Saturday, June 28

In EU, working mothers are having more babies than stay-at-home moms. How can this be?

Edward del Rosario

A Dying Breed? As the birthrate in European countries drops well below the "replacement rate" — that is, an average of 2.1 children born to every woman — the declining population will first be felt in the playgrounds.

Published: June 29, 2008

IT WAS A SPECTACULAR LATE-MAY AFTERNOON IN SOUTHERN ITALY,but the streets of Laviano — a gloriously situated hamlet ranged across a few folds in the mountains of the Campania region — were deserted. There were no day-trippers from Naples, no tourists to take in the views up the steep slopes, the olive trees on terraces, the ruins of the 11th-century fortress with wild poppies spotting its grassy flanks like flecks of blood. And there were no locals in sight either. The town has housing enough to support a population of 3,000, but fewer than 1,600 live here, and every year the number drops. Rocco Falivena, Laviano’s 56-year-old mayor, strolled down the middle of the street, outlining for me the town’s demographics and explaining why, although the place is more than a thousand years old, its buildings all look so new. In 1980 an earthquake struck, taking out nearly every structure and killing 300 people, including Falivena’s own parents. Then from tragedy arose the scent of possibility, of a future. Money came from the national government in Rome, and from former residents who had emigrated to the U.S. and elsewhere. The locals found jobs rebuilding their town. But when the construction ended, so did the work, and the exodus of residents continued as before.

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Edward del Rosario

Edward del Rosario

Edward del Rosario

When Falivena took office in 2002 for his second stint as mayor, two numbers caught his attention. Four: that was how many babies were born in the town the year before. And five: the number of children enrolled in first grade at the school, never mind that the school served two additional communities as well. “I knew what was my first job, to try to save the school,” Falivena told me. “Because a village that does not have a school is a dead village.” He racked his brain and came up with a desperate idea: pay women to have babies. And not just a token amount, either; in 2003 Falivena let it be known he would pay 10,000 euros (about $15,000) for every woman — local or immigrant, married or single — who would give birth to and rear a child in the village. The “baby bonus,” as he calls it, is structured to root new citizens in the town: a mother gets 1,500 euros when her baby is born, then a 1,500-euro payment on each of the child’s first four birthdays and a final 2,500 euros the day the child enrolls in first grade. Falivena has a publicist’s instincts, and he said he hoped the plan would attract media attention. It did, generating news across Italy and as far away as Australia.

Finally, as we loitered in front of a mustard-colored building up the street from the town’s empty main square, a car came by. Falivena — a small, muscular man in a polo shirt, with gray hair and a deeply creased, tanned face — flagged it down, for the young woman behind the wheel, Salvia Daniela, was one of the very people he was looking for. They exchanged a few words, and we followed Daniela back to her apartment to meet her family. Daniela, who is 31, and her 36-year-old husband, Gerardo Grande, have two children: Pasquale, 10, and Gaia, who is 5 and was one of the first “baby bonus” babies. Daniela and Grande say they are committed to being a traditional family, but it isn’t easy. Grande works for a development company and manages a bar in the evenings so that his wife can devote herself to the home. Their apartment, though cheery (with lots of enlarged photos of the kids), is cramped. “The baby bonus helped us,” Grande told me. He added, gesturing toward Falivena, “We think this man is a great mayor.”

There are some indications that Falivena’s baby bonus is succeeding — the first-grade class has 17 students this year — but that figure may be misleading. As it turns out, many of the new parents who have taken advantage of the bonus are locals who planned to have a child anyway. (Ida Robertiello, another of the baby-bonus mothers who sang Falivena’s praises for me, admitted that she was already pregnant with her son Matteo when Falivena announced his scheme.) The main effect of the bonus money may be on the timing of births. Last year Falivena was out of office, and the temporary replacement canceled the payments. “I know several women in Laviano who are pregnant now,” Daniela told me, and her husband added, with a rakish grin, that couples got busy because they knew Falivena was coming back as mayor, with a promise to restart the payments.

But with close to 50 mothers now eligible, Falivena doesn’t know how long he can keep the baby bonus going. And Laviano is still losing population.

DEMOGRAPHICALLY SPEAKING, Laviano is not unique in Italy, or in Europe. In fact, it may be a harbinger. In the 1990s, European demographers began noticing a downward trend in population across the Continent and behind it a sharply falling birthrate. Non-number-crunchers largely ignored the information until a 2002 study by Italian, German and Spanish social scientists focused the data and gave policy makers across the European Union something to ponder. The figure of 2.1 is widely considered to be the “replacement rate” — the average number of births per woman that will maintain a country’s current population level. At various times in modern history — during war or famine — birthrates have fallen below the replacement rate, to “low” or “very low” levels. But Hans-Peter Kohler, José Antonio Ortega and Francesco Billari — the authors of the 2002 report — saw something new in the data. For the first time on record, birthrates in southern and Eastern Europe had dropped below 1.3. For the demographers, this number had a special mathematical portent. At that rate, a country’s population would be cut in half in 45 years, creating a falling-off-a-cliff effect from which it would be nearly impossible to recover. Kohler and his colleagues invented an ominous new term for the phenomenon: “lowest-low fertility.”

To the uninitiated, “lowest low” seems a strange thing to worry about. A few decades ago we were getting “the population explosion” drilled into us. The invader species homo sapiens, we learned, was eating through the planet’s resources and irretrievably fouling and wrecking its fragile systems. Has the situation changed for the better since Paul Ehrlich set off the alarm in 1968 with his best seller “The Population Bomb”? Do current headlines — global food shortages, climate change — not indicate continuing signs of calamity?

They do, as far as some are concerned, but things have changed somewhat. For one thing, around the world, even in developing countries, birthrates have plummeted — from 6.0 globally in 1972 to 2.9 today — as populations have shifted from rural areas to cities and people have adopted urban lifestyles, and the drop has perhaps lessened the urgency of the overpopulation cry. Meanwhile, in recent years another chorus of voices has sounded. Yes, we’re straining resources, they say, and it’s undeniable that some parts of the globe are overrun with humanity. But other regions now confront a very different fate. In Europe, “lowest low” isn’t just a phenomenon of rural areas like Laviano. Cities like Milan and Bologna have recorded some of the lowest birthrates anywhere, in part because the high cost of living forces couples either to move or to have fewer children. After the term was invented, “lowest-low fertility” got the attention of leaders in Brussels and national capitals across the Continent — and by now everyone from Seville to Helsinki seems to be aware of it. In Greece, the problem is so well situated in the national psyche that it is conversationally compacted: people refer simply to “the demographic.” Putting the numbers in a broader world-historical context stirred a debate about Europe’s future. Around the time that President Kennedy went to Germany and gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, Europe represented 12.5 percent of the world’s population. Today it is 7.2 percent, and if current trends continue, by 2050 only 5 percent of the world will be European.

