Can parents share child-raising responsibilities equally?

The new parenting ideal looks a lot like Katherine and Roger Kranenburg. Professionals who have achieved enough career success to earn both good money and work flexibility, they are raising two children, 5 and 3, who are healthy, energetic and even ask for extra grilled zucchini with their lunch.

In their roomy Washington house, with deck and swimming pool nestled among leafy trees, the Kranenburg family’s mornings look like an upscale version of what more and more American parents strive for: parity in parenting. Dad cooks and Mom untangles hair. Both parents arrange their schedules to make the parent-teacher conference. Dad clicks the kids into car seats; Mom drives them to school.

The Kranenburgs of Northwest Washington are a textbook example of what many of us grew up thinking would be our own parenting style. We looked back at our mother’s housework burdens and career sacrifices or our father’s disengagement with the family, and thought: not for us. We’d match with partners who would trample tired gender roles and commit to support our families 50-50 financially, physically and emotionally. Going halfsies on parenting seemed as obvious as the pants on our legs.

Here’s what this model of shared parenting feels like from the inside:

“It’s chaos,” Katherine Kranenburg, a real estate agent, says one morning. She is still in her mauve bathrobe and talking over her pajama-clad daughter, who sings to a pink stuffed animal to avoid making her bed.

“It’s stressful,” Roger Kranenburg, an energy consultant, says, as he pulls a Spider-Man shirt over his squirming son’s head, ignoring the beeping kitchen timer alerting him that the pasta he’s making for that night is more than ready. “It can really test a marriage.”

Across the country, parents are struggling through what many of us thought would come easily: an authentic split-down-the-middle approach. Is it working?

For a fortunate family like the Kranenburgs, it is, but it’s a no-margin, high-anxiety lifestyle. For the majority of parents who have the ability and inclination to divvy up responsibilities equally, the answer can be more complicated. Subtract the zucchini and the deck, the plush bathrobe and the swimming pool. Add money woes or work rigidity or marital conflict or a child who needs more attention. Voila, we have fathers and mothers reporting unprecedented levels of stress and resentment.

Marriage historian Stephanie Coontz says American parents have higher expectations of themselves than any previous generation. Modern parents, she says, do not realize how much they are up against as they try to change the child-rearing rules while living up to heightened demands. “People don’t anticipate in advance what a strain this will be.” They end up “turning on each other.”

Better, she says, would be “less indignation at each other and more at our society” — our familial infrastructure, the schedules of schools and offices that remain fixed in a two-parent, single-income world.

In Washington public schools, for instance, the 2012-2013 academic calendar includes a two-week winter break, a weeklong spring break, all federal holidays and one city holiday, five professional-development days, four days devoted to parent-teacher conferences and four early dismissal days. Meanwhile, parents employed full time are lucky if they get federal holidays and two weeks of vacation.



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