Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sex and Parenting

Two articles, both of which struck me as very silly when I read them, apparently took root in my head and germinated because here I am writing about them weeks later. One was a story about two different couples, each of which decided to save their marriage by having sex every day for, in one case, a year, and in the other, 110 days. (Don't recall how they came up with that weird number.)

The other story was about
something called "shared parenting." Could that phrase be any dumber? Given the definition of the word "shared," it seems to me that parenting by two people qualifies as such from the moment a child appears on the scene, regardless of who changes more diapers or goes to more school conferences. Actually, "parenting" is a stupid word, too, and its use is a great indicator of a sorry shift in cultural focus. Previous generations didn't "parent." They raised children. With the emphasis on the children, not the parent or the act of being a parent.

Anyway, according to this second story,
couples are hiring consultants and establishing detailed time-and-responsibility models and assigning drudgery levels to tasks and entering into contracts, all in order to divvy up parental responsibilities so that neither parent feels exploited or overburdened.

What the hell? Why on earth would anyone want to turn either sex or parenting into a to-do list item?

I'm not sure what to say about the sex marathoners, other than it seems really rather pitiful to be either so unsure of your partner or so uninterested that you think the best way to recover and maintain intimacy is to calendar a long-term series of daily sexual appointments with him or her. How is transforming sex into yet another task to accomplish before you sleep supposed to help anything? And really: call me romantic or perhaps old-fashioned, but I prefer to think of sex as something one does out of desire and because it's fun, not as a means to recapture a lost feeling by simulating it.

Or maybe, in a culture that includes this shared parenting silliness, sex is merely another of the tasks that has to be allocated.
The shared parenting article was about highly educated, dual-income couples seeking to assure that having children wouldn't ruin their lives or their relationships with one another. The level of worry they claimed to feel on this front was staggering (as well as selfish), and I wondered why they were having kids at all if they were so sure the results would be catastrophic. Wouldn't it make more sense to embark on starting and raising a family with joy, optimism and a plan to cross problematic bridges together as partners if and when they appeared?

But the folks in the shared parenting article were much too apprehensive and determined to rely on anything so fluffy as trust and open communication (or, evidently, any sort of continuing ability to work things out as a couple). Instead, they undertook a scientific process, using spreadsheets and everything, to apportion time, tasks and responsibilities.

A great deal of what fell into the category of "parenting tasks" seemed to be household responsibilities, raising two interesting questions (in addition to the obvious conclusion that these couples have more money than sense). First, what did they do before they had kids? Live in filth? Buy new clothes when the old ones needed washing or dry-cleaning? Starve? And second, why are they hiring parenting consultants instead of cleaning services? Wasting precious spare time on household tasks they can easily hire others to do, not to mention wasting time on drawing up spreadsheets to apportion such tasks, is the last thing busy, two-career couples should be doing. (Is anyone else noticing that the children - the purported point of all these machinations - are nowhere in this picture?)

I think good parenting is primarily about children, not parents. The point is to love your children and guide them along the road to maturity and independence. It's not about how many diapers you change or meals you cook or carpools you drive, how much laundry you do or homework you help with. And it's certainly not about making sure you don't do more of those things than your parenting partner, if you're lucky enough to have one. Parenting isn't a competition between the parents. People have different strengths and weaknesses, different likes and dislikes, different efficiency levels. "Equal" is measured more by how it feels and works than by metrics like hours spent or level of drudgery handled.

Anyone who's read my Suit Yourself essays knows that there are few things I enjoyed less than teacher conferences and elementary school talent productions (if I may use so grandiose a term for such excruciating events). My husband manned the bulk of those. But I was nearly always our family's cook and, most of the time, I loved that responsibility. (When I didn't, we went out to eat.) My husband liked the solitude of cleaning up the kitchen after meals, but he developed a complete inability to fold clothes during the brief period he was responsible for laundry. He consulted on science and math homework; I consulted on English and history. I guess we shared planning birthday parties, hauling the kids from place to place, and that sort of thing. I really don't remember, but it all got done and we all, kids included, had a great time. Of course, things periodically fell out of balance; when that happened, we talked to each other, sometimes loudly, and then cooperated to right the ship.

Isn't that what it comes down to under any circumstances? Even after the shared-parenting couples angrily wave their spreadsheets at each other and the sex marathoners cross their finish line, the imbalances must still get resolved, if at all, via straight talk, mutual regard and trust.
And that brings me to the questions germinating in my brain. What kind of well-intentioned people, which the ones in these articles clearly were, want or need to transform parenting and sex into chores? What kind of relationships must they have with each other? Where is the straight talk, mutual regard and trust? What happened to being actually (rather than contractually) in it together?

All the spreadsheets and sex marathons in the world can't give you what being partners who care about making each other happy can. Lack of that is the problem, and the fixes discussed in the two articles are the relationship equivalent of taking an aspirin for a tumor.

1 comment:

nw said...

Amen to all that!