Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Equally Shared

It is a bit disconcerting how often the New York Times Magazine has written stories about women, careers, and family lately. I guess it's good.. sort of.. that issues related to women, careers, and family are still considered newsworthy, and in a more nuanced way than the endless should-women-work debate.

The cover article in the magazine this past week was about "Childless Europe": why some European countries -- and in particular those in which it is traditional for women to stay home and take care of the kids -- have extremely low birth rates, in contrast to countries in which it is more common for women to work. Apparently some people think this is surprising, but it makes sense to me, although of course in the latter case, there must be some system of support for childcare etc., either from the community/government or the family/spouse.

The cover article two weeks ago was about "Equally Shared Parenting" (subtitle: Will Dad Ever Do His Share?). Apparently we equal-sharing couples are rare beasts.

My husband refused to read the article because he thought the topic was too stupid to waste time reading (and he had a lot of laundry to do), but I read it (while he cooked dinner). In fact, I couldn't really relate to any of the specific examples in the article. For example, it never occurred to me that I might want or need the instructions of a lifestyle coach to figure out how to share parenting equally.

I did find it interesting, however, that the couples profiled have had a much more difficult time balancing two careers + family than we have had. This most likely relates to the facts that:

(1) my husband and I are both academics with flexible schedules

I have written before about how, despite the time commitment and pressures of an academic job, the flexibility of academia helps me balance career and family. For example, in summer weeks when my daughter is not at a camp, my husband and I do a home-office relay in which we each stay at home for half of the day and work at the office for half of the day. I am not working significantly less than usual, and I have the freedom to adjust my day so that I can spend time with my daughter and still be accessible (in person or by email) to my students and colleagues. And weeks when she is at camp, either day camp or sleep-away camp, I have even more time to work than during the academic year.

(2) n = 1 (child)

I recently asked a friend, who gave up her career when the first of her 3 kids was born, what she's doing this summer. The answer: driving Hannah to tennis camp, driving Olivia to theater camp, driving Austin to soccer camp, doing errands and housework, picking up Hannah from tennis camp, picking up Olivia from theater camp, picking up Austin from soccer camp, cooking dinner, collapsing. Even though her kids are all school-aged, how would she manage summers if she went back to work? Of course, it would be easier to pay for all these camps if she worked, but then she'd have to pay someone to drive her kids to and from the camps (and she might still have to do a lot of the errands and housework..). I have the greatest respect for the work she does as a mom. There are FSPs with 3+ kids, but I couldn't do it.

(3) my one child has been remarkably healthy and happy

This relates to several factors: (1) luck, (2) the fact that we live in a somewhat untidy house with several cats has likely boosted her immune system; and (3) genetics: we have a generally very healthy family. In fact, between kindergarten and high school graduation, I did not miss a single day of school when in the US, and only missed school when we were living abroad and I contracted malaria and spent a few days unconscious and/or hallucinating.

(4) my husband and I have always shared housework etc., so it's not something we have had to negotiate or schedule in any intricate way, even without the help of a lifestyle coach. It's the way we have always lived together, even before our daughter was born.

(5) we live near campus and work in the same place

Life would certainly be more difficult with a long and/or complex commute

(6) luck

Luck has definitely been an important part of creating a good work/home life, and the rest has evolved with time.

I am sure there are other factors, but the ones I've listed are probably the key ones. Now if only I could teach (convince) my cats to mow the lawn and do the laundry, life would be even better and the New York Times Magazine could write an article that even my husband would read (while ironing); e.g., Cross-Species Housework: Are Cats Finally Doing Their Share?.


Anonymous said...

FSP, you give me so much hope! My boyfriend is also a PhD-student-hoping-to-be-an-academic, and neither of us are too fussed about having more than one's great to hear some success stories. (also I am the only child of two academics myself, so that helps, too...)
Thanks for posts like these - they really help.

JaneB said...

I wonder if it also helps that you're both in the same career, so there's a good understanding of what you both need and what sorts of committments are involved.

sandy shoes said...

Yep - the cats are definitely slackers.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

I found the article mildly interesting but was still shocked at how little attention was given to immigration--it was rapidly dismissed as insufficient. Hmm.

Anyhow, it's nice to hear someone who is calm, even happy, with a less-than-tidy house. I'm still battling waves of guilt. But perhaps instead I should look into increasing our feline population. It will be much easier for two or more of them to carry out the trash together.

Anonymous said...

I am not a fan of the NY Times. It used to be that the Sports Section only had men sports in it. It is getting better.

Perhaps it is time for a Female Science Professor Newspaper!

I would subscribe.

Chelle said...

Aaaah, if my cats would only clean after themselves...

(I can dream.)

Anonymous said...

Sharing equally is really, really important to me and it's something I'd be good at doing. It's important enough that I haven't found a partner yet.

Anonymous said...

I think you've missed the one that's about you. You are remarkably efficient. You use the time when you have it accomplish something substantive and have limited tendencies towards avoidance of unpleasant work and procrastination.

This is a personality trait, and it serves everyone well, but especially FSPs, who want to balance work and family.

Unknown said...

