Mon, Feb 23, 2009 - Page 9 News List

An experiment in equal parenting

Mothers do more housework than fathers. Twice as much, according to a recent report. So could a US couple’s scheme of strictly dividing childcare and chores redress the balance?

By Viv Groskop  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Show me a woman who doesn’t wish her partner did more childcare and I will show you a liar. But how do you get them to do it? I have spent the last five years asking myself this question. Now, finally, an answer has presented itself: Marc and Amy Vachon, advocates of the “50-50 lifestyle” and poster parents for a new American ideal: equally shared parenting.

The Obamas of the parental blogosphere, the Vachons’ profile went global last year when they featured in the New York Times Magazine, complete with pictures of him folding laundry and her practicing piano with the children. I am obsessed with these people and want to be like them.

The Vachons are from Boston, both 46, with two children: Maia, 6, and Theo, 3. Marc works in information-technology; Amy is a pharmacist. They run a Web site, equallysharedparenting.com, and are among a small but committed cohort of evangelists for “post-feminist parenting” where everything is split straight down the middle.

Outside the 32-hour working week they have each negotiated with their employers, the Vachons have a system where everything is shared — from the writing of thank-you letters, to the seasonal rotation of the children’s clothes, cooking, lawn-mowing, recycling, car maintenance, vacuuming and birthday party planning.

“Why is this called anything?” they say modestly of their ultra-democratic home life. “Why isn’t it just called parenting?”

Critics point out that the couple scaled their earning capacity back to work the reduced hours that allow them this lifestyle — and that “the rigid structure they have set up is not practical or desirable for most people.”

But the Vachons and their fans argue that most mothers are burdened with an unfair “second shift”: working and doing the bulk of childcare. And most fathers are being prevented from having full involvement in their children’s lives.

Their arguments are as valid in Britain as in the US: A 2007 report from the University of Bristol in southwest England shows that women with children put in double the hours at home that men do. Men spend an average of 44 hours a week in paid work and 18 hours in unpaid work. Women spend 26 hours in paid work and 35 hours in unpaid work.

I wonder how a week living by the Vachons’ rules might change us. We both already spend a lot of time with Will, 5, and Vera, 2, and make vague attempts to share. My husband Simon, a radio producer, works a five-day week in central London (we live in Teddington, just outside the capital). He does a school run a couple of times a week and is home by 7pm most nights. I work three days a week from home as a freelance writer.

Overall, it works — although my work can spill unpredictably into the rest of our lives. I am constantly complaining that to achieve “equally shared parenting” my husband would need to work a Vachon-style three or four-day week. After half a decade of nagging, can I finally persuade him? Bring on the Vachon revolution!


DAY 1: SIMON’S LOAD TRIPLES

The experiment starts disastrously when Simon and I cannot agree how many days there are in the week. Do weekends count? We agree on one thing: We will split the nanny’s time. Even Marc and Amy use childminders and nurseries. Our nanny Ola works three days a week between 9am and 5pm. Simon and I are each allocated half of her time in which to work. That leaves two weekdays. One day of childcare each. Simple. We can both work a four-day week. Just like the Vachons. Result.

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