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Q&A: How to split parenting duties 50/50

Half the work, all the fun. No, this isn't a recession-era job slogan. It's the mantra of two parents determined to do it all.

After the births of their two children, now 7 and 4, Marc and Amy Vachon split everything straight down the middle, from midnight feedings to bringing home the bacon.

Both work a 32-hour week, and both know how to clean a toilet. Sharing responsibilities evenly can be done, according to Ms. Vachon, a clinical pharmacy co-ordinator, and Mr. Vachon, an IT support worker, who co-authored Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents.

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On the line from Boston, Mass., the Vachons discuss their unusual blueprint for a strong marriage and a balanced life.

What is equally shared parenting?

Amy: It's a lifestyle in which both parents share approximately equally in the care of their children, earning a paycheque, taking care of their home and having the time to pursue their own interests.

How do you define "equally"?

Marc: There are a lot of different ways that couples attack this. We primarily use a time-based scale, which means equal investment and equal time in each of the domains.

Isn't this a ploy to get men to do more laundry?

Marc: I didn't get dragged into this. I came to it because it gives me an equal shot at a balanced life. I understand there are responsibilities to keeping a home running smoothly and I'm happy to do my fair share. As long as I have equal say in how it gets done.

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Do you have to make consensus-based decisions all the time?

Amy: There are a lot of misconceptions out there that this lifestyle requires this onerous continual negotiation process. And it really doesn't.

Marc: Because we're on the same page, we're both motivated to come up with systems that are efficient and work fine for our family, otherwise we'd be arguing about chores all the time - and you can do that regardless of what parenting style you're following.

Isn't the old divide-and-conquer approach more efficient?

Amy: We trade the short-term efficiencies of sole ownership [of a domain]for the long-term benefits of sharing it, which ends up becoming efficient because you've got someone who can pinch hit for you at any moment - not only on tasks but on the power and responsibility levels as well. So you don't always have to be the one to remember that you're running low on milk.

Does that mean you both end up coming home with milk?

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Marc: We've built the struc-ture of our lives to support our ideals of the shared partnership. So if I'm cooking dinner on a Tuesday night, for example, it's not likely Amy is going to be running out buying milk.

How do you share duties equally without keeping score?

Amy: I think by realizing that the greater goal is that equal partnership and those balanced lives. So when something starts to look unfair, you bring it up for discussion as if you're solving a puzzle or a problem, rather than attacking your partner.

What do women tend to find most challenging about this lifestyle?

Amy: I would say it's the letting-go piece at home and with the children. You've got to let your husband do things in ways that are not your style or that you don't even agree with. And there's the external judgment of women in our culture. When the kids are dressed in purple stripes and red plaid, it reflects - or so we think - on women. So you've got to let go of what others are thinking. And that can be tough sometimes.

What do men find difficult?

Marc: I think the main challenge is a kind of redefining of what success is as a man. This challenges men to look more broadly about their role as breadwinner, yes, but also their role as husband and father and friend and all of the other features of our lives that sometimes have been ignored.

Amy: A good example is when men feel as if they're treating their wives equally by saying, "My wife can stay home if she wants, or she can work if she wants." But that's not really saying that her career is equally important. That's saying, "I'll allow her to have one but when push comes to shove, I'm the one who's got the career that counts."

How do you make two careers equally important without factoring in what each partner earns an hour?

Marc: We're firm believers that a career is much more than a paycheque. Working as a team opens up a lot of options - maybe you can both have a more flexible work schedule, for example. With diversified income streams, it kind of buffers you against layoffs and downturns in any economy. And even if you don't love your job today, working outside the home toward something you enjoy is a valuable part of anybody's life.

You make it sound easy. Why don't more couples live this way?

Marc: I think society is not set up for it yet. Businesses are still tied to the ideal worker model from the 1950s, where one person works and the other stays home. Schools get out in mid-afternoon, which makes it difficult for modern parents to tie their work lives in with their home lives. We do think things are changing.

Baby boomers are retiring, but many are not quite ready to step out yet, and younger generations are saying they want flexible or reduced hours of work. So the pressure businesses are going to get from both ends is going to make this kind of lifestyle much more attainable.

You call your lifestyle ESP for short, like the acronym for extra sensory perception.

Marc: That was not intentional.

Amy: It's a bonus.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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