To many, “lowest low” is hard evidence of imminent disaster of unprecedented proportions. “The ability to plan the decision to have a child is of course a big success for society, and for women in particular,” Letizia Mencarini, a professor of demography at the University of Turin, told me. “But if you would read the documents of demographers 20 years ago, you would see that nobody foresaw that the fertility rate would go so low. In the 1960s, the overall fertility rate in Italy was around two children per couple. Now it is about 1.3, and for some towns in Italy it is less than 1. This is considered pathological.”

There is no shortage of popular explanations to account for the drop in fertility. In Athens, it’s common to blame the city’s infamous air pollution; several years ago a radio commercial promoted air-conditioners as a way to bring back Greek lust and Greek babies. More broadly and significant, social conservatives tie the low birthrate to secularism. After arguing for decades that the West had divorced itself from God and church and embraced a self-interested and ultimately self-destructive lifestyle, abetted above all by modern birth control, they feel statistically vindicated. “Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future,” Pope Benedict proclaimed in 2006. “Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present.” In Germany, where the births-to-deaths ratio now results in an annual population loss of roughly 100,000, Ursula von der Leyen, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s family minister (and a mother of seven), declared two years ago that if her country didn’t reverse its plummeting birthrate, “We will have to turn out the light.” Last March, André Rouvoet, the leader of the Christian Union Party in the Netherlands (and a father of five), urged the government to get proactive and spur Dutch women to have more babies. The Canadian conservative Mark Steyn, author of the 2006 best seller “America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It,” has warned his fellow North Americans, whose birthrates are relatively high, that, regarding their European allies, “These countries are going out of business,” and that while at the end of the 21st century there may “still be a geographical area on the map marked as Italy or the Netherlands,” these will “merely be designations for real estate.”

The spiritual concerns aside, though, the main threats to Europe are economic. Alongside birthrate, the other operative factor in the economic equation is lifespan. People everywhere are living longer than ever, and lifespan is continuing to increase beyond what was once considered a natural limit. Policy makers fear that, taken together, these trends forecast a perfect demographic storm. According to a paper by Jonathan Grant and Stijn Hoorens of the Rand Europe research group: “Demographers and economists foresee that 30 million Europeans of working age will ‘disappear’ by 2050. At the same time, retirement will be lasting decades as the number of people in their 80s and 90s increases dramatically.” The crisis, they argue, will come from a “triple whammy of increasing demand on the welfare state and health-care systems, with a decline in tax contributions from an ever-smaller work force.” That is to say, there won’t be enough workers to pay for the pensions of all those long-living retirees. What’s more, there will be a smaller working-age population compared with other parts of the world; the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Database projects that in 2025, 42 percent of the people living in India will be 24 or younger, while only 22 percent of Spain’s population will be in that age group. This, in the wording of a Demographic Fitness Survey by the Adecco Institute, a London-based research group, will result in a “war for talent.” And the troubles for Europe are magnified by other factors in the existing welfare states of many of its countries. Europeans are used to early retirement — according to the Adecco survey, only 60 percent of men in France between the ages of 50 and 64 are still working.

Then there is the matter of what kind of society “lowest low” will bring. How will the predominance of one- and two-child families affect family cohesion, sibling relationships, care for elderly parents? Imagine a society in which family reunions consist of three people, in which nearly all of a child’s relatives are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s. Laviano’s empty streets echo with something strange and seemingly new. As the social scientists Billari, Kohler and Ortega put it, Europe is entering “an uncharted territory in demographic history.”

The issue of immigration is related to “lowest low” as well. The fears on the right are of a continent-wide takeover by third-world hordes — mostly Muslim — who have yet to be infected by the modern malady called family planning and who threaten to transform, if not completely delete, the storied, cherished cultures of Western Europe. And to venture into even-deeper waters, no one knows how Europe’s birthrate might play out globally: whether it will contribute to the diminishing of Western influence and Western values; whether, as Steyn’s book title suggests, America will have to go it alone in this regard.

Will Europe as we know it just peter out? Will ethnic Greeks and Spaniards become extinct, taking their baklava and paella to the grave with them, to be replaced by waves of Muslim immigrants who couldn’t care less about the Acropolis as a majestic representation of Western culture? Venice has lost more than half its population since 1950; its residents believe their city is destined to become a Venice-themed attraction. Is the same going to happen to Europe as a whole? Might the United States see its closest ally decay into a real-life Euro Disney?

All interesting questions, but most are beside the main point. As it turns out, the deeper answer to the question “Where have all Europe’s babies gone?” goes far beyond the boundaries of the Continent.

TO BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND the global meaning of the low-birthrate phenomenon requires first examining Europe’s “baby bust.” Maybe the most striking way to set up the issue is via a statistic that emerged from a 2006 Eurobarometer survey by the European Commission. Women were asked how many children they would like to have; the average result was 2.36 — well above the replacement level and far above the rate anywhere in Europe. If women are having significantly fewer children than they want, there must be other forces at work.

As it turns out, the situation differs by region. “It’s a mistake to think of Europe as a single entity in this respect,” Alasdair Murray, director of CentreForum, a London-based research group, told me. “There are really four different population changes happening in Europe.” One concerns Eastern Europe, where trends date from the Communist period and portend a special, and especially virulent, class of social problems. Bulgaria’s birthrate is 1.37, and life expectancy for males is seven years less than in Belgium or Germany; the E.U. estimates that Bulgaria’s population will drop from 8 million today to 5 million in 2050. Since 1989, Latvia’s population has dropped 13 percent; its fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world, and its divorce rate is among the highest in Europe, according to Linda Andersone, the deputy director of the Latvian Department of Children and Family Policy. Throughout most of Eastern Europe you see the same dark elixir of forces at play, which commentators attribute to Westernization, though it’s difficult to fix causes precisely. “We can see that birthrate declines date to the fall of the Soviet Union,” Murray said, “but is that due to the switch to a market economy or something else?”

Germany and Austria are in something of a category of their own. They share many of the same characteristics of other Western European countries with regard to forces affecting family life, but in addition childlessness is peculiarly high in these countries, and has been for some time. A 2002 study found that 27.8 percent of German women born in 1960 were childless, a rate far higher than in any other European country. (The rate in France, for example, was 10.7.) When European women age 18 to 34 were asked in another study to state their ideal number of children, 16.6 percent of those in Germany and 12.6 percent in Austria answered “none.” (In Italy, by comparison, this figure was 3.8 percent.) The main reason seems to be a basic change in attitudes on the part of some women as to their “natural” role. According to Nikolai Botev, population and development adviser at the United Nations Population Fund, many observers have been surprised to find that in recent years “childlessness emerges as an ideal lifestyle.” No one has yet figured out why some countries are more predisposed to childlessness than others.

