home what'snew resources ask amy news activism antiviolence events marketplace aboutus
Articles & Speeches
Feminist.com Bookstore
Find Services In Your Area
Inspiring Quotes
Links/ Best of the Feminist Web
Our Bodies, Ourselves Reading Room
Partners & On-Site Non-Profits
A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

How To Avoid The Mommy Trap: A Roadmap for Sharing Parenting and Making It Work
by Julie Shields

Excerpted with permission from How To Avoid The Mommy Trap: A Roadmap for Sharing Parenting and Making It Work by Julie Shields (Capital Books, 2002).

Negotiation 101

"Before we got engaged, I gave him "the quiz." I told him I wanted to share housework and child rearing, and he agreed. We touched base again before deciding to get pregnant. We've always assumed we would split all the responsibilities and we always have." Rebecca Powell, web site designer who works three days a week, whose entrepreneur husband works three days a week and shares the care of their children.


Like every other relationship, marriage involves negotiation. Yes, love can make a huge difference, and even provide some leverage in "discussions," if you prefer, with your mate. But don't kid yourself. Even when dating, people do all sorts of bargaining, both directly and indirectly. Before getting engaged, most couples negotiate about what their relationship and any resulting marriage will look like, and even whether to get married.

At one time families arranged marriages and haggled over dowries. The betrothed had little or no input. Today things have become more complicated. We no longer have any crystal clear rules, even for the first date. Before the women's movement, men were supposed to make the first overture. Now women can, and do, ask men out.

As the courtship progresses, couples might negotiate over whether to sleep together, whether to have an exclusive relationship, whether they will see each other all weekend or just on Saturday night, what restaurant to go to, what appetizer to share, whether to get dessert, or what movie to see. Every day, they will make decisions together as to what to do and what not to do. At any turning point, a romantic union can go in different directions, all of which require reconciling each person's interests and desires.

Modern parenthood also forces new choices about the use of time. Changing from two individuals with two jobs and no babies to a family requires give and take from both partners. At one point, the rules for transformation had little elasticity. Women who got pregnant had to quit their jobs (if they had one). End of story. Now, we can negotiate everything.

In fact, parents sometimes have difficulty seeing anything other than the bargaining aspect of their relationship. Who's going to have a professional or a social life? How will they pool their efforts at home? Who's going to come home early to relieve the baby-sitter? Who's going to call the baby-sitter? Who will take Susie to her much loved ballet lessons even though you both know she will never be a ballerina? Who can stay home with a sick child? Such is the stuff of life with kids.

A variety of factors will impact the resolution of these large and small issues, only one of which is love. Rhona Mahony, the author of Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies, and Bargaining Power, explains that in marriage

Bargaining power is a big element of who gets their way. Relative income, relative earning potential, social status, physical size and strength, remarriageabilty, remaining years of fertility, and emotional attachment to the children all play a role. Men have more of all of these attributes than women, except for emotional attachment to the children.

Of course, marriage provides incentives to deal fairly with one another that do not exist in other situations. We're talking about two people who love each other, after all. Parents share a common goal, which can lead to outcomes a "winner-take-all" negotiator would never accept. Yet, looking at parents' interactions through the prism of negotiating theory proves a surprisingly effective way to understand what goes on in marriage or partnership. The principles of bargaining provide the tools to change the status quo.


Think I'm de-romanticizing and underestimating the power of love? Let's look at how a woman who doesn't know she's negotiating might fare. Then we'll see how a woman who understands she can bargain does in comparison.

Mary Clayton is an economics professor and mother of a six-month-old. She has taken a year's sabbatical, wants her husband Mark to work flexibly so she can resume her career.

Before she stopped taking birth-control pills, Mary told Mark that if she got pregnant, she would work part time, or even stay home. The couple had been married for a year and a half, and both lavished much time on their careers. They cooked elaborate dinners together a few times a week, and took part in many activities and friendships, sometimes together and sometimes apart. Mary recalls:

I had no earthly reason for saying I might stay home. I'd never been around babies. I guess I felt working full time wouldn't leave enough time for our baby. And that maybe motherhood would change me into another kind of person.

I didn't expect him to go and rely on what I said, though. It was just talk. I was thinking out loud, more than anything.

Without realizing it, Mary had negotiated with Mark to stop using birth control. In some way, Mark had understood he was in a bargaining situation. He wanted to continue to work hard, and thought they had agreed having a baby would enable him to do so. As a result, it surprised him when Mary sought his presence at home after Jeffrey's birth. He says:

She told me she was ready to have children. I wasn't. The idea scared me. Then she said she would either work part time or stay home and I would support the family. Since I was about to move to the next level at my job, I agreed to go along with the plan. I just assumed it would all get worked out without my being involved in a major way.

Mary made a number of errors that later put her in a situation she disliked. To start with:

· She didn't prepare in advance, think hard about what she wanted, or do any research.
· She didn't understand she was in a negotiation.
· She didn't realize her statements would have an impact on her future.
· She thought love would cause everything to come out all right and that her partner would support whatever she decided do in the future, even if it differed from her initial expectations.

Mary did no research before formulating her position about having a child, one of the biggest decisions she will ever make. This is a huge no-no in negotiation, whatever the context. True, Mary felt a strong biological urge to have a baby. However, removed as we are from a state of nature, if we want to best enjoy our long lives in civilization, we must look into our options before deciding whether, when, and how to have children. The women's movement and science have given us a new opportunity. We can now choose the lives we want to lead.

