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ESP Book Spotlight: Remodeling Motherhood

Posted Oct 31 2009 11:00pm

We have been anticipating a new book called This Is Not How I Thought It Would Be: Remodeling Motherhood to Get the Lives We Want Today by Kristin Maschka for many months. Having had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Kristin's manuscript, we knew it was going to be an empowering and very ESP-centric book. And we're happy to announce that it was released earlier this month.

Remodeling Motherhood is Kristin's own personal story of transforming her marriage from a traditional SAHM/working dad union to an ESP partnership - and how the result has given both her and her husband, David, lives that now feel so right. It is the first book we know of that describes this journey. We've gotten to know Kristin (who is a former president of Mothers & More) through emails over the past year, and she is a solid believer in equally shared parenting who walks the walk . To highlight her terrific book, we sent her a few questions so that you could begin to know her as well. Take it away, Kristin....

1. We love your story because you and David took on a world of gender assumptions about marriage and parenting and re-wrote your own rules instead. What do you think was the hardest 'rule' for each of you to re-write?

I think the hardest to rewrite were the unwritten rules that "Mothers are responsible for and best at family; Fathers are clueless" so that we could share responsibility for family work. We couldn't seem to share the responsibility even though we wanted to. Over time we realized that we struggled because we were also dealing with so many other unwritten rules in other areas - like his job being 60 hours a week, and an assumption that caring for family didn't take any time, and my feeling that my identity was wrapped up in being a "good mother." We had to remodel everything else to get at this universal challenge for couples around truly sharing family responsibilities.

When I asked David, he said that the hardest thing for him was that he didn't understand why I was so unhappy in the role of being at home and not employed. Our experiences were so vastly different when our daughter, Kate, was born - he continued his job and mine stopped - that his view at that time was that what I was doing was less stressful than what he was doing. He felt like it was a gift he was giving to me and our family, me not having to go into the workforce to deal with difficult people and to have the stress of making money and keeping a job . So when I resented him for our situation he was confused and frustrated. In hindsight he says the unwritten rule at work was his assumption that caring for family wasn't really hard work, wasn't as stressful or demanding as employment. So he thought at first, what is wrong with Kristin? He was surprised to learn that other women often have the same reaction, and that made him feel better about us because it wasn't just us or just Kristin struggling with this issue.


2. Since writing This Is Not How I Thought It Would Be, how have you and David continued to stay the course of equality and balanced lives? What has been, or continues to be, the most difficult part for each of you?

We both agree that what continues to be the hardest part is staying on top of changes in our relationship with each other and the way we share the family work week to week and month to month. We still do regular checkups - How are we feeling about our relationship? How are we feeling about how the family work is being handled? And when we face a big change, like we did recently when I took a new job, we try to be proactive about talking about what that means for sharing family responsibilities. Given the recession, I think we are in a situation many families are finding themselves in where the mother is either re-entering or increasing paid work, and the father is facing either a work slow-down or even a layoff. In our case, because we've been working hard on these conversations for years, this has been an easier transition for us than it might be for other couples. But it's still really hard both to make time for those conversations and to have them without blaming each other and pointing fingers.

For me another hard part continues to be fighting back any guilt I have for not spending more time with our daughter, for not picking her up at school every day at 3 pm like my own mother did. Even when she's spending tons of time with her grandparents and with David, I fight this assumption that it's only time with me that really counts because I'm the "mom." David doesn't share the guilt, doesn't get why I feel guilty, and wishes I would just get over it - but I'm the one who's absorbed the assumptions about what a "good mother" does and they don't disappear easily.

3. How do you think that Kate has benefited from your choice to parent her together? Do you think there are any pitfalls for children whose parents make this choice?

Kate has benefitted most by having a richer relationship with her father, and also by becoming aware of subconscious assumptions about mothers and fathers at an early age. Shortly before I finished the book she was watching TV one morning and shouted at me to come and see something. She rewound the TV and showed me a commercial for juice that featured a mother and child and a voiceover about "Motherhood means giving 100 percent." She stopped it and said, "Do you see that, Mommy? They think mommies are the only ones who take care of kids, but that's not true!"

I think the only possible pitfall for children is how stressful it can be for mothers and fathers as individuals and as couples when they face barriers to sharing family and parenting responsibilities, barriers like their jobs or assumptions from family and friends .

4. Do you see this newly-remodeled option for motherhood and fatherhood (what we've termed equally shared parenting) as a true possibility for all parents who desire it? Do you feel the barriers are more personal (such as being able to let go or re-prioritize) or external (such as those involving workplace, laws, childcare options)?

I think it is a true possibility for all parents because I think what we're really aiming for is to share the RESPONSIBILITY, not necessarily to share all the tasks 50/50. There are plenty of reasons couples might not want or be able to share all the family tasks 50/50, but I think with some hard work, and some intentional efforts to give fathers in particular lots of opportunities for practice and to help mothers "let go" sometimes, parents can make lots of progress toward sharing the responsibility.

There are both personal and external barriers to really living our lives as if we truly believed "Mothers and fathers share the responsibility and are equally capable of caring for children and home." That's why I think so many of us find ourselves asking, "Why can't we share the family work even though we want to?" On the personal side, it's really hard to recognize or admit that most of us still harbor subconscious assumptions like "Mothers are responsible for family." It took a crunchy waffle to make me see it. One morning, as my husband and I rushed through the morning routine to get our daughter to preschool, I asked him to make her a waffle. When the wailing started, I returned to the kitchen, picked up the toaster waffle, and promptly scolded my husband. "Of course she won't eat that. It's crunchy from the toaster!" For at least a year, I'd been microwaving the toaster waffles every morning so they would be soft. In that moment, it dawned on me that we did have a problem - and I was part of it. I was the only one who knew crunchy waffles were unacceptable because I was the only one who'd been preparing them. Yet I was blaming David for toasting a toaster waffle!

Subconsciously anyway, I believed "Mothers are responsible for family" so I just did everything and with so much practice, I was better at everything. Kate depended on me. David knew I would do everything and wasn't even sure he knew what "everything" was. And I silently, and sometimes not so silently, resented being responsible for everything. I felt resentment about doing it all, but because I was living up to that "good mother" ideal, I also felt a pleasant feeling of superiority from being better at it.

One of the reasons we still harbor these assumptions personally is that the world around us tends to reinforce them. For example, when in-laws and friends always talk to mom about things like playdates or parenting advice. Or when people refer to fathers as "babysitting" their own kids. Underneath those things is the assumption that mothers are responsible for kids. Another external barrier for us was that my husband was working 60-70 hour weeks when our daughter was born and my proposal to go part-time got turned down. It took us years to reshape our employment in a way that even gave us the time to share the family work and our employment the way we wanted. Because the barriers are both personal and external, I think mothers and fathers make the most progress when they remodel the whole thing together, rather than remodeling being a solo project for the mother.

5. What one (or two or three) thing(s) would you advise new mothers and fathers to think about as they piece together their lives?

Keep in mind that these days fathers are pretty much in the same boat as mothers. They are feeling just as much work-life conflict. In trying to be involved fathers, they face a host of cultural assumptions to the contrary. So change the conversation by stopping the blame game and help each other see the real barriers - both personal and external - keeping you both from the lives you want.

Be proactive and explicit about sharing responsibility for family work. Get a list of all the work it takes to maintain family and home, there's one on my website at http://www.remodelingmotherhood.com/ under Remodeling Tools. Using an objective list to support regular conversations about "who's doing what at home" helps make it less about pointing fingers and more about "What's the best way for us to get all this done well?"

Keep at it. You are pioneers and this remodeling doesn't happen overnight. My husband and I tackled this over a seven year period, and at that point we renewed our wedding vows as a way of celebrating how far we'd come and the realization that our marriage with our daughter was fundamentally a new and different contract that our marriage before she arrived.

6. Finally, what is your hope, as you send your book out into the world?

I hope this book opens up lots of conversations: among mothers with other mothers, among couples at their kitchen tables, and among mothers and fathers with society about what we need to live the lives that are best for ourselves and our families. And I hope it gives mothers and fathers both the understanding and the tools they need to take on their own remodeling projects.

It's Amy again. Isn't she wonderful? I highly recommend Remodeling Motherhood and will be emphatically adding it to our Resources page. Oh, and if you are in the Boston/Worcester area, please join Marc and myself at Kristin's upcoming book event at Tatnuck Booksellers in Westborough, MA on Friday November 13th at 7-9pm. Click here for a description of the event.

Thank you, Kristin, for a fantastic step forward in the global equally shared parenting discussion.
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