But the true fertility fault line in Europe — the fissures of which spread outward across the globe — runs between the north and the south. Setting aside the special case of countries in the east, the lowest rates in Europe — some of the lowest fertility rates in the world — are to be found in the seemingly family-friendly countries of Italy, Spain and Greece (all currently hover around 1.3). I asked Francesco Billari of Bocconi University in Milan, an author of the 2002 study that introduced the “lowest low” concept, to account for this. “If we look at very recent data for developed countries, we see that Italy has two records that are maybe world records,” he said. “One, young people in Italy stay with their parents longer than maybe anywhere else. No. 2 is the percentage of children born after the parents turn 40. These factors are related, because if you have a late start, you tend not to have a second child, and especially not a third.”

Plenty of anecdotal evidence squares with this. When I visited a day-care center for 3-month-olds to 3-year-olds in Milan, the manager, Mara Vavassori, showed me her roster of enrollment sheets. On one line of each was a date — 1964, 1967, 1963: the birth years of the parents of her toddler-clients. She had been in this business for 20 years, she said. It used to be that first-time parents were in their early to mid-20s. Today, she said, more than half were in their 40s.

On the surface there are economic explanations for why this phenomenon has occurred in southern Europe. Italy, for example, pays the lowest starting wages of any country in the E.U., which causes young people to delay striking out on their own. And as the British politician David Willetts has noted, “Living at home with your parents is a very powerful contraception.” But the deeper problem may lie precisely in the family-friendly ethos of these countries. This part of the self-definition of southern European culture — the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” ideal — has a flip side. “In all of these countries,” Billari said, “it’s very difficult to combine work and family. And that is partly because, within couples, we have evidence that in these countries the gender relationships are very asymmetric.”

There, according to waves of recent evidence, is the rub — the result of a friction between tectonic plates in modern society that has been quietly at work for decades. The accepted demographic wisdom had been that as women enter the job market, a society’s fertility rate drops. That has been broadly true in the developed world, but more recently, and especially in Europe, the numbers don’t bear it out. In fact, something like the opposite has been the case. According to Hans-Peter Kohler of the University of Pennsylvania, analysis of recent studies showed that “high fertility was associated with high female labor-force participation . . . and the lowest fertility levels in Europe since the mid-1990s are often found in countries with the lowest female labor-force participation.” In other words, working mothers are having more babies than stay-at-home moms.

How can this be? A study released in February of this year by Letizia Mencarini, the demographer from the University of Turin, and three of her colleagues compared the situation of women in Italy and the Netherlands. They found that a greater percentage of Dutch women than Italian women are in the work force but that, at the same time, the fertility rate in the Netherlands is significantly higher (1.73 compared to 1.33). In both countries, people tend to have traditional views about gender roles, but Italian society is considerably more conservative in this regard, and this seems to be a decisive difference. The hypothesis the sociologists set out to test was borne out by the data: women who do more than 75 percent of the housework and child care are less likely to want to have another child than women whose husbands or partners share the load. Put differently, Dutch fathers change more diapers, pick up more kids after soccer practice and clean up the living room more often than Italian fathers; therefore, relative to the population, there are more Dutch babies than Italian babies being born. As Mencarini said, “It’s about how much the man participates in child care.”

The broad answer to the “Where are all the European babies?” question thus begins to suggest itself. Accompanying the spectacular transformation of modern society since the 1960s — notably the changing role of women, with greater opportunities for education and employment, the advent of modern birth control and a new ability to tailor a lifestyle — has been a tension between forces that, in many places, have not been reconciled. That tension is perfectly apparent, of course. Ask any working mother. But some societies have done a better job than others of reconciling the conflicting forces. In Europe, many countries with greater gender equality have a greater social commitment to day care and other institutional support for working women, which gives those women the possibility of having second or third children.

This is a crucial difference between the north — including France and the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries — and the south. The Scandinavian countries have both the most vigorous social-welfare systems in Europe and — at 1.8 — among the highest fertility rates. To better understand this north-south divide, I met with two sociologists who personify it: Mencarini and Arnstein Aassve, a Norwegian who last year took a position at Bocconi University, a university in Milan that is becoming a center of demographic research in Europe. Demographically speaking, the two make an interesting contrast. She is a small, dark, fiery woman from southern Tuscany, given to spicing her analysis with passionate invective toward policy makers. He is a tall, reserved Scandinavian who speaks in calm tones and with precise British diction, tending to smooth his colleague’s edges with scholarly qualifications. Over lunch of linguine with walnuts and arugula at an airily modern neighborhood trattoria in Milan, they dissected their cultures.

When Aassve moved from Norway to Italy last year to study fertility issues, he said, he found himself with a case of culture whiplash. As women advanced in education levels and career tracks over the past few decades, Norway moved aggressively to accommodate them and their families. The state guarantees about 54 weeks of maternity leave, as well as 6 weeks of paternity leave. With the birth of a child comes a government payment of about 4,000 euros. State-subsidized day care is standard. The cost of living is high, but then again it’s assumed that both parents will work; indeed, during maternity leave a woman is paid 80 percent of her salary. “In Norway, the concern over fertility is mild,” Aassve told me. “What dominates is the issue of gender equity, and that in turn raises the fertility level. For example, there is a debate right now about whether to make paternity leave compulsory. It’s an issue of making sure women and men have equal rights and opportunities. If men are taking leave after the birth of a child, the women can return to work for part of that time.”

What Aassve found in Italy was strikingly different. While Italian women tend to be as highly educated as Scandinavian women, he said, about 50 percent of Italian women work, compared with between 75 percent and 80 percent of women in Scandinavian countries. Despite its veneer of modernity, Italian society prefers women to stay at home after they become mothers, and the government reinforces this. There is little state-financed child care, especially for new mothers, and most newlyweds still find homes close to one or both sets of parents, the assumption being that the extended family will help raise the children. But this no longer works as it once did. “As couples tend to delay childbearing,” Aassve says, “the age gap between generations is widening, and in many cases grandparents, who would be the ones relied upon for child care, themselves become the ones in need of care.”

