“Shared Care”—Work+Life Fit in Action

(Check out my latest Fast Company blog post, “Launching the “Attention” Movement, Distracted by Maggie Jackson)

One of the most entrenched mindset shifts we need to make about work and life in the 21st century is that it’s no longer a dichotomous choice between working or not working. The truth is that there are countless work+life fit possibilities from which to choose, and there’s no right answer.

You would think this realization would be a source of celebration and liberation, but I often find confusion. “What do you mean? What do these possibilities look like? How do I do it?” People want examples. They need new models of the work+life fit possibilities that they can adapt to their own lives. This is why I love “Shared Care” the model of shared parenting developed by Jessica DeGroot and the ThirdPath Institute. It is work+life fit in action.

The “Shared Care” model and the work of ThirdPath got a big boost last weekend when it was showcased in Lisa Belkin’s cover story, “When Mom and Dad Share it All,” in The New York Times magazine section. In the article, you get to see how a number of couples worked together to creatively manage their work+life fit to share the care of their children.

A couple of important takeaways from the article that will hopefully help parents make the mindset shift and allow shared care to work for them and their children:

The metric for success of shared care is not necessarily a 50-50 split between work and personal tasks all the time. Yes, there is still a gap between the amount of hours women and men spend on household tasks and child care; however, in my mind, the real power of shared care is in the ongoing decision-making and conversation. As the stories in the article illustrated, while there were times one partner did more household or work-related tasks than the other, they were constantly resetting their family’s work+life fit as realities changed. That’s the real point, and power in the process.

Flexibility at work is not just for women or moms. This is another deeply entrenched mindset that is starting to shift. As the dads in the article very often found, the flexibility is there but they needed to challenge their own fears and go find it for themselves. This is why organizations must take flexibility strategies out of their women’s initiatives. It only further reinforces for men that flexibility isn’t for them, when it is. This, in turn, hurts women by giving their partners fewer options.

Finally, so much of what keeps us from benefitting from the possibilities of new work+life fit models such as shared care is within us. This is especially true when it comes to the different definitions of success related to childcare and housework held by men and women. The article did a great job describing these differences, where they come from and how they affect our work+life fit decision-making, particularly for women.

Men need to step to the plate more, but I also think that women need to give ourselves and each other a break. Here are two examples that illustrate my point.

At a speech I gave recently, I ended up in a conversation with two other working moms. One of the women has worked on a variety of different reduced schedules over the course of twenty years. She’s a work+life fit veteran with a lot of wisdom from the trenches and the one piece of advice she says she would give other moms would be, “Let your house be a mess, cook easy meals in advance, let your kids pick out their clothes even if they don’t match, and don’t feel bad about any of it because no one in your family probably cares but you.” With that the other mother in our group who works full-time and is pregnant with her second child sheepishly admitted that when her kitchen was being redone last year, “It took us four months to clean up the inch of construction dust that accumulated throughout the house.” Then she added, “Is that awful?” And in a show of sisterly-support that two of us said, “No!” She responded with a heartfelt, “Thank you.”

I’m not immune either. Last week I returned from a week of travel. Usually before I go away, I provision the house with enough food for the week, plan meals, and lay out the kids’ schedule even though my husband is perfectly capable and willing. But this time I wasn’t able to execute my standard pre-travel routine. I returned from my week away to find everyone in one piece and very happy, but the house completely empty of food. I was surprised by how uncomfortable this discovery made me. “How did you feed the kids?” I asked my husband. “Relax,” he reassured me “we grabbed whatever we needed.” In other words, they foraged for food for a week. Again, everyone was happy. They had all had a good week, but I couldn’t get over the fact that every meal my children ate during that time was unplanned. I was so uncomfortable that I couldn’t start working the next day until I’d organized all of our meals for the next few days and went to the grocery store. Could I have shared care with my husband and joined my family in their food-foraging for another day? Sure. But my definition of success wouldn’t let me rest. That was my problem, no one else’s.

While nothing is ever perfect, “shared care” and other new models of work+life fit in action show us the possibilities. Check out the “Shared Care” tools and strategies at ThirdPath Institute, and go to Lisa Belkin’s new Equal Parenting blog dedicated to ongoing, imperfect challenge of partnering to manage the joys and responsibilities of parenting.

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