amico always figured that when they had kids, Rebecca would quit her job and stay home. But by the time she became pregnant in late 2000, the Austin, TX, couple realized they couldn't live on one salary. And having seen a friend's marriage dissolve after the wife became a homemaker (and resented doing all the housework), they no longer were sure they wanted to do so anyway.

So the couple vowed to equally share all childcare and household duties. Using a nanny for 20 hours a week when their son, Alex, was an infant, Rob and Rebecca -- who each run their own companies -- took turns caring for him the rest of the time and split the housework. "Rob and I do everything 50-50," Rebecca says. "And it's turned out to be wonderful."

You'd think, that in 2003, this wouldn't be a unique arrangement, but whether it's due to the lack of affordable childcare, attitudes about sex roles, or other cultural forces, equally shared parenting is still unusual.

A study last year by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor found that while the amount of household work husbands are doing is higher than ever before, wives are still doing more -- 27 hours a week vs. men's 16 hours. Yet a small but growing number of dual-earner families are embracing a new model. They are reorganizing their work and family lives in order to co-parent and share the housework. No one knows exactly how widespread this trend is. Indeed, the term "co-parenting" is still most commonly used by social researchers to refer to divorced couples who share responsibilities, not married parents. But the phrase is gaining popularity among husbands and wives who share their responsibilities equally.

More signs of change: In a 2000 study by the Radcliffe Public Policy Center in Massachusetts, a full 96% of respondents agreed that parents should equally share responsibility for the care of their kids; 94% said that spouses should equally share chores. A year earlier, a national advocacy organization, the ThirdPath Institute, was founded in Philadelphia to teach couples how to share parenthood. "More people are interested in this third path to balancing work and family," says founder Jessica DeGroot, who has held 20 workshops so far.

Still, even its advocates admit that co-parenting is hard, requiring financial and career sacrifices as well as a willingness to examine deeply held ideas about motherhood and fatherhood. "It's difficult to work out," says Francine Deutsch, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and author of Halving It All, a book based on her study of equal-sharing couples. "But once couples start sharing, they can't imagine doing things any other way."

Brent Humphreys

Learning to Live on Less

When Laila Goodman and Barry Moir of Gloucester, MA, married and had Casey and Reeve, now 12 and 10, they committed to equal parenting -- even though that meant cutting way back financially. Until Moir was hired as an exhibits construction supervisor at the Peabody Museum in 1997, the couple and their two kids lived on as little as $35,000 a year. "There is a lot of pressure to put money ahead of time with family," says Goodman, a math and science teacher at a private middle school. "We invested in happy, well-adjusted kids."

When Goodman gave birth to their daughter, Casey, Moir had just been laid off from his job as a farmhand, so he stayed home with the baby for a year. Goodman worked part-time the next year; Moir scraped up carpentry jobs, and they used a babysitter for about 18 hours a week.

After Reeve was born, Goodman made sure she had two free afternoons each week. Moir took a freelance position with a furniture maker that offered no benefits but allowed him flexible hours. Although they were living in a house they'd bought from Moir's father for less than market value, the couple -- short on cash -- rented out the first floor to boarders until last year.

The rest of the house had only two bedrooms, which meant the kids had to share one. The couple didn't have credit card debt mainly because of other people's generosity. Moir's dad often waived their house payments. And when their water heater broke one winter, a friend gave them a gift of $1,000 to buy a new one.

Learning to live on less is necessary for many co-parenting families, says DeGroot. And they have to invent their own low-cost solutions to work-family conflicts. Goodman, for instance, wanting to have her children close by but frustrated by the lack of affordable childcare, started a small daycare center at the school where she teaches. Both her children attended the center 18 hours a week.

With their children in elementary school, Moir and Goodman no longer need childcare and their financial pressures have eased. The two reclaimed the first floor of their house, so their children now have their own rooms. But both parents say they will never regret their lean years. "I feel I have a closer relationship with my kids than most dads," says Moir. "I know how to comfort them when they're upset. I know who their friends are." As for Goodman, she's proud that she didn't have to choose between work and parenthood. "I'm sure this wouldn't be right for everyone, but for us it was the perfect solution," she says.

Making Work Fit Your Life

Some professional couples are embracing co-parenting as a way to have challenging careers without relying on daycare. While many working couples today feel forced to redesign their personal life so it fits their work needs, these couples restructure their work so it fits their life.