Meanwhile, the same economic forces are at work in both northern and southern Europe — it’s just as hard to make ends meet in Madrid or Milan or Athens as in Oslo or Stockholm — which gives the predominantly two-income families in the northern countries an edge. This in turn leads to another disparity between north and south. In Scandinavia, thanks in part to state support, the more children a family has, the wealthier it is likely to be, whereas in southern Europe having children is a financial sinkhole, which drags a family toward poverty. Such an analysis flies in the face of social conservatives, who argue that simply encouraging people to have more babies will raise the population and add fuel to the economic engine.

If this reading of southern European countries is correct — that their superficial commitment to modernity, to a 21st-century lifestyle, is fatally at odds with a view of the family structure that is rooted in the 19th century — it should apply in other parts of the world, should it not? Apparently it does. This spring, the Japanese government released figures showing that the country’s under-14 population was the lowest since 1908. The head of Thailand’s department of health announced in May that his country’s birthrate now stands at 1.5, far below the replacement level. “The world record for lowest-low fertility right now is South Korea, at 1.1,” Francesco Billari told me. “Japan is just about as low. What we are seeing in Asia is a phenomenon of the 2000s, rather than the 1990s. And it seems the reasons are the same as for southern Europe. All of these are societies still rooted in the tradition where the husband earned all the money. Things have changed, not only in Italy and Spain but also in Japan and Korea, but those societies have not yet adjusted. The relationships within households have not adjusted yet.” Western Europe, then, is not the isolated case that some make it out to be. It is simply the first region of the world to record extremely low birthrates.

WHICH BRINGS US TO A sparkling exception. Last year the fertility rate in the United States hit 2.1, the highest it has been since the 1960s and higher than almost anywhere in the developed world. Factor in immigration and you have a nation that is far more than holding its own in terms of population. In 1984 the U.S. Census Bureau projected that in the year 2050 the U.S. population would be 309 million. In 2008 it’s already 304 million, and the new projection for 2050 is 420 million.

“Europeans say to me, How does the U.S. do it in this day and age?” says Carl Haub of the Population Reference Bureau in Washington. According to Haub and others, there is no single explanation for the relatively high U.S. fertility rate. The old conservative argument — that a traditional, working-husband-and-stay-at-home-wife family structure produces a healthy, growing population — doesn’t apply, either in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world today. Indeed, the societies most wedded to maintaining that traditional family structure seem to be those with the lowest birthrates. The antidote, in Western Europe, has been the welfare-state model, in which the state provides comprehensive support to couples that want to have children. But the U.S. runs counter to this. Some commentators explain its healthy birthrate in terms of the relatively conservative and religiously oriented nature of American society, which both encourages larger families. It’s also true that mores have evolved in the U.S. to the point where not only is it socially acceptable for fathers to be active participants in raising children, but it’s also often socially unacceptable for them to do otherwise.

But one other factor affecting the higher U.S. birthrate stands out in the minds of many observers. “There’s much less flexibility in the European system,” Haub says. “In Europe, both the society and the job market are more rigid.” There may be little state subsidy for child care in the U.S., and there is certainly nothing like the warm governmental nest that Norway feathers for fledgling families, but the American system seems to make up for it in other ways. As Hans-Peter Kohler of the University of Pennsylvania writes: “In general, women are deterred from having children when the economic cost — in the form of lower lifetime wages — is too high. Compared to other high-income countries, this cost is diminished by an American labor market that allows more flexible work hours and makes it easier to leave and then re-enter the labor force.” An American woman might choose to suspend her career for three or five years to raise a family, expecting to be able to resume working; that happens far less easily in Europe.

So there would seem to be two models for achieving higher fertility: the neosocialist Scandinavian system and the laissez-faire American one. Aassve put it to me this way: “You might say that in order to promote fertility, your society needs to be generous or flexible. The U.S. isn’t very generous, but it is flexible. Italy is not generous in terms of social services and it’s not flexible. There is also a social stigma in countries like Italy, where it is seen as less socially accepted for women with children to work. In the U.S., that is very accepted.”

By this logic, the worst sort of system is one that partly buys into the modern world — expanding educational and employment opportunities for women — but keeps its traditional mind-set. This would seem to define the demographic crisis that Italy, Spain and Greece find themselves in — and, perhaps, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of the world. Indeed, demographers have been surprised to find rapid fertility changes in the third world, as more and more women work and modern birth-control methods become standard options. “The earlier distinct fertility regimes, ‘developed’ and ‘developing,’ are increasingly disappearing in global comparisons of fertility levels,” according to Edward Jow-Ching Tu, a sociologist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. According to the United Nations, the birthrate in 25 developing countries — including Cuba, Costa Rica, Iran, Sri Lanka and China — now stands at or below the replacement level. In some cases — notably China — the drop is explained by a concentrated effort at containing the population. In the rest, something else is happening. The lesson of southern Europe is perhaps operative: embrace the modern only partway and you put your society — women in particular — in a vise. Something has to give, and that turns out to be the future.

FOR $100 OR SO YOU CAN buy online a Third Reich “Mother’s Cross” (officially, a Cross of Honor of the German Mother). The medals were struck, beginning in 1938, in bronze for women who had four children, in silver for mothers of six and in gold for women who gave birth to eight. They were given out annually on Hitler’s mother’s birthday to heroines of the cause of fertility, which the Führer referred to as “the battlefield of women.” Natalism — the state-sponsored policy to increase the birthrate — has a rather tainted pedigree. Nevertheless, in the age of “lowest-low fertility,” it has made a comeback. If your population is falling, one logical, or seemingly logical, way to build it up again is to encourage people to have more babies.

Appeals to patriotism are one means of encouragement. Money is another. Mayor Falivena of Laviano is not the only one doling out cash for babies. Natalist plans in effect today in Europe include tax incentives, state-subsidized child care and both onetime and ongoing payments. The Netherlands, for an example of the latter, gives every family a kinderbijslag, or child supplement, of an average of about $1,300 per child per year to age 13, and less thereafter. (While not a direct cash payment, the U.S. has a per-child tax credit of $1,000 a year.)

While some of those pushing natalist policies have nationalistic or religious motivations — and a driving concern to preserve cultural identity — few advocate a return to stay-at-home motherhood. Indeed, as David Willetts declared in a 2003 speech on Europe’s shrinking and aging population, “Feminism is the new natalism.” That is, even conservatives like Willetts acknowledge that societies that support working couples have higher birthrates than those in which mothers are housewives.

The problem is that nobody is sure if natalist policies have much of an impact on birthrate, let alone on population. Most studies show an uptick in the birthrate in countries that implement some pro-child program, but a very small one. Perhaps the most comprehensive study to date, which was conducted in 1997 and analyzed 22 countries, found that a 25 percent increase in child-related subsidies to couples resulted in an average of 0.07 more births per woman. Some experts conclude that — as the case of Laviano seems to suggest — the real impact is on the timing of births: a woman who knows she wants to have another child may do so sooner in order to take advantage of a payment.

