Shared parenting: A disastrous double act

After the birth of their son, Claire Hodgson and her husband opted to split responsibility for looking after him. The stress nearly drove them apart

Can there be a more perfect solution to the dilemma, and demands, of parenting today, than sharing it equally? It's a relatively straightforward idea – two parents share equally the four areas of their lives, childraising, housework, breadwinning and time for self. Here in the US, there is a movement towards 50-50 child-rearing, as promoted by Marc and Amy Vachon, who made it all sound attainable in their book Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents. Meanwhile, just published in Britain is Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality, in which Rebecca Asher seeks solutions to the hard fact that having children still polarises gender roles in a relationship.

My husband and I became equally sharing parents (ESP) by accident. We always considered Simon the house-husband type, partly because of his laziness (he likes hanging out at home), partly out of a sheer lack of imagination (professionally, he happily followed "whatever came up"). I had a five-year plan, spent occasional weekends at the office, had a job title. Most importantly, as my mother couldn't help but point out, I preferred books over babies.

Then our son Sam arrived and everything, not just our lives, but our two-year marriage, and decade-long relationship, changed. With a colicky, reflux baby and more nappies than novels in his life, Simon realised that this wasn't what he had daydreamed of. He couldn't write with a baby in his lap; couldn't play tennis while Sam slept in the stroller; couldn't continue film nights, date nights and any other nights with his wife in quite the same way. Meanwhile, I'd fallen in love with our son. I was utterly transfixed by him. I couldn't leave him alone, couldn't leave him at all, which meant that I couldn't envisage going back to work.

After only two weeks with our newborn, we knew that our plan for my husband to be the full-time stay-at-home dad, or me to be the full-time breadwinner, didn't fit anymore. While our son slept, I negotiated part-time work at the end of the three-month maternity leave that's parcelled out in the US. Then my husband and I sat down and divided our lives: at 8am I leave for work; Simon looks after Sam. At 2pm Simon goes to work; I look after Sam. Simon covers morning wake-ups – whether 5am or 7am. In return, I endure the long nursing nights, as Sam woke in those first months every couple of hours. Both of us could have a lie-in once a week – Simon on Sunday when I would take Sam out to some baby and mummy activity; me on Saturday when I was beyond knackered and falling over, and in danger of general grumpiness all weekend. I would do bedtime, except on Tuesday nights when Simon comes home early so that I can catch up on work. Simon would cover breakfast; I'd work out lunch and dinner. Simple.

In this way, we became advocates of the philosophy of ESP before we knew it was one. We walked, sleep-deprived and hormonal, into this experiment in managing one child and two lives. Our schedule was finely crafted, carefully arranged, diplomatic to a fault. But it was also torturous, maddening and lonely.

Over Sam's first year, as we fumbled through our version of ESP, we found ourselves a long way from the Vachons. Neither of us was doing half the work, we both took full responsibility for running the family, and neither of us had any power in the relationship.

What we hadn't counted on were our different parenting styles. We had been partners in pregnancy, but not postpartum. We'd talked about which pushchair, where the baby would sleep, names, birth plans. We didn't talk about how long we'd let Sam cry at night, or whether he should sleep in his cot or with us. And over that first year of Sam's life, we found that we disagreed on every detail. Sam needs the light off to sleep, on to sleep; he's not allowed to touch the computer keyboard, he is bought one of his own to bang on; he can't watch telly, he can if it's sport. We even fought over avocado or banana as a first food, avocado being too expensive for a baby (maybe in the UK, where they are, but we live in California, where they definitely aren't).

We stumbled on the Vachons, whose book came out part-way through our escapades, but no luck there. They were having a blast, while we were struggling: "We would be peers in this adventure... We would share the burdens so nothing would consistently overwhelm either of us, and share the joys so that neither missed out on the experience of a deep connection with our child," says the book.

We had different parenting styles. Our marriage became a relationship test case of Newton's Law: though we were equal, we were travelling in opposite directions. Over our separate shifts, we each developed our own rituals. We also became equally invested. We couldn't shut off when our partners took over; parenting was not piece-work or job sharing, even though our schedule implied this. Rather we micro-managed each other. "I always give him the orange spoon," said Simon when he came back from work in the middle of Sam's dinner. "Oh, you're bathing him without bubble bath," spurted out of my mouth.

