Cohn and Whitehead

Cohn and Whitehead

New books dissected over email.
Feb. 15 1999 12:33 PM

Cohn and Whitehead

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Dear Barbara,

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Let me begin with a few personal tidbits relevant to our discussion. First, I am a pro-feminist liberal who believes men and women have equal obligations when it comes to child-rearing. Second, I am also an expectant father who hopes very much to practice what I preach. (I know it's a bit strange to announce such personal news online, but I've had a hard time making contact with all my far-flung friends, and this seemed like a rather efficient way to spread the word.)

Anyway, given all of that, I expected to have nothing but nice things to say about Francine Deutsch's Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works. I expected wrong. While there's much of value in the book, I found it frequently disappointing and occasionally annoying. I'll be curious to see if you had the same reaction.

First, a bit of background for visitors to our little exchange: Halving It All is based on Deutsch's study of how 150 pairs of parents divide child-care duties. There are, of course, literally dozens of books like this out there, but most of them focus on inequality--i.e, the fact that women still bear most of the responsibility for rearing children. Deutsch's contribution is to examine that small but growing percentage of parents who divide parenting equally, and compare them with parents who divide responsibility more traditionally. In Halving It All, Deutsch, who is a psychologist, presents these stories side by side, tells us why couples made the decisions they did, and shows how those decisions have worked out in practice. Her conclusion is that couples who divide parenting equally are generally happier than the ones who stick to more traditional models.

To be sure, just by conducting this study and presenting it to a popular audience, Deutsch has made a contribution. As a soon-to-be parent eager to break traditional gender roles in my marriage, I found it heartening to read that other couples out there have gone through the same set of soul-searching questions--about whether to put careers on hold, about who will do which chores, about what exactly it means to be a parent, etc. Likewise, it was good to see that different couples solved these dilemmas in different ways. Some literally divided duties down the middle, each parent taking half of the feeding, changing, cooing, and so on. Others divided their labors as Adam Smith would, each taking up the jobs that played to his or her own competitive advantage.

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And yet . . . a couple of things in the book really bothered me. For starters, did you notice how little Deutsch had to say about how the children were faring in these families? The book relies almost entirely on interviews with parents. To the extent Deutsch makes judgments about which families are happier than others, she does so exclusively on the basis of which parents are happier. She made no serious effort to see how the kids felt.

To be sure, the children in equally shared families probably did just fine. (And if the parents were truly happier, as Deutsch suggests, they may have done even better.) But it's not a given. It is possible, for example, that children tend to do better psychologically when there is one parent on whom they can exclusively rely. I don't think that's the case, but Deutsch needs to prove it. Instead, she ducks the issue. And in so doing, she lives up to the worst stereotype of feminists--who have long been accused (wrongly, in my opinion) of crusading for equality at the expense of children's well-being.

My other problem with the book is that I never came to believe Deutsch was a disinterested observer, merely reporting her observations. For example, did you notice that even the women who claimed to be happy in unequal relationships always turned out to be secretly depressed and resentful? I'm willing to believe that this is true for many women in such situations--maybe even most of them. But surely there are at least a few who prefer caregiving to work, just as there are some men who do.

Deutsch obviously came into this study with a fixed idea of what a family ought to look like, and then decided to measure how everybody else lived up to that model. In a way, she's operating under the same narrow-minded premise as traditionalists who insist that the only acceptable family structure is one in which the man works and the woman stays at home. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for shared parenting when that's best for the family. (And I certainly hope that will be the case in mine.) But I'm not about to tell a couple in an unequal relationship that their arrangement is necessarily wrong because it doesn't live up to my ideal of equality, or anybody else's.

Uh oh. Did I just smoke myself out as a relativist? Let me know. And sorry to have skipped over our other text. I'm sure we'll get to it shortly, one way or another . . .

Best,

Jonathan

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Jonathan Cohn is executive editor of the
New Republic. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead is the author ofThe Divorce Culture. This week they discussHalving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works, by Francine Deutsch, andThe Custody Wars: Who's Fighting for the Rights of Children, by Mary Ann Mason.