In 2003, the same year Falivena introduced his 10,000-euro “baby bonus,” Italy adopted a national policy of offering 1,000 euros to every mother who had a second child. (Falivena hastened to tell me that his policy came first.) But when the Berlusconi government fell in 2006, the national scheme was dropped. Then, in his first address on returning to power in 2008, Berlusconi suggested that the government might revive natalist programs. Letizia Mencarini invoked this back-and-forthing with disdain: “A policy for families has to be implemented over a long period. In Italy we’re changing our minds all the time.”

France would seem to provide one example in support of natalist policies; if so, it may be the comprehensive and long-term nature of French commitment that proves decisive. After World War I, with the population decimated, a public outcry and debate led to the government’s weaving natalist policies into the social fabric. The 1939 “code de la famille,” included financial incentives for motherhood. While Germany moved far away from its tainted natalist policies after the war, France kept its programs alive throughout the 20th century. Today, they run from tax breaks to the carte famille nombreuse, or “large-family card,” which gives discounts on travel and museum entrances. According to Claude Martin, a research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research, France has one of Europe’s highest birthrates, at 1.9. Martin says that this may be because of “the permanent public investment to facilitate conciliation between work and child-care responsibility.”

Then again, for the past several decades France’s fertility rate has been about the same as that in the United Kingdom, which has much more limited pro-natalist policies. Claude Martin notes an adjunct to child-related subsidies that may be more of a factor: 80 percent of French women between ages 25 and 50 are employed. It seems that money in itself isn’t a sufficient lure to get couples to have babies. They may want another child, but adding a few euros to their bank accounts doesn’t solve the underlying problems. As Alasdair Murray of CentreForum put it, “Structural problems in the labor and housing markets are the biggest barriers to fertility.” The crux, Murray says, is that countries with low fertility “are still geared toward a male, single-wage-earning model. Women are expected to exit the labor market when they have children.”

Besides natalist strategies, there is another obvious approach to increasing the population. If you can’t breed them, lure them. The population flow largely went the other way during the first half of the 20th century, but immigration is quickly transforming European societies. Some are looking to Canada or Australia as models: there, the focus is on selective immigration — opening the door for those who have knowledge and training that will benefit the economy.

The United Kingdom is going through a radical transformation in its social makeup, largely as a result of immigration. Where a few years ago people were worrying about birthrate and falling population projections, a government report in late 2007 projected Britain would have 11 million more people by 2031 — an increase of 18 percent — and by one estimate 69 percent of the growth would come from immigrants and their children. Liam Byrne, Britain’s immigration minister, called earlier last year for “radical action” to manage the system.

The British situation today seems a far cry from “lowest low,” but it doesn’t mean that immigration is the answer to low birthrates. The actual numbers, according to several authorities, are discouraging over the long run. By one analysis of U.N. figures, Britain would need more than 60 million new immigrants by 2050 — more than doubling the size of the country — to keep its current ratio of workers to pensioners, and Germany would need a staggering 188 million immigrants in the same time period. One reason for such huge numbers is that while immigration helps fill cities and schools and factories in the short term, the dynamic adjusts over time. Immigrants who come from cultures where large families are standard quickly adapt to the customs of their new homes. And eventually immigrants age, too, so that the benefit that incoming workers give to the pension system today becomes a drag on the system in the future. A European Commission working document published in November 2007 concludes that “truly massive and increasing flows of young migrants would be required” to offset current demographic changes. Few Europeans want that. Immigration already touches all sorts of raw nerves, forcing debates about cultural identity, citizenship tests, national canons, terrorism and tolerance, religious versus secular values.

Meanwhile, in the midst of arguments about natalist and immigration policies come other voices and more elemental questions. Is it even possible to increase the population significantly? Is it even necessary? There are those who think that “lowest low” is not in itself a looming disaster but more of a challenge, even an opportunity. The change that’s required, they say, is not in breeding habits but thinking habits.

ONE DAY IN MARCH, I was standing on a platform at the top of a smokestack attached to a defunct sausage factory in the German city of Dessau, looking out on a ragged urban landscape: derelict factory buildings, brick homes and shops, a railroad track snaking through a swath of grass and dirt. Even the brilliant spring weather didn’t improve the view. But the bearish middle-aged man beside me was full of enthusiasm. He waved an arm expansively, indicating a distant tree line. “From here you see that the city is embedded in a protected nature area,” he said through an interpreter. “We will bring that into the city.” Listening to Karl Gröger, director of the city’s department of building, is disorienting; where local politicians are supposed to cheer development, he was standing in the midst of his city’s industrial infrastructure and saying, in effect, “Someday all of this will be wilderness.”

Like Laviano, Dessau is a harbinger of the demographic decline the rest of Europe faces. But where Rocco Falivena went natalist in an attempt to confront the issue of decline head-on, a consortium of 17 cities in this part of Germany has adopted a more innovative strategy. A decade or so after the fall of the Berlin Wall, politicians and town planners in eastern Germany were forced to realize that the growth they were expecting with the turn to capitalism and representative government wasn’t coming. They were in the crosswinds of two European phenomena: the economic malaise of the former Communist states and plummeting birthrates across the Continent.

“This was the first time in human history that cities started to shrink rather than grow,” Dr. Karl-Heinz Daehre, minister of land development and traffic for the province of Saxony-Anhalt, told me — with a trace of hyperbole — as we sat in his office in the provincial capital of Magdeburg. “There was a mental barrier that people had to overcome, that we had to tear down parts of our cities in order to grow, or to move forward. We understood that this wasn’t a Saxony-Anhalt problem, or even a German problem, but was part of an international problem. So we sought help.”

It so happens that Dessau is the city where, in 1926, the architect Walter Gropius planted the Bauhaus school of design, which embraced — and to some extent defined — Modernism and tried to mesh design and architecture with the ways people lived and worked in the 20th century. “Nothing seemed more logical to us than to remember the 1920s and Gropius and the Bauhaus,” Daehre said.

The original Bauhaus building still stands in Dessau. It is sleek and cool and simple, with retro touches that remind you of every 1950s-era school building, every mid- or late-20th century office or factory, because it is in a sense the granddaddy of them all. The current director of the Bauhaus Institute, Omar Akbar, greeted me in his office there. Akbar is a dapper man and a gentle visionary who was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and immigrated with his parents to Germany as a small boy. He talked about the high-flying ideals of Gropius and his colleagues, and how their approach to design was so revolutionary it became politically dangerous (it was considered “un-German” by the Nazis).