We bickered. There was one way to feed our son: Simon's clean and contained; mine messy and explosive; one way to bathe him: Simon's quick, to the point; mine a 20-minute splash-fest with sopping floors and clean face, but not much else; one way to play: Simon's careful, patient, directed; mine in bursts of involvement and hands-free time.

Somewhat unexpectedly, in spite of all my fine feminist training, I started to believe that because I was the mother, maybe we weren't meant to be equal. I wanted Simon to defer to me; to admit that I had the right of veto, that I was the Cameron to his Clegg (or Obama to his Biden). But right from the beginning, he didn't. In the hospital, the nurses handed out a checklist to unwitting parents containing a number of skills they needed before they took their newborns home – how to swaddle, how to change a nappy, how to burp. He nailed it before I could get out of bed and walk to the loo. Hours before going home, I was cramming. As I called on my husband those first few weeks to swaddle Sam when my efforts had failed and our baby's arms were flailing, I was pissed off rather than proud.

We hit an early ESP wall with breastfeeding. We both believed in nursing, but we never decided between on-demand or scheduled feeds. I'd planned to nurse up to a year but we thought it vital that Simon could bottle-feed in the first weeks. But we never asked Sam. Over the 12 weeks before I went back to work, Simon tried, fruitlessly, to convince Sam that breast wasn't best, but our determined boy never took to it. I nursed happily, and the eight or 12 times a day that I did so must have been like a slap in the face to him. Though we strove for equality with each other, we came to realise that we were not equal to our son.

In Sam's first year, we both managed to be there for first crawls and words, first foods and falls. But in our third year of marriage, we mentioned divorce, at first playfully quoting Dolly Parton, later with sadness. When mapped over a child, the differences that drive you together can become invitations to warfare. Never had we disagreed so much, never had we considered ourselves so badly matched. Our arguments weren't gentle and conclusive, but those of the sleep-deprived, panicked and love-stricken.

Although we progressed as parents individually, we struggled to be a three. When our family came together at the weekends, we had no shared ground. Even in the playground, the swings and slides became a game of snakes and ladders, one of us always lost. Simon put Sam on the higher slides, pushed Sam higher in the swings, spun the roundabout faster. I encouraged the manageable confines of the sandpit, with no places to fall or hide.

As with everything to do with parenting, even this changes. Last week, during another trying night getting our notoriously bad sleeper to bed, Sam asked, for the first time, at 17 months, for "Dada", for Simon to come and read him Goodnight Gorilla and handle bedtime. As I left the bedroom, and said goodnight to them both, I felt not rejected, but elated. Sam could choose, and maybe we were equal in his eyes, if not our own.

As Sam gets older, it has become easier. We talk about him together, but no longer to admonish; we share our stories of the day, and we laugh. I now realise that increasingly I'm more proud than pissed off at my husband. I'm impressed that he can walk among professional mothers, and make allies with them. I like the way he gives Sam free rein, encouraging his feistiness and energy. Simon has found his own way – usually with a fellow stay-at-home father with whom he has play dates in the local bar, or with one of the Latino nannies down at the playground who teaches him Spanish and calls our son Samuelito.

Our toddler is robust, funny, charming and playful. I see both of us in his new words ("backhoe loader" and "more"), his interests (balls and beads), and his personality (a social charmer who gets bored easily).

Entering the second year of our son's life, though, we've had to face a harsh reality. We are struggling to keep this going financially. The experiment that started with two part-time workers is looking increasingly untenable. But both of us are reluctant to give up the time we have earned with our son. Neither of us knows how to have that conversation.

There's a type of couple that lends itself to ESP. Like the Vachons. They can't wait to sing each other's praises as a parent and partner, and are dedicated to creating the best life for each other. In wondering if we're not that couple, we have also questioned whether we were even a couple at all. We love one another, but we are brutally competitive, a possible hangover from early flirting. Ironically, we have found shared territory in the book, an exasperation at its seriousness; but also, still, a belief in this shared vision. We are still trying, not to be all things to all people, but half of them, to each other and our child. And if we fail? Then we would at least have shared a first year, the first year, even in our dysfunctional way. And maybe that is worth the worst year of marriage.

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