Shared parenting

Shared parenting (Peter Cade, Getty Images / January 27, 2013)

The new parenting ideal looks a lot like Katherine and Roger Kranenburg. Professionals who have achieved enough career success to earn both good money and work flexibility, they are raising two children, 5 and 3, who are healthy, energetic and even ask for extra grilled zucchini with their lunch.

In their roomy Washington house, with deck and swimming pool nestled among leafy trees, the Kranenburg family's mornings look like an upscale version of what more and more American parents strive for: parity in parenting. Dad cooks and Mom untangles hair. Both parents arrange their schedules to make the parent-teacher conference. Dad clicks the kids into car seats; Mom drives them to school.

The Kranenburgs are a textbook example of what many of us grew up thinking would be our own parenting style. We looked back at our mother's housework burdens and career sacrifices or our father's disengagement with the family, and thought: not for us. We'd match with partners who would trample tired gender roles and commit to support our families 50-50 financially, physically and emotionally. Going halfsies on parenting seemed as obvious as the pants on our legs.

Here's what this model of shared parenting feels like from the inside:

"It's chaos," Katherine Kranenburg, a real estate agent, says one morning. She is still in her mauve bathrobe and talking over her pajama-clad daughter, who sings to a pink stuffed animal to avoid making her bed.

"It's stressful," Roger Kranenburg, an energy consultant, says, as he pulls a Spider-Man shirt over his squirming son's head, ignoring the beeping kitchen timer alerting him that the pasta he's making for that night is more than ready. "It can really test a marriage."Across the country, parents are struggling through what many of us thought would come easily: an authentic split-down-the-middle approach. Is it working?
For a fortunate family like the Kranenburgs, it is, but it's a no-margin, high-anxiety lifestyle. For the majority of parents who have the ability and inclination to divvy up responsibilities equally, the answer can be more complicated. Subtract the zucchini and the deck, the plush bathrobe and the swimming pool. Add money woes or work rigidity or marital conflict or a child who needs more attention. Voila, we have fathers and mothers reporting unprecedented levels of stress and resentment.

Marriage historian Stephanie Coontz says American parents have higher expectations of themselves than any previous generation. Modern parents, she says, do not realize how much they are up against as they try to change the child-rearing rules while living up to heightened demands. "People don't anticipate in advance what a strain this will be." They end up "turning on each other."

Better, she says, would be "less indignation at each other and more at our society" — our familial infrastructure, the schedules of schools and offices that remain fixed in a two-parent, single-income world.

In Washington public schools, for instance, the 2012-2013 academic calendar includes a two-week winter break, a weeklong spring break, all federal holidays and one city holiday, five professional-development days, four days devoted to parent-teacher conferences and four early dismissal days. Meanwhile, parents employed full time are lucky if they get federal holidays and two weeks of vacation.

The United States is routinely embarrassed in world rankings of family-friendly policies that support a healthy work-life balance. The latest annual Save the Children report on the "State of the World's Mothers" ranked America at 25, between Belarus and the Czech Republic. Factors such as lower female political status and lower preschool enrollments pushed the United States down the list.And with more expected of parents, splitting duties is increasingly difficult. Takoma Park, Md., father Steve Majors talked about the new demands one evening while he leaned over his younger daughter, coaxing her through three pages of homework. It was his last chore before dinner and after he had logged hours at the office, folded the laundry and supervised his daughters' bike riding and jump rope."Look at this; my parents never did this," he says, waving a hand in the direction of the homework. "We were told to 'go outside.' I never saw my parents." In the kitchen, his partner checks the simmering lentils and calls out a reminder that dinner will be early because he has to make the evening school meeting.
"We are raising our kids differently [than our parents did]. That's our decision. But it means we take on all the extra burdens," Majors says. In other words, just as many are embracing equal responsibility for the family, the parenting part of the equation has grown into an oversize octopus.

"Sometimes I tell people I'm like the guy in the park juggling nine balls," says Darrell Perry, who lives in Washington and is a lawyer, musician and father of a preschooler and an infant. Before the baby was born, the daily routine for Perry and his wife, WUSA reporter Delia Goncalves, had Goncalves leaving for work at 3 a.m. and Perry waking four hours later to feed and dress their older daughter, construct whichever elaborate hairstyle the 3-year-old had chosen that day, shuttle her to day care, then get himself to his law firm. Goncalves handled the afternoon pick-up and evening routine, and he'd join the family for dinner. Some nights, he might return to work after dinner; some nights, he might rehearse with one of the bands he plays with.

"Conflict? Oh, there was conflict," Perry says. Now, with a second child and Goncalves just back to work after maternity leave, the schedule is far more complicated. "People think it's crazy. And it is crazy."

Some suggest that the burdens for parents might be eased if we demanded more from our employers. Anne-Marie Slaughter memorably made that point last summer in her Atlantic cover story "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." One of her remedies was to change "the 'default rules' that govern office work — the baseline expectations about when, where, and how work will be done."

But having a flexible schedule doesn't mean things always go smoothly. In fact, a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin found that telecommuters work longer hours than office-dwellers. And telecommuters and those with flexible schedules are more likely to have work creep into family time, thus creating more stress, not less.The Kranenburgs know this from experience. They begin the morning with expectations of what the day will hold. But, if Katherine gets a call from a client or if Roger needs to stay late or if one of the kids gets sick, the day will take any number of radical turns. Their extended families don't live nearby. They do not have a nanny or backup care, because their jobs are "flexible." They have friends with kids who trade off the dance commute. Otherwise, they have each other. And, sometimes, that's not enough. "We are living to the max," Katherine Kranenburg says, adding that marital tension peaks around the issue of who has to be more flexible on any given night.
Another approach is proffered by Marc and Amy Vachon, a couple who are more committed than most to the idea of shared parenting. They are the authors of "Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents."

The Vachons lead lives designed to prioritize their home life parity. Amy, a clinical pharmacist, and Marc, a technology specialist, live in Massachusetts and both work 32 hours a week. They do not divvy up responsibilities or keep track of who has done what, a common misperception of their approach, they said in an interview that was, fittingly, joint. Instead, each takes ownership of all aspects of parenting their 7- and 10-year-olds on separate days. If their daughter's friend wants to schedule a playdate on Thursday, it's Marc who handles logistics.

The primary elements that keep their "dream" afloat might be considered radical, they acknowledge: lightened workloads and what Amy calls "bravery" to stand up to gender stereotypes.