Akbar said that after officials approached him, he came to see the demographic challenges of Europe as a renewed opportunity for the Bauhaus Institute, a chance for it once again to play a role in defining the modern. “We said to the government of Saxony-Anhalt, ‘Shrinkage is a completely new phenomenon,’ ” Akbar told me. “We have to look for new ways to deal with it.” According to some, a declining population presents certain opportunities: to increase efficiency and livability, to change lifestyle and environment for the better. The plan that Akbar’s team came up with was for 18 cities in the region (two cities now share one government) to submit to an exhaustive process of review and soul-searching under the direction of Bauhaus planners and, by the year 2010, to come up with long-term redevelopment strategies appropriate to each — to find a way for each city to shrink constructively.

Dessau itself, Akbar said, had two distinctive features. One, as Karl Gröger indicated from the sausage-factory lookout, is that it is surrounded by protected national forest. The other is that it has no historic town center (80 percent of the city was destroyed in World War II) and thus no core. The plan, therefore, calls for demolishing underused sections of the city and weaving the nature on the periphery into the center: to create “urban islands set in a landscaped zone,” as Sonja Beeck, a Bauhaus planner, told me. “That will make the remaining urban areas denser and more alive.” The city has lost 25 percent of its population in recent years. “That means it is 25 percent too big,” Gröger said. “So far we have erased 2,500 flats from the map, and we have 8,000 more to go.” Beeck and Gröger walked with me through an area where a whole street had been turned into a grassy sward. Many residents were dubious at first, they told me, but as we walked, a woman recognized the government official and marched up to chat about when promised trees and flowers would be planted in front of her building.

Eisleben, another of the cities in the consortium, has a picture-perfect 16th-century downtown but is losing people fast, and many of its historic buildings have been long unused and uninhabitable. Eisleben’s shrinkage strategy centers on history: it happens to be the birthplace of Martin Luther. The city is laying out a tourist route — from the house in which Luther was born to his first church to the church in which he gave the last sermon before he died — that shows off its old center and turns its many derelict buildings and empty lots into art installations related to the father of Protestantism. The idea is to attract more tourists and money and build up the locals’ pride in their history. There is a certain paradox here: thanks to its Communist heritage, this part of Germany has the distinction of being one of the least religious places on earth. Eisleben gets 100,000 religious pilgrims a year, but only 14 percent of its population are churchgoers, and hardly anybody expects a turnaround.

But while few locals themselves may feel religiously inclined, the thinking is that if religious pilgrimage is the best card in your hand, you play it. This notion — embrace shrinkage in order to revitalize your economy, rather than trying to coax women to have more babies — is, according to more than a few observers of the European scene, the right tack. Or better said, it is one part of the best overall strategy — one that embraces population decline. For there are those who argue that low birthrate in itself is not a problem at all. Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford scientist who warned us about the “population bomb” in the 1960s, is more certain than ever that the human race is catastrophically straining the planet. “It’s insane to consider low birthrate as a crisis,” he told me. “Basically every person I know in my section of the National Academy of Sciences thinks it’s wonderful that rich countries are starting to shrink their populations to sustainable levels. We have to do that because we’re wrecking our life-support systems.”

Low birthrates and an aging population, according to Vladimir Spidla, director of employment, social affairs and equal opportunities for the European Commission, “is the inevitable consequence of developments that are fundamentally positive, in particular increased life expectancy and more choice over whether and when to have children.”

Alasdair Murray of CentreForum made the case this way: “There is an error whereby birthrate is being blamed for future economic woes. The European population is declining, and I don’t see that you can do much about that. But the real question is: How necessary is population growth to economic growth? I say not much. A huge number of people in Europe are underemployed or out of work. Get them back in the labor force, and some of these problems are mitigated. That should be the first target, rather than getting people pregnant.” To this end, there are efforts afoot to increase working life at both ends of the spectrum. In the Netherlands, for example, where thanks to early-retirement plans, only 20 percent of people over age 60 are working, the government has recently mounted a campaign to get people used to the idea of working to age 65.

Those inclined to see the glass as half-full include some people who are closest to the numbers. James W. Vaupel, founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, looking in particular at Germany’s demographic status, is downright sunny on the future. He, too, says that the shrinking and graying of European societies is inevitable, but he suggests that “on balance, the future will probably be better than the past. People will probably live longer, healthier lives. Continued economic growth, even if at a slower pace than in the past, will further raise standards of living.”

I put this to Carl Haub of the Population Reference Bureau, who monitors global fertility on a daily basis from his perch in Washington. Is it possible that these are basically “good problems,” that Europeans, having trimmed their birthrates, are actually on the right path? That all they have to do is adjust their economies, find creative ways to shrink their cities, get more young and old people into jobs, so that they can keep their pension and health-care systems functioning?

Haub wasn’t buying it. “Maybe tinkering with the retirement age and making other economic adjustments is good,” he said. “But you can’t go on forever with a total fertility rate of 1.2. If you compare the size of the 0-to-4 and 29-to-34 age groups in Spain and Italy right now, you see the younger is almost half the size of the older. You can’t keep going with a completely upside-down age distribution, with the pyramid standing on its point. You can’t have a country where everybody lives in a nursing home.”

Russell Shorto is a contributing writer for the magazine. His most recent book, “Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason,” will be published in October.

Sunday, June 15

Is Obama more of a feminist than Hillary could have been?

Think the Gender War Is Over? Think Again

San Francisco

FOR months, our political punditry foresaw one, and only one, prospective gender contest looming in the general election: between the first serious female presidential candidate and the Republican male “warrior.” But those who were dreading a plebiscite on sexual politics shouldn’t celebrate just yet. Hillary Clinton may be out of the race, but a Barack Obama versus John McCain match-up still has the makings of an epic American gender showdown.

The reason is a gender ethic that has guided American politics since the age of Andrew Jackson. The sentiment was succinctly expressed in a massive marble statue that stood on the steps of the United States Capitol from 1853 to 1958. Named “The Rescue,” but more commonly known as “Daniel Boone Protects His Family,” the monument featured a gigantic white pioneer in a buckskin coat holding a nearly naked Indian in a death’s grip, while off to the side a frail white woman crouched over her infant.

The question asked by this American Sphinx to all who dared enter the halls of leadership was, “Are you man enough?” This year, Senator Obama has notably refused to give the traditional answer.