We've run into some little snags, mostly caused by a non-gender-neutral culture. For instance, he used to ask laundry and cleaning questions or need help because my parents expected me to help with these things more than his did (of course, this could've gone the other way, but I'm guessing it rarely does).
The biggest problem is that I have the boobs in the relationship :) , so I spend a lot more time feeding the baby than he does.

chemcat said...

as an academic, mother of a two yrs old, wife of a great guy who is out of town during the week for his job (this should have been a temporary arrangement, but it's been 2 yrs already), I think you're right. my life would be a lot easier if he were an academic. I understand there can be significant two-body problems, but at my place there's now a culture of accommodating the spouse. As an example, my dept (sciences) pays somebody's spouse's salary to work as a lecturer in the humanities! I could have never pulled it off (pay his salary to work at a company?!)
And my life would be much harder if we had a second child. But isn't it sad?! I'm glad to hear that Phdstudent was fine with being an only child, but I really benefited from having a brother, and I have a wonderful relationship with him. It bothers me that my job interferes with such a basic choice as this, and it bothers me that my child will grow up far from her extended family, and ultimately having to deal with some pretty serious stuff when her parents age on her own (we had her close to 40, so you do the math). I know dual career people in business with two kids who are managing, but frankly, they make such an incredible amount of money that they can afford a live-in au-pair AND a nanny, in addition to private school.... Basically they spend more than I make in childcare alone.

Candid Engineer said...

Terrific suggestion for a future article. I've also been hoping some of my dinner guests would volunteer to clean my toilet once in a while.

Anonymous said...

I have several kids, some with health problems (hopefully they'll outgrow it). I have a dreadful commute. My husband has a demanding job and is out of the house for at least 12 hours a day. Don't know how I'm still in the field. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post for me to read today considering the conversation I had earlier with a female colleague. I'm very new to your site as most of my blog time usually centers around women's health advocacy.

Anyway, I note some similarities, but I believe myself to be disadvantaged in academia (in my field) due to salary constraints (music faculty get paid peanuts) and tough loads. I have 20 contact hours! So, I don't feel like I am doing a good job of balancing teaching, creative actitivity and research, service, and my family. Pay off the student loans that got me the doctorate that got me my low paying tenure-track job (though it's better than the national average in my field)? In my dreams. and

Additionally, it seems as though most (all?) Universities lack a maternity policy. Oh sure you can beg, borrow, steal sick leave, but it'd SURE be more convenient if I could have a baby in June. Well, I lost my perfect timing baby.

I don't think it's impossible to find balance within academia, I'm just saying that it's pretty darned hard, and less accessible for others.

I look forward to reading more from you!
~ Kimberly

Facetious Student said...

I have something better your cats can do.

Anonymous said...

I am an American living in one of those European countries and I can tell you that it is important that this problem gets talked about. Life is not easy for working mothers anywhere, but a number of factors conspire to make it more difficult in this country than in the States. I do not have any children (yet?) and am unlikely to have any if I stay in this country. Possibly a return to the States would make it possible. However, I know that if I stay here, I will eventually face outright and explicit discrimination in hiring decisions (because I *might* have a baby and quit work).

The media needs to keep talking about these problems, because for many, many people they are not solved. And many of the changes that need to happen will have to be made by decision-makers in government and industry. I agree that some of the editorializing in the NYT article is just plain weird, but they make some important points. For instance: "It’s also true that mores have evolved in the U.S. to the point where not only is it socially acceptable for fathers to be active participants in raising children, but it’s also often socially unacceptable for them to do otherwise." In many parts of the country I live in, men who help with child-rearing are still seen as having been effectively emasculated.

As to the household division of labor -- Local bf was brought up in a thoroughly gender-divided home. In *theory* he believes in sharing household work equally. In *practice*, however, I do 70% plus, partly because he doesn't plan ahead or follow through on essential tasks, partly because he doesn't seem to notice what needs to be done, or it doesn't occur to him that *he* ought to do it (taking out trash, putting away groceries, putting dirty clothes into laundry bin).

Now back to my thesis...

AstroYoga said...

Those articles led me to believe that I was confused as a child and thought I was really a boy (a was a girl). They implied that most women feel that it is their responsibility to do the work at home - I never internalized that social paradigm even though it is reinforced through most media outlets. My mom laughed when I told her my realization and thought I might be on to something (she is a traditional stay-at-home-mom who feels responsible for everything at home).

I suspect that's how I ended up in physics - if I had realized I was a girl, maybe I would have been discouraged by the incorrect but often propagated idea that 'science is for boys'. Pregnant with my first child and living in Germany, I am curious to see if I become trapped in the societal pressure that keeps moms out of the work place here. I will be out of work (as my contract expires) two weeks before my due date, and I have no prospects yet!

Erica said...

I thought some of the couples in the shared parenting article were a bit over-focused on making each spouse's obligations exactly the same... equally shared does not mean identically shared, and while of course both parents should have plenty of high-quality time with their children, and they should also share the low-quality time, there is something to be said for division of labor. I would think the point would be to divide labor and family time in a way that is efficient (maximizing everyone's quality time) and satisfactory to all parties (tasks neither party wants to do should be divided ~equally) - but not to become slaved to the idea of exact sameness, which is really no better than being slaved to traditional gender roles.

Julia said...

Disagree with #2!
We've got both our children during both our PhDs and are still doing fine. But, yes, you are so right, I also think that what really helps are
# good immune systems (of kids and self)
# short cummutes
# kids that like to sleep (long)
and, what you did not mention but what I think is important for researchers further down the food chain (PhDs, Post docs):
*governmental subsidised daycare
We currently struggle to find enough money to both do our Post-doc in the US *and* afford full 8/5 daycare.