DON WINTER'S excellent article in Outlook (May 20, 1979), "A Father at the Sandbox," struck home. I have had similar parenting experiences with our 4-year-old daughter, Sara, in College Park where I live and teach at the University of Maryland.
It is stillunusual to find men parenting their children and the social etiquette forms slowly. It took three weeks for the mothers of the children in Sara's dance class and me to overcome our awkwardness and go for coffee together.
I have had other uncomfortable moments explaining to my mostly male colleagues that I could not attend a meeting because I had to pick up our daughter and spend the afternoon with her. Their solution was for me to find a babysitter or leave her with a neighbor. They had a difficult time understanding that I wanted to spend the time with Sara.
I also had to cope with the major character shift in moving from the hectic working world, where time pressures force optimal solutions, to the parenting world, where being is more important than doing. I would forget that a quick ride home was not nearly as pleasant for Sara as an hour's adventure requiring two buses. Buses provide chance encounters with other passengers, an elevated seat to discover the world and the joy of a house on wheels.
Winter worries about his unused capacities atrophying, the distractions of parenting and the lack of community support (everyone thinks that he can be a better parent and offers advice) while his wife is stimulated and challenged by a full-time supervisory position. He risks transmitting these concerns to his children and being a less successful parent.
The solution that has worked quite well for us is to have both parents work less than full time and share in raising our child, while employing some outside help. This obvious solution, sharing the joys/burdens of working/parenting, is still difficult to engineer in contemporary American society, which is organized around the archaic belief that fathers are working and mothers are parenting.
Rearranging the work and social structure to permit increased part-time employment for those who want it can be accomplished. Part-time professional workers tend to have higher productivity, lower absenteeism and lower turnover. Employers benefit from having increased staff diversity, reserve resources when illness strikes or when additional short-term demands arise and increased loyalty. These and other benefits are promoted by the New York-based Catalyst organization and the Washington-based Association for Part-time Professionals.
If both parents work less than full time, they can share child care and trade stories about work-related experiences. My academic position gives me flexibility in scheduling, but I resist the temptation to fill every night and weekend with professional concerns. By limiting my work load, participating in child care and sharing household chores, I must make hard decisions about which conferences to attend and what professional obligations to take on.
I do feel restricted at times, but I also find that the time constraints force me to choose research directions carefully, limit my consulting/lecturing, attend only the most important conferences and not waste time on unproductive professional chit-chat. I may lose out on some professional experiences or friendships, but I feel more balanced, stable and productive.
On the home front, I've come to value the relationship with my daughter and appreciate her affection. It's gratifying that she seeks me out for even minor tasks such as cutting her nails or applying band-aids.
My wife, Nancy, is a psychiatric social worker who spends one day a week in a Bethesda clinic and has a small private practice in her home office. Doing psychotherapy can be emotionally demanding, so she probably does better work and avoids "burnout" seeing clients less than full time.
She parents more of the time than I - we don't split child care and household chores evenly. She listens to my professional struggles and I to hers in those odd moments when we debrief, at night or in the late morning.
The less than full-time strategy means that our schedules don't always match with other people's, so we play tennis at 10 a.m. or I welcome her home with chicken soup at 10 p.m. Our approach is not stress free, but we can express our nurturing and professional selves while increasing respect and caring for each other.
It is not necessary for Don Winter, other fathers or the majority of mothers to feel trapped by parenthood or fearful of being second rate as their professional colleagues advance. By having both parents jointly responsible for child care neither partner need feel left out of either role. It takes planning, flexibility, cooperation and accomodating employers.
There are moments of difficulty, but we both feel professionally and parentally satisifed enough so that we're looking forward to our second child's arrival in September. CAPTION: Picture, Ben Shneiderman and his daughter Sara. By Joe Heiberger - The Washington Post