The particulars of that masculine myth were established early in American politics. While the war hero-turned-statesman is a trope common to many countries in many eras, it has a particular quality and urgency here, based on our earliest history, when two centuries of Indian wars brought repeated raids on frontier settlements and humiliating failures on the part of the young nation’s “protectors” to fend off those attacks or rescue captives. The architects of American culture papered over this shaming history by concocting what would become our prevailing national security fantasy — personified by the ever-vigilant white frontiersman who, by triumphing over the rapacious “savage” and rescuing the American maiden from his clutches, redeemed American manhood.

Aspirants to the White House have long known they must audition for the Boone role in the “Rescue” tableau. Those who have pulled off a persuasive performance, from Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy, have proved victorious at the ballot box. Even candidates lacking in martial bona fides have understood the need to try to fake it with the appropriate accessories — riding high in the saddle (Ronald Reagan), commanding tanks (Michael Dukakis), wielding shotguns (John Kerry) or brandishing chainsaws and donning flight suits (you know who).

Senator McCain may fit the model better than anyone. After all, he actually starred in a real-life captivity narrative, having withstood five and a half years of imprisonment by non-white tormentors, declining special treatment and coming home a hero. “I have seen men’s hopes tested in hard and cruel ways that few will ever experience,” he declared from the hustings. A 12-minute video on his Web site dwells on how his faith in the “fathers” and his will “to fight to survive” got the young Navy pilot through Vietcong bayonetings, bone smashings and bondage.

The story’s appeal is evident in the flood of news media adulation. The worshipful tone of the last Newsweek cover article on Mr. McCain is typical. The subtitle: “He’s Endured the Unendurable and Survived.” As the liberal television watchdog group Media Matters for America has noted, the press is most reverent about the candidate’s humble refusal to trumpet his captivity — even as his campaign advertises it freely.

Although Senator McCain didn’t rescue any helpless maidens, he outdid even Daniel Boone in averting emasculating domination. Boone was a captive for only a few months, and was widely suspected by his contemporaries of having enjoyed his time with the Shawnees rather too much (he was adopted by the Shawnee chief and evidently passed up several opportunities for escape).

Senator Obama, for his part, will not be cast as the avenging hero in “The Rescue” any time soon — and not because of the color of his skin or his lack of military experience. He doesn’t seem to want the role. You don’t see him crouching in a duck blind or posing in camouflage duds or engaging in anything more gladiatorial than a game of pick-up basketball. If Mr. Obama’s candidacy seeks to move beyond race, it also moves beyond gender. A 20-minute campaign Web documentary showcased a President Obama who would exude “a real sensitivity” and “empathy” and provide a world safe for the American mother’s son. Mr. Obama is surrounded in the video by pacifist — not security — moms.

If Mr. Obama’s campaign has fashioned any master narrative, it’s that of the young man in the bower of a matriarchy — raised by a “strong” mother, bolstered by a “strong” sister, married to a “strong” wife and proud of his “strong” daughters. (Bill Clinton had a similar story, although his handlers highlighted his efforts to save his mother from domestic violence.)

“In many ways, he really will be the first woman president,” Megan Beyer of Virginia, a charter member of Women for Obama, told reporters. An op-ed essay in The New York Post headlined “Bam: Our 1st Woman Prez?” came to a similar conclusion, if a tad more snidely: “Those shots of Barack and Michelle sitting with Oprah on stools had the feel of a smart, all-women talk panel.”

Hillary Clinton’s candidacy showed that a woman, too, can play the tough-guy protector. But Mr. Obama takes the iconoclasm a step further — by suggesting that martial swagger isn’t what America needs anymore.

In the campaign ahead, expect a fierce Republican effort to reinstate the nation’s guardian myth — by demonstrating how the other party’s candidate fails to fit the formula. Had Mrs. Clinton been the candidate, she would no doubt have faced more attacks for being too mannishly abrasive or, conversely, too emotional to play the manly role. But Mr. Obama should expect similar damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t gender assaults. He will be cast either as the epicene metrosexual who can’t protect the country or else as the modern heathen with a suspicious middle name.

The attacks are already under way, as is evident if one enters the words “Obama” and “effeminate” into a search engine. The effeminacy canard lurks in Mike Huckabee’s imaginings of Mr. Obama tripping off a chair and diving for the floor when confronted by a gunman, and in the words of Tucker Bounds, Mr. McCain’s campaign spokesman, who depicted Mr. Obama as “hysterical.”

News media blatherers and bloggers are taking up the theme. On MSNBC, Tucker Carlson called Mr. Obama “kind of a wuss”; Joe Scarborough, the morning TV talk show host, dubbed Mr. Obama’s bowling style “prissy” and declared, “Americans want their president, if it’s a man, to be a real man”; and Don Imus, the radio host, never one to be outdone in the sexual slur department, dubbed Mr. Obama a “sissy boy.”

Will such attacks succeed? The wild card in the campaign drama to come is 9/11, which for a while kicked us into Daniel Boone overdrive. But in recent years, the dangers and costs of that prolonged delusion have become painfully apparent. In the primaries, a substantial portion of Democratic voters turned away from the dictates of “The Rescue.” In choosing between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain in the general election, Americans will pass a referendum on 200 years of bedrock gender mythology.

Susan Faludi is the author of “Backlash,” “Stiffed” and “The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America.”

Saturday, June 14

Women are not flocking to McCain, and neither is anybody else

TEN years ago John McCain had to apologize for regaling a Republican audience with a crude sexual joke about Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and Janet Reno. Last year he had to explain why he didn’t so much as flinch when a supporter asked him on camera, “How do we beat the bitch?” But these days Mr. McCain just loves the women.

Frank Rich

In his televised address on Barack Obama’s victory night of June 3, he dismissed Mr. Obama in a single patronizing line but devoted four fulsome sentences to praising Mrs. Clinton for “inspiring millions of women.” The McCain Web site is showcasing a new blogger who crooned of the “genuine affection” for Mrs. Clinton “here at McCain HQ” after she lost. One of the few visible women in the McCain campaign hierarchy, Carly Fiorina, has declared herself “enormously proud” of Mrs. Clinton and is barnstorming to win over Democratic women to her guy’s cause.

How heartwarming. You’d never guess that Mr. McCain is a fierce foe of abortion rights or that he voted to terminate the federal family-planning program that provides breast-cancer screenings. You’d never know that his new campaign blogger, recruited from The Weekly Standard, had shown his genuine affection for Mrs. Clinton earlier this year by portraying her as a liar and whiner and by piling on with a locker-room jeer after she’d been called a monster. “Tell us something we don’t know,” he wrote.