Take Louise Kaplan and Krag Unsoeld, the Olympia, WA, parents of Kai, 11, and Lee, 8. Kaplan has three positions -- part-time faculty member at the University of Washington in Seattle and at Washington State University in Vancouver and a family nurse-practitioner at a rural Washington clinic -- and also serves as president of the Washington State Nursing Association. Unsoeld was an environmental planner until recently and is the unpaid president of two volunteer groups. Yet the couple never used a babysitter more than one or two days a week and does not use after-school care.

Since Unsoeld had a job with benefits, Kaplan took a

10-month maternity leave after each child was born and worked two days a week as a consultant until 1995. Unsoeld first worked a 40-hour week in four days instead of five, spending the fifth day caring for the kids. Then, in 1995, he applied and was approved to work a 30-hour week in five days. Though the family didn't suffer financially because of this arrangement, Unsoeld has made career sacrifices. He doesn't feel his employer penalized him for working part-time, but he does suspect that was why he was passed over for promotions. Unsoeld recently left his job and is now looking for a position as a public school teacher.

Unsoeld and Kaplan admit that the time they spend with their kids is often rushed. Because they believe it's better for the children if a parent picks them up from school and ferries them to their activities, the couple often does what Kaplan calls "tag team parenting": one parent hands off the kids to the other parent so he or she can rush back to work. Another downside: The family dines together only once or twice during the week because of frequent evening obligations.

Like most equal sharers, the couple also laments the fact that they don't have enough time for each other or themselves. Still, they say co-parenting has strengthened their relationship, since they have to work together as a team. "There isn't any power tripping," says Kaplan. "We are both in this together."

Balance Through Entrepreneurship

The D'Amicos' solution -- to establish their own businesses -- has proven quite a popular option for many equal-sharing couples. In February 2001, Rebecca, an events planner who was four months pregnant at the time, and Rob, a freelance Web designer, together founded a transportation consulting firm.

The D'Amicos had always shared household chores before they had Alex, but they understood how easily they could have wound up with unequal roles after having a child. "We were both afraid of falling into a rut after Alex was born, where I did everything and resented him for it," says Rebecca.

In fact, Dr. Deutsch's study of 150 couples -- only 30 of whom were truly equal sharers -- found that many partners who had egalitarian relationships prior to having kids fell into traditional roles once they became parents. She suspects this is partly due to some fathers' reluctance to compromise their work lives and partly because the women were anxious over not being "good" mothers, a common lament among the moms. "Most women's sense of identity and self-worth is still more tied to motherhood than to paid work," she says.

External expectations play a role, too, adds Barbara Risman, Ph.D., co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families in New York City, who studied 15 "fair families" in depth. "If a babysitter isn't good, mothers know society will blame them, not the father," says Dr. Risman. "How a child turns out is still seen as the mother's responsibility."

During the first six months of Alex's life, the D'Amicos devised an equal-sharing routine: On Mondays through Thursdays, Rob cared for Alex in the mornings, a nanny took over from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Rebecca was in charge in the evenings. On Fridays, the couple spent the day with Alex. And though Rebecca nursed Alex, it was Rob who got up in the middle of the night to comfort the baby or change his diaper.

Rebecca soon realized that she wasn't enjoying her work as much as she used to. In fact, she says, she would have quit working altogether if they could have afforded it. But she's glad she didn't. In January 2002, she bought a nanny employment agency and began working from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., a schedule Rob now follows, too. Having been a nanny before she went to college, Rebecca immediately felt that she'd found her calling.

Like many of the equal-sharing wives Dr. Deutsch studied, Rebecca is still in charge of the "mental work" of managing the family -- from arranging birthday parties to dealing with childcare and finding healthcare providers. "Many women feel the organizing and worrying are part of the job of being a mother, and they won't give it up," Dr. Deutsch says.

But when equally sharing wives hold on to the worrying work, their husbands usually compensate by doing more around the house, Dr. Deutsch found. Rob, for instance, handles what Rebecca calls the "icky" tasks, like emptying the kitty litter box. And when they're eating, if Alex starts to cry, it's Rob who tends to their son so Rebecca can finish her meal.

Although friends, family, and even strangers applaud Rob for co-parenting, Rebecca often feels criticized. "Sometimes people stare at me when Rob goes to help Alex, and I feel like they're thinking, 'Why doesn't she do more?'" she says. While it's well known that Rob does all the cooking, his mother has given her daughter-in-law a rolling pin as a gift, which Rebecca takes as both a joke and a hint to "get in the kitchen a little more."

The D'Amicos, however, don't let what others think bother them. Says Rebecca: "The bottom line is that I feel we have found the perfect balance."

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