In the past two years I’ve heard three stories from former students that have made me smile, laugh, and grimace in empathy. A firefighter told me that he had recently switched his schedule to two 24-hour shifts a week so that he would have more time in the “ordinary daily life” of his newborn son. A lawyer mother regaled a group of us with her internal struggle to hold herself back from rebraiding her daughter’s hair because it was “Daddy’s turn.” And one of Christianity Today’s “33 under 33” wrote a blog post called “Time Out” after returning to her position post-maternity leave. She spoke honestly of the pressure and difficulty of caring for a new baby while doing the work she is certain God has called her to do.
These young parents are all trying to figure out what it means to balance public and private life through the eyes of faith. This struggle often occurs with most intensity when advancement in a career competes for time with raising children. Some couples both have full-time professional pursuits, using different forms of child care. Some parents, mostly women but not always, take on the home responsibilities while the other parent pursues a career. But there is a third way.
I was raised in the 1970s Christian Reformed community of the Chicago suburbs. My friends and I would have said that our dads were involved in our lives, but the moms raised children. Some of the moms had other jobs that accommodated their families, but their main job was their children.
Times changed. And as mentors encouraged me to consider becoming a lawyer, I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I could balance being a mom and an attorney. When my son was born, I left the practice of law and became a college professor to have more flexible time. Not every lawyer mom makes that decision, but it was necessary for me.
Then my husband made a huge professional sacrifice to support my career. He quit his job as a historic preservation architect in Washington D.C. to come to the Netherlands with me. I did the work for a Fulbright while Charles vacuumed, shopped, and biked all over Leiden with our little boy. That year was transformational. Our work lives and relationship with our child were changed by this new pattern, which continued in different ways over time. Charles returned to work as an architect, but we both scaled back our jobs. Neither of us would achieve the professional success of our graduate school peers, but we shared being parents and running a home in a way that brought both of us fulfillment.
We didn’t know it then, but we were starting to practice something called “equally shared parenting” (ESP), described by Mark and Amy Vachon in their bookEqually Shared Parenting.
In ESP, both parents have paid employment, but it is unlikely to be full time. Both run the home, and they both are responsible for the daily lives of their children. In the home, children are equally likely to turn to either parent when they need comfort. In the public world, both parents have a chance to stay engaged in the tasks to which they feel called. Fathers experience the joys of knowing their children more fully, and mothers avoid having large gaps in their resume.
Some would say this is an inefficient life. Perhaps. But for Christians, a shared parenting model allows both parents to respond to God’s call in all different aspects of their lives.
The Role of the Church
When I talk to people about ESP, the response across gender, race, and age is the same: their faces light up. But then they say it would be impossible; their jobs would not allow for it. Clearly the work world must change to allow for this model—and it is here that the body of Christ could make a significant contribution.
The church is well suited to challenge employers to see their responsibility and culpability in creating a culture that limits the work of parents, both male and female. It can encourage business owners, hospital and university administrators, and everyone who shapes the work culture to rethink the structure of the jobs they create. Most of our current work model assumes that one parent takes responsibility for the family’s daily life, but that isn’t the only way to respond to God’s call.
So how can the church begin to help people explore other creative ways of parenting such as ESP?
First, the church can help by highlighting the success of creative work arrangements. Twenty years ago, husband and wife Mark and Karen Muyskens approached Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., with a unique proposal. They suggested that they share a faculty position in biology, allowing them to pursue a work/life balance that worked for them. They held this shared position while raising three children until Karen’s too-early death in 2008. Employers sometimes offer paid family leave or make room for a parent to take time off to attend soccer games and so forth. But this example shows that more radical creativity can be successful for everyone.
Second, churches can develop non-gendered ways to help us learn from other parents. Highlighting creativity here is important also. Furthermore, too often we have often ignored the gifts of single parents in our midst—many of whom have raised wonderful children, often making use of community in ways other families can learn from.
There are other ways for the church to emphasize how important it is for all parents to be directly involved in raising their children, whether or not they choose the ESP model of parenting. We can be more helpful to young parents by excusing them from certain church duties or by making sure that we structure programs and ministries in ways that recognize the challenges faced by employed parents. Involvement of retired church members in the lives of children through faith-based after-school care could also benefit everyone. Intergenerational programs demonstrate that through baptism we have all made a commitment to the children of our church and that we serve the church in different ways through the seasons of our lives.
There are many ways to raise children well. Single parenting, traditional parenting, and equally shared parenting are just some of the many ways parents faithfully live out their calling. But given the longing expressed by many people, both male and female, for more fully shared parenting, let’s encourage our churches to consider it as one way to help Christians answer God’s call to transform culture.
For more on shared parenting, check out the websiteequallysharedparenting.com.