But while the McCain campaign apparently believes that women are easy marks for its latent feminist cross-dressing, a reality check suggests that most women can instantly identify any man who’s hitting on them for selfish ends. New polls show Mr. Obama opening up a huge lead among female voters — beating Mr. McCain by 13 percentage points in the Gallup and Rasmussen polls and by 19 points in the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey.

How huge is a 13- to 19-percentage-point lead? John Kerry won women by only 3 points, Al Gore by 11.

The real question is how Mr. McCain and his press enablers could seriously assert that he will pick up disaffected female voters in the aftermath of the brutal Obama-Clinton nomination battle. Even among Democrats, Mr. Obama lost only the oldest female voters to Mrs. Clinton.

But as we know from our Groundhog Days of 2008, a fictional campaign narrative, once set in the concrete of Beltway bloviation, must be recited incessantly, especially on cable television, no matter what facts stand in the way. Only an earthquake — the Iowa results, for instance — could shatter such previously immutable story lines as the Clinton campaign’s invincibility and the innate hostility of white voters to a black candidate.

Our new bogus narrative rose from the ashes of Mrs. Clinton’s concession to Mr. Obama, amid the raucous debate over what role misogyny played in her defeat. A few female Clinton supporters — or so they identified themselves — appeared on YouTube and Fox News to say they were so infuriated by sexism that they would vote for Mr. McCain.

Now, there’s no question that men played a big role in Mrs. Clinton’s narrow loss, starting with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Mark Penn. And the evidence of misogyny in the press and elsewhere is irrefutable, even if it was not the determinative factor in the race. But the notion that all female Clinton supporters became “angry white women” once their candidate lost — to the hysterical extreme where even lifelong Democrats would desert their own party en masse — is itself a sexist stereotype. That’s why some of the same talking heads and Republican operatives who gleefully insulted Mrs. Clinton are now peddling this fable on such flimsy anecdotal evidence.

The fictional scenario of mobs of crazed women defecting to Mr. McCain is just one subplot of the master narrative that has consumed our politics for months. The larger plot has it that the Democratic Party is hopelessly divided, and that only a ticket containing Mrs. Clinton in either slot could retain the loyalty of white male bowlers and other constituencies who tended to prefer her to Mr. Obama in the primaries.

This is reality turned upside down. It’s the Democrats who are largely united and the Republicans who are at one another’s throats.

Yet the myth of Democratic disarray is so pervasive that when “NBC Nightly News” and The Wall Street Journal presented their new poll results last week (Obama, 47 percent; McCain, 41 percent) they ignored their own survey’s findings to stick to the clichéd script. Both news organizations (and NBC’s sibling, MSNBC) dwelled darkly on Mr. Obama’s “problems with two key groups” (as NBC put it): white men, where he is behind 20 percentage points to Mr. McCain, and white suburban women, where he is behind 6 points.

Since that poll gives Mr. Obama not just a 19-point lead among all women but also a 7-point lead among white women, a 6-point deficit in one sliver of the female pie is hardly a heart-stopper. Nor is Mr. Obama’s showing among white men shocking news. No Democratic presidential candidate, including Bill Clinton, has won a majority of that declining demographic since 1964. Mr. Kerry lost white men by 25 points, and Mr. Gore did by 24 points (even as he won the popular vote).

“NBC Nightly News” was so focused on these supposedly devastating Obama shortfalls that there was no mention that the Democrat beat Mr. McCain (and outperformed Mr. Kerry) in every other group that had been in doubt: independents, Catholics, blue-collar workers and Hispanics. Indeed, the evidence that pro-Clinton Hispanics are flocking to Mr. McCain is as nonexistent as the evidence of a female stampede. Mr. Obama swamps Mr. McCain by 62 percent to 28 percent — a disastrous G.O.P. setback, given that President Bush took 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, according to exit polls. No wonder the McCain campaign no longer lists its candidate’s home state of Arizona as safe this fall.

There are many ways that Mr. Obama can lose this election. But his 6-percentage-point lead in the Journal-NBC poll is higher than Mr. Bush’s biggest lead (4 points) over Mr. Kerry at any point in that same poll in 2004. So far, despite all the chatter to the contrary, Mr. Obama is not only holding on to Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic constituencies but expanding others (like African-Americans). The same cannot be said of Mr. McCain and the G.O.P. base.

That story is minimized or ignored in part because an unshakable McCain fan club lingers in some press quarters and in part because it’s an embarrassing refutation of the Democrats-in-meltdown narrative that so many have invested in. Understating the splintering of the Republican base also keeps hope alive for a tight race. As the Clinton-Obama marathon proved conclusively, a photo finish is essential to the dramatic and Nielsen imperatives of 24/7 television coverage.

The conservative hostility toward McCain heralded by the early attacks of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and James Dobson is proliferating. Bay Buchanan, the party activist who endorsed Mitt Romney, wrote this month that Mr. McCain is “incapable of energizing his party, brings no new people to the polls” and “has a personality that is best kept under wraps.” When Mr. McCain ditched the preachers John Hagee and Rod Parsley after learning that their endorsements antagonized Catholics, Muslims and Jews, he ended up getting a whole new flock of evangelical Christians furious at him too.

The revolt is not limited to the usual cranky right-wing suspects. The antiwar acolytes of Ron Paul are planning a large rally for convention week in Minneapolis. The conservative legal scholar Douglas Kmiec has endorsed Mr. Obama, as have both the economic adviser to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” Lawrence Hunter, and the neocon historian Francis Fukuyama. Rupert Murdoch is publicly flirting with the Democrat as well. Even Dick Cheney emerged from his bunker this month to gratuitously dismiss Mr. McCain’s gas-tax holiday proposal as “a false notion” before the National Press Club.

These are not anomalies. Last week The Hill reported that at least 14 Republican members of Congress have refused to endorse or publicly support Mr. McCain. Congressional Quarterly found that of the 62,800 donors who maxed out to Mr. Bush’s campaign in 2004, only about 5,000 (some 8 percent) have contributed to his putative successor.

It was just this toxic stew of inadequate fund-raising and hostility from the base — along with incompetent management — that capsized the McCain campaign last summer. Now the management, at least, is said to be new and improved, but the press is still so distracted by the “divided Democrats” it has yet to uncover how that brilliant McCain team spent weeks choreographing the candidate’s slapstick collision with a green backdrop and self-immolating speech in prime time two weeks ago.

The only figure in the McCain camp who has candidly acknowledged any glitches is his mother, the marvelous 96-year-old Roberta McCain. Back in January she said that she didn’t think her son had any support in the G.O.P. base and that those voters would only take him if “holding their nose.”

The ludicrous idea that votes from Clinton supporters would somehow make up for McCain defectors is merely the latