We Can Do Better Than “Lead Parent”

Blog / Thursday, October 29, 2015

I missed Anne-Marie Slaughter’s talk to take care of my sick baby. That’s the point.

By Mindy Finn, President & Founder of Empowered Women

Work and family demands led me to skip two hot-ticket events a few weeks back, but I was determined to attend Anne-Marie Slaughter’s talk about her book “Unfinished Business.” Then, our nanny couldn’t be there, and with insufficient back-up, my typically easygoing 21-month-old had consecutive meltdowns, he exhibited signs of illness, and I had to choose: stay home and answer his call for “mama” or do what I wanted to do. For me, it was a rhetorical choice with one outcome: stay home.

Evening events are unofficial overtime for many careerists in Washington, DC., and I miss more than I did pre-children. Fortunately I missed a relatively unimportant one this time; I’ve read most of Slaughter’s arguments in copious articles and book reviews. The irony was not lost on me though: I had chosen caregiving over career that night, as millions of American women, and men, do every day.

That’s one of Slaughter’s core arguments: caregiving is a crucial reality in our lives, and our work culture doesn’t allow for it. Such an idea is apparently counter-culture in a society that says pursue career success at all costs.

For as much as I agree with the mainline takeaways in Slaughter’s latest tome — we undervalue caregiving and overrely on women alone to navigate work-family issues —I disagree with a few of her solutions. Despite the best of intentions, one solution missing the target calls for new vernacular: “Lead Parent.”

The Lead Parent
Slaughter says we need to get comfortable with designating and recognizing the “Lead Parent” with primary caregiving responsibility. She calls for more men to take the lead role, like her husband did, for the sake of their wives’ careers.

While the Lead Parent idea honors and empowers caregivers with an executive role, I fear that it creates further division between parents, as if one is more important than the other, and gives the non-Lead Parent a pass.

The strongest families are those with two involved parents, studies consistently show, and so the goal in two career households is for both parents to be present and involved, to the best of their ability in their current jobs. Even when one is a “stay-at-home” parent while the other works, both should be equal and valued for their unique contribution in their children’s eyes; do we really want children to see the parent with a job outside the home as less involved, and worse, less caring?

While it takes open communication and deep mutual respect, the best partnerships are those where each person complements the other, works as a team and leans in when the other has to lean out.

We should not overcompensate for lagging caregiver appreciation by designating a “Lead Parent” with an understudy.

Slaughter, with the Lead Parent idea, introduces something that worked for her own family. Let’s be clear though: most families are not led by two high-income earners navigating the dynamics of juggling two high-powered careers, with children. Most families don’t have one parent who lives in a different place throughout the week. For those who do, they have to work it out, and yes, one parent must decide to be the caregiving parent who lives with the kids while the other works elsewhere. Even in that case, it’s usually temporary.

As for the rest of us, “stay-at-home” or hands-on Dads may feel comforted by a new title, but it sends a demoralizing message to men who give it their all at work and give as much as they can at home while dreaming of a day when they can parent more. The same goes for Moms who work by necessity and for whom the “understudy” role in parenting is not by choice. My Mom, a divorced and solo parent, and my friend who just lost her husband while pregnant with their second child don’t need a titular reminder of who is the Lead Parent.

In our two-parent, two-job family, my husband and I strive for nothing short of the teamwork approach to parenting our sons aged-3 and 1, which requires career sacrifices for both of us. I travel some, and my husband takes the “lead” at those times. The majority of time, he takes the “lead” with early morning caregiving while I take the “lead” for bedtime. This arrangement has evolved over time, and will continue to evolve as our caregiving and work needs do.

To be fair, we have at times used the “primary” breadwinner and “default” parent rhetoric that we read about when discussing who shoulders responsibility for specific aspects of our lives. We discovered though that such rhetoric divides us. Instead, we aim for better communication, deeper understanding of our unique strengths and limits, and mutual respect to strengthen our partnership. More importantly, we want our children to value each of us as parents, and as individuals, whether we are the one feeding them breakfast that particular day. It’s never perfect, but it works for us.

On the night of Slaughter’s talk, my husband was teed up to take the “lead” after our nanny departed for the day. Given our toddler’s illness, he required increased attention that night. My husband and I both ended up staying home and handled caregiving together. I’m grateful that we had the opportunity.

As Slaughter’s husband explains about being the Lead Parent, hands-on parenting yields numerous benefits for both children and parent, and leads to greater life fulfillment overall. Shouldn’t we idealize that fulfillment for every parent?

Let’s figure out a better way to co-parent and value one another without new rhetoric that gives one parent elite status.


Originally published on Medium.

[Subscribe + Connect]

Empowered Women Newsletter

A bold, fresh take on all things women and innovation, work, politics and culture