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When Parents Disagree and What You Can Do About It
By Ron Taffel Roberta Israeloff
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2003 The Guilford Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One UNBALANCED PARTICIPATION
The Fundamental Cause of Parental Disagreement
Monday morning. All across America families are scrambling to dress, grab something for breakfast, and get out of the house-just as they have for generations.
But a few significant changes have taken place since "the Beaver" hopped on his bike and set off for school. Mom is most likely dressing for work, too. For a while now, the majority of mothers of pre-school-aged children hold jobs. And Dad is pitching in. In fact, if you were to stand in front of an elementary school or day-care center anywhere in the country, you'd probably notice countless men driving or walking their kids to school, sending them off with a quick kiss and wishes for a good day.
Saturday afternoon. The park is filled to near capacity. Children wait in line for the swings and seesaws. The sandbox is chock-full of toddlers and sand toys, and traffic at the sliding pond is so brisk that kids barrel down nearly on top of one another. Even the benches are full. Moms and dads are everywhere, pushing kids on swings, standing guard at the monkey bars, mediating fights, and dispensing juice cartons.
There's no getting around it. Thirty years of social change havesignificantly affected the American family. But-despite the profound impact of the men's and women's movements, the taken-for-granted preserve of women in the workforce, and the ordinariness of divorce-one fact of family life has remained constant. Men and women are still trying, though in new and varying configurations, to raise children together.
Though headlines trumpet the prevalence of divorce, the divorce rate has in fact leveled off: today, one out of two children can expect to spend childhood with the same parents. Even among divorced couples 80 percent of divorced fathers find a new partner and eventually remarry. And nearly half of all cohabiting couples have children in the household.
There's one other reality of family life that hasn't changed. You can still count on the fact that parents will disagree about how to raise their kids. In fact, parental disagreement is so normal it's like the weather-something everyone complains about but feels powerless to change. Though we're continually reminded that an essential part of raising kids is presenting a "united front," for most of us this fabled unanimity remains just that-a fairy-tale standard that certainly doesn't match the untidy disagreements of everyday life.
Don't look to the "experts" for answers, either. During all my training as a child and family therapist disputes over childrearing were never taken at face value, but almost always interpreted as a symptom of "marital difficulties." We rarely thought to turn it around-to consider the ways in which having children leads to inevitable disagreements, placing stress upon even the best relationships.
Only recently have we begun to address the ways in which childrearing affects marriages, and, of course, the difficulties of coparenting after divorce. Yes, we now acknowledge, becoming parents is hard on a relationship. Raising good kids is hard on a relationship. Developmental phases like the "terrible twos" and adolescence are hard on a relationship. Divorce certainly makes it hard to maintain a good parenting relationship. And according to the statistics, getting remarried is harder yet.
But over the years I've found these explanations of parental conflict both distracting and insufficient to explain the problems I've seen so many families encounter. After sifting through the give-and-take of thousands of families, I'm convinced that parenting issues are inescapably affected by gender, a fact that has remained largely unexplored. When we take for granted the natural differences between men and women, it's an easy next step to take parental conflict for granted as well.
LISTENING TO AMERICA
I discovered how much the battle of the sexes extends to childrearing about ten years ago, when I began giving parenting workshops across the country. Mothers and fathers of all types came to talk about tantrums, defiance, sleep problems, eating difficulties, communication, "The Room," rebellious teenagers-all the various troubles they were having with their children.
After leading about two hundred of these workshops, I began to notice a pattern. No sooner did the subject of parental disagreement come up than all havoc would break loose. The same men and women who had sat calmly side by side suddenly jumped to their feet waving their fists as if touched by a live wire. A moment before they'd been allies against their "difficult" children; now they were sworn enemies, facing each other across an enormous battlefield.
Here's what many of the mothers had to say:
"I want him to cooperate and participate more, but his ways are so different from mine, it's not worth the trouble."
"At least your husband gets involved. Mine doesn't contribute at all. It's like living with another child"
"We fight about what we should do and the kids get forgotten. They just slip through the cracks."
"It was almost easier when men had nothing to do with the kids. At least then things were done right."
The men didn't take this sitting down. They also had plenty on their minds:
"Nothing I do is right. It's got to be done her way. She always criticizes my approach."
"She wants me to do fifty percent of the work but she wants one hundred percent of the decision-making power."
"I think she's too easy on the kids. They need to learn that the world isn't as softhearted as their mom."
"She listens more to her friends, her mother, and the magazines than she does to me."
One man spoke with unforgettable poignancy about his frustration:
I spent last Saturday with my kids-alone-and we had a wonderful time. I did things at my own pace and used my own judgment. We got along great. Then my wife came home. It was like a tornado struck. She was everywhere, instantly, and I felt my confidence and spirits deflate like a balloon. There was no way I could match her energy. In a second the kids forgot about me and were back in her orbit. It seemed as if they didn't even remember the day we spent together.
At first, the intensity of these comments shocked me. As I said, nothing in my training or in the parenting literature had prepared me this blatant gender warfare. But whenever the subject of parental conflict came up, marital loyalty flew out the window. Women who had never before met each other linked arms in solidarity; men who were perfect strangers looked to each other as comrades.
MEN AND WOMEN PARENT DIFFERENTLY
Obviously, this kind of friction isn't new. Struggles between men and women have been raging forever over the issues of sex, money, and power. But the intensity of the gender division over parenting issues was a little surprising. I suddenly understood that childrearing advice has always been dispensed as if women and men look at parenting through the same lens-or with the basic assumption that only mothers would be listening anyway. This latter reality, that "parenting" advice is really a euphemism for "mothering" advice, helped me understand some of the anger I was hearing in my workshops.
It wasn't simply that men and women looked at childrearing concerns like discipline, communication, and letting go differently. They were arguing over a more fundamental issue-job description. As Arlie Hochschild reported in The Second Shift, the basic paradigm of family life has remained stubbornly resistant to change. And according to the thousands of parents I spent time with,
Women are still primarily responsible for the kids' daily welfare, and men, though far more involved than their fathers, are still providers who "help Mom out."
These are strong words-in fact, you may be asking how I could be making such a "retrograde" statement. As I described, evidence of change is everywhere-in the park on Saturday afternoon, in front of schools during the week. National magazines herald the "New Age Man" on their covers, shown with a briefcase in one hand and a baby in the other.
Even surveys, such as one in Child magazine (March 1993), appear to indicate that when it comes to the division of labor in families, we seem to be heading in the right direction. According to this survey, today's dads are clearly more involved in childcare than their own fathers were. In fact, only one in ten fathers considered himself (or was considered by his wife) to be a "backseat dad." In addition, 25 percent of today's dads (in comparison to 2 percent of our own fathers) participate in hands-on care for their children-bathing, diapering, dressing, putting to bed-as part of daily life. That's the good news.
But forget the media hype for a moment. Listen instead to the mothers and fathers I meet every day. Turn these numbers upside down and you may begin to both understand their anger and share my skepticism. A full 75 percent of dads are still not actively involved in daily hands-on care. Fifty percent of fathers define themselves as "well rounded," but by this they mean that they help with childcare "as their schedules permit." In other words, despite all the changes we've been through, three out of four fathers are still not consistently involved in the daily hands-on care of children.
The 1993 "National Study of the Changing Workforce" conducted by the Families and Work Institute revealed similar findings. Of 3,400 randomly selected employed men and women, women were:
2 times more likely to pay household bills than men;
4 1/2 times more likely to cook for the family;
7 times more likely to do the family shopping;
10 times more likely to do the household cleaning.
These findings suggest that despite the fact that a majority of women are now in the workplace, their responsibility to perform those domestic tasks that are directly related to the care of children has not changed much over time. "This is true," the survey concludes, "even in families where women contribute half or more of the family income, and where workers are young."
Since these studies were done almost a decade ago, it made sense to update them by going to the source. Ellen Galinsky is the president of the Families and Work Institute and one of the primary architects of the 1993 workforce study cited above. I asked her to comment on these significant role differences. Dr. Galinsky says, "Although the gap between men's and women's particpation in household tasks-childcare and chores-has narrowed considerably over the past 20 years, mothers still spend more time than fathers. We are looking forward to the results of our 2002 national study. While we may see that fathers continue to increase the time they spend with children and in doing household chores, we think that mothers will remain 'in charge' of many tasks."
From my work with families around the country, it is clear to me that this question-who feels "responsible" for tasks around the house getting done-is one of the central and most difficult to change realities of daily life. No one is to blame here. Obviously, today's fathers are participating more in family life than their fathers ever dreamed of. But the demands on men and women are increasing at a very rapid pace. Despite everyone's good intentions, if you peel away the facade of the "New Age" family, you'll discover unquestioned beliefs that are startlingly traditional-and cause tremendous problems for the parenting team.
INSIDE THE KNAPSACK
How does this translate into real life? Let's go back to our Monday morning scene. If you were to ask those children going to school with their dads to open their knapsacks, here's what you would probably find: a lunch prepared and packed-by Mom; dessert money or a meal ticket provided-by Mom; books either purchased or covered-by Mom; a permission slip allowing the child to be picked up after school written-by Mom; homework more than likely checked-by Mom; a form volunteering to help out at the school crafts fair signed-by Mom; a can of soup for the food drive included at the last minute-by Mom; and a newsletter listing upcoming school events published by the "newsletter committee" run-by Mom.
To a school crossing guard or a newspaper reporter observing from a distance, yes, family relations have radically changed. But a closer look inside the knapsack, into the private workings of family life, reveals something quite different, just as peering into a microscope at a drop of water reveals a world not visible to the naked eye.
I have spent my professional life looking inside the family at the web of relationships not visible to most people. At work, I do nothing else but talk to parents and children. During the past two decades I have personally worked with over three thousand families and couples-often staying in touch with these families until the kids grow up, leave for college, and have children themselves. I have supervised approximately one hundred therapists and counselors on several thousand other family cases. I've met with tens of thousands of parents around the country discussing the issues of ordinary life. When you hear as many nitty-gritty details as I do, you realize that the participation equation in most families is still astonishingly out of kilter-so much so that we can't get on the same wavelength about the kids. This imbalance polarizes men and women, magnifying the already very different views we have about childrearing (all of which will be explored in detail in upcoming chapters-how to discipline, communicate, let go, and network) into an often impossible struggle, powerful enough to knock many otherwise successful marriages off course.
I believe that the explosive combination of gender differences over childrearing and the "Mom is responsible-Dad helps out" paradigm is the central factor underlying ordinary parental disagreement. It transforms potential complementarity between men and women into anger and alienation. It leaves a profound imprint on children's minds about what mothers' and fathers' roles should be, which will be handed down to the next generation-to your children and grandchildren. And it practically guarantees that the mythical "united front" of the good parenting team will remain just that-a fairy-tale ending we all strive for but rarely achieve.
This is serious business.
Excerpted from When Parents Disagree and What You Can Do About It by Ron Taffel Roberta Israeloff Copyright © 2003 by The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission.
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