Co-parenting: How do you divvy up parenting duties?

In writer Cori Howard’s Vancouver home, the mental list making is endless. It’s tallied secretly for days and weeks, and then erupts — ungraceful as an elephant — in frustrated outbursts, often at inappropriate times (like in front of the kids)

Husband: Can you do the dishes? Me: But I’ve done them every day this week. Husband: I’m just really tired tonight. I had a hard day. Me: Yeah, well, I’m tired too. I had to pick up the kids, then get the groceries and take a business call in the freezer section. Then I had to make dinner, and now I have to help with homework.

You know the conversation. This constant scorekeeping is not uncommon in post-baby marriages. Like many of my mom friends, I expected the balanced division of labour in our domestic life to continue after we had children. Neither of us was supposed to shoulder more of the burden of housework or parenting. It was supposed to be perfectly equal. The reality, of course, can be much different. While some couples are happy with their brand of balance, most of us struggle to achieve it.

We also struggle with how to define it. Typically, “co-parenting” refers to the child care arrangements made after a divorce. But here we’ll explore the many variations of co-parenting in intact families, and how couples reconcile their expectations with the demands of their day-to-day lives. For some, co-parenting is an equal 50-50 split of both housework and child care. For others, it means one parent is with the kids at all times. But what should it mean for me and my husband? For you and your partner?

Many have weighed in on the debate. For instance, a recent study published in the journal Developmental Psychology shows that parents who share caregiving for their preschool children may experience more conflict than in relationships where it’s agreed the mother is in charge. What this study seems to imply is that when mom accepts she will be doing most of the child care and housework, things go smoothly. But when there’s an attempt to divvy things up “equally,” both parents argue. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t aspire to an equal co-parenting model; it’s just a warning flag that establishing an equal model is hard work.

As the study’s authors point out, “effective co-parenting is not necessarily synonymous with equally shared caregiving duties.”

I wish I knew that was the case when I started trying to co-parent 10 years ago. I could have avoided a decade of intense struggle with my husband. Back then, I really could have used Kaia Nielsen’s advice. She’s the mother of nine-year-old twins in Roberts Creek, BC, who not only has the perfect equal co-parenting arrangement, she didn’t have to suffer to achieve it.

“A jagged line”

Both Nielsen and her husband, Mark Lebell, are teachers. He works seasonally in an outdoor school, and she’s an alternative educator in the public system, working half-time. Their schedules allow one or the other to stay home with their kids, except for every second Friday, when they both work. On those days, they leave their children with friends in their small community.

Nielsen describes her marriage as a perfect 50-50 split. Yet they never talked about co-parenting before they had kids, and they never had a clear plan for how it would work. What does make it work, Neilsen says, is that they both have the same approach to parenting and want the same things: time with the kids and time to pursue their careers.

“It’s 50-50,” she says, “but it’s a jagged line” — meaning Nielsen does most of the cooking, while Lebell is out building a fence for their property. But that’s just the way they like it. No mental list making for them. So, how do they do it?

As older parents — Nielsen is 47 and Lebell is 44 — they each had solid careers when they started a family. Nielsen says that may be one factor. Another might be that they prioritize doing things together as a family. The couple play in the band Sweet Cascadia together and most nights, after the kids are in bed, they stay up and jam. They also spend three weeks every summer in a family canoe and traipsing around the wilderness with their kids. In other words, they are a solid family unit. And they have been since the birth of their twins.

“From day one, Mark has been heavily involved,” Nielsen says. “He never felt left out.”

That’s exactly the key to co-parenting, notes Cameron Phillips. He’s a former CBC radio host turned dad blogger and “dadvocate.” His business, Bettermen Solutions (bettermensolutions.com), offers workshops for corporations who want to help their employees find better work-life balance. For extended periods, he has been the primary caregiver for his children, ages one and five, and has spent time as a full-on, stay-at-home dad.

“It’s impossible to measure true equality and there’s no magic bullet,” he says. “Good co-parenting starts with a solid foundation of communication, which traditionally is a bigger challenge for men.”

Having been raised by a feminist single mom, Phillips never thought that he would default to traditional gender roles when he started his own family. He believed, in advance, that there would be give-and-take between his career and his partner’s.
Equal love and connection

But life can derail even the best-laid plans. Around the time his wife went back to her job as an elementary school teacher after her first maternity leave, Phillips was laid off from his job as a radio host, shattering their assumptions they would be a two-parent working family with kids in daycare.

Losing his job threw Phillips into an unexpected depression. “I thought I was failing my family because I wasn’t earning money — even though I was a full-time parent and loving father. It was a wake-up call to realize that even as a progressive parent, it’s easy to get ensnared in traditional gender roles.”

His depression lifted when he started his own business, offering workshops and speaking about fatherhood and finding work-life balance. In Phillips’ own life, that balance is not based on a formal arrangement or concrete plan.

“We consciously didn’t want one parent to do one thing,” he says. “In some families, the dad always does bath time or bedtime, but we wanted our kids to see us equally too. When my son falls down and scrapes his knee, he runs to whichever of us is around because he feels equally loved and connected to us both.” That’s missing in many families, Phillips says. “I know a lot of dads who come home and feel like a stranger when they walk in the door. They offer to take their baby out for a walk and the mom says, ‘You can’t take him out like that.’ So there’s this gatekeeping that can prevent dads from getting as involved as they want to.” It’s a big barrier to real co-parenting, Phillips believes.

“Always with one parent”

Joanna Mackenzie-Enga would never consider herself a gatekeeper, but the reality of her life and the decisions she’s made have meant that her husband is far less involved than both of them think he should be. The Gibsons, BC, mother was going to leave her private psychology practice to go to med school, while her husband, an independent filmmaker, stayed home with their future kids. But when she had her first child 10 years ago, she couldn’t go through with it. She didn’t want to be away from her baby 12 hours a day. And so she’s become a homemaker and serves as her husband’s art director, accepting that while her kids are young, she won’t be able to co-parent in the way she wanted or expected.

She explains their division of household labour: He does some of the dishes, sports, choir and breakfast; she does the remaining house and child duties, estimating her share is an uneven 80-20 split. Yet, before their now 10- and one-year-old children came along, this couple, too, expected the work to be divvied up 50-50. They tried after their first was born, but quickly found it wasn’t viable. Mackenzie-Enga’s husband couldn’t work part-time, and she didn’t want to leave her children with someone else to go to work.

“My definition of co-parenting, with children under five, is that it’s you or your partner — not daycare, not Grandma. My ideal is that our children are always with one parent or another. So I’m always with the kids, unless my husband gives me time.”

Though Mackenzie-Enga believes the financial stress and sacrifices have been worthwhile, she pines for an ideal in which she and her husband could both work and both be with the kids, juggling their careers, finances and home equally. “No regrets, but if I knew then what I know now, I would have picked a husband whose job didn’t require the 24/7 intensity of self-employment — like a teacher.”

In Phillips’ marriage, the disagreements start when he doesn’t pull his weight around the house, leaving dishes in the sink or laundry undone — which he admits to doing. “Men in my generation are caught between paradigms, between the old role of provider and wanting to be more involved. It’s changing as we move away from the 1950s model of how families function, but it will take a few generations for us to be truly 50-50.”
Stop keeping score

Many of the couples who come to see Randy Frost want to find a more equitable co-parenting arrangement. The Vancouver marriage and family therapist says they need to forget about the list making and stop keeping score. He tells them to step back and think about the emotional process that starts with the mom coming home to find dinner isn’t started and the garbage is full; she gets angry and the dad reacts to that anger by distancing or shutting down, and it becomes a pattern.

Sound familiar? It does to me. Frost’s advice? Examine the pattern. Shift the focus away from what your spouse is or is not doing. Try instead to focus on your part in the pattern and what you can do to change things. “Expecting your mate to change is a prescription for staying stuck in a pattern,” he says. “And the more a couple is isolated from a larger network of family and friends, the more intense the emotional process will be in the nuclear family.”

Try bringing your extended family into your life — not to take sides, but to lend a helping hand or dilute the tension between warring spouses. Even if they don’t live nearby, maintaining those open relationships will ease some of the stress, he says. A network of friends can help serve the same purpose.

And aiming to agree on everything? Overrated, says Frost. “You need to allow for individuality, and if people feel their spouse is hearing them and taking into account their concerns and desires, couples can usually work it out.”

In my own house, after 10 years of practice, my husband and I have called an uneasy truce. We try to remember to appreciate each other and the essential role we each play — no matter how unequal — in raising our children and creating a happy family. It’s not always easy. But I am working on accepting that a larger number of domestic and child care tasks fall to me because I work at home and my husband does not. So, I do the laundry and groceries, make the appointments, pay the bills, make dinner, help with homework. He does the garbage and house repairs, and dinner on weekends. But who’s keeping score? Not me. No longer. I swear.

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