Rebecca Powell understood all this very well. A Berkeley graduate and professional activist, she had steeped herself in the history of feminism. After meeting Darrell Smith at a friend's wedding, she returned to California and he to New York. Before she agreed to see him again, she made sure Darrell would go along with her planned future. Rebecca states:

I knew women who got all tied up in knots over the choice of whether to work or stay home. I figured whoever I married would split the duties. That way, it wouldn't be all this or all that. I knew I wanted to take care of a kid and to work. I wanted to share everything. I didn't want anything broken down by gender.

Darrell hadn't thought about these issues much. He had a close relationship with his mother and three sisters, which made him view women as equals. In the full flush of romantic ardor, he agreed in theory and even made a commitment to Rebecca's ideals should the relationship progress as they thought it would. He says:

I wanted to get married to Rebecca. And I wanted to have kids. I asked her to make a huge sacrifice and leave the Bay area to be with me. She would only move to the East Coast if she knew I would be the kind of husband she wanted. I'm an open-minded person and what she said seemed fair, so I said, "Okay."

Rebecca laid the groundwork for achieving the life she desired. In contrast to Mary Clayton, Rebecca:

  • knew what she wanted from marriage on her first date;

  • · viewed courtship conversation as a form of negotiation about the future;

  • understood her mate would rely on what she told him; and

  • · knew marriage involved hard work, good communication, and planning, in addition to love.

Few of us have evolved as far as Rebecca has. She is the only woman I spoke to who came up with the idea of "the quiz" (brilliant idea, by the way; I wish I'd thought of it). When Rebecca became pregnant, she and Darrell checked in again with each other and proceeded with their plan to share parenting, starting with maternity and paternity leave. Since their son Mac's birth, they have both worked part time, each taking care of their son while the other works.

After she became a mother, Rebecca might have found she wanted a different arrangement than she had anticipated. That would have worked out however, because she had put herself in a position of strength and could negotiate a different situation if she changed her mind. It would be far easier to convince Darrell Powell to do less childrearing than he had bargained for than to convince Mark Clayton to do more than he had bargained for.


Clearly, women collectively have not negotiated good deals for themselves. Mothers still do more, and fathers less, at home and with their children than women would like. Why is that? The most important reason is low aspiration level.

According to negotiations guru Chester L. Karras, "losers" in negotiations make substantial unnecessary concessions. The most important factor in negotiations is "aspiration level." Those who ask for more get more. Those who ask for less get less.

A Karras study demonstrates the importance of aspiration level. In the study, 120 professional negotiators bargained over the award in a mock lawsuit between a drug company and a man who suffered eye damage after taking one of the company's products. In one scenario, the parties had an approximately equal balance of power. In the other, more legal precedent supported the plaintiff's claims. The negotiators with higher aspiration levels won higher awards, regardless of which fact pattern they used. Consistent with a large body of research, those who achieved better results started out wanting more and ended up with more.

When dealing with people with high aspirations, those with low aspirations did poorly. The negotiators who secured the lowest awards had always made the largest concession in any single negotiation. They also tended to make the first compromise.
Look at our examples once more. Mary Clayton started out presuming a small effort from her husband Mark - and she got a small involvement from him. Mary made all the concessions, immediately. Mark made none. Is Mark a cruel, bad person, who doesn't love his wife and means to oppress her? No. Without thinking much about it, Mark went along with the tide, as Mary had tacitly encouraged him to do.

Rebecca Powell asked for more and she got a large involvement from Darrell Smith. Neither she nor Darrell made a concession, but instead both accommodated their desires and beliefs. Does this mean Darrell is a wonderful, good person, who loves his wife more than Mark Clayton loves his? Not necessarily. Rebecca asked for something different, used her strengths in a loving way, and Darrell responded positively.

Stay-at-home mothers who expect their husbands to help can also get lots of support. Jennifer, whose unpaid position as president of a volunteer humanitarian organization that takes up hundreds of hours of her time a year, knew she wanted to stay home with her children. Unlike Mary Clayton, she also knew she'd like her husband involved from the start. Together, Jennifer and her husband, Joe, decided to share post-baby childcare and housework chores evenly. During the nine months she nursed her son Alex, Doug did more housework and shopping than Jennifer because:

My philosophy has always been that my husband can do everything I can do but give birth and nurse. He never came home and asked me why I couldn't keep the house clean. That was his job in the beginning.

Other parents besides professionals, artists, and the idle rich share childrearing. Deedee Rivera splits the care of their four children with her husband, Roberto. She works two part-time baby-sitting jobs and cleans houses on the side, mostly during the day. Roberto serves as banquet manager for a luxury hotel, working from three in the afternoon to eleven at night Tuesday through Saturday. Deedee sometimes brings some or all of her children to her jobs, but usually Roberto takes care of them in the late morning and early afternoon.

Though she comes from a Latin American culture that does not encourage dads' participation, Deedee made it happen. When I inquired if she had to ask Roberto to be highly involved, she laughed: "Of course, I did. Otherwise, men will just do what they want. He always helped since the beginning. We talked about it and realized because of our jobs this was the way we would have to do it."

This most basic primer on negotiation explains why women usually don't create comfortable post-baby roles for themselves. They become negotiation "losers" the moment they presume only mothers can nurture children or that men's time has more value than women's time does. Women simply do not demand enough. Granted, this will come as an unwelcome surprise to husbands doing all they can within their framework of understanding. However, raising women's aspiration levels will make men, women, and children happier, a "win-win-win" situation.

Copyright © 2003 by Julie Shields

Excerpted with permission from How To Avoid The Mommy Trap: A Roadmap for Sharing Parenting and Making It Work by Julie Shields (Capital Books, 2002).


home | what's new | resources | ask amy | news | activism | anti-violence
events | marketplace | about us | e-mail us | join our mailing list

©1995-2002 Feminist.com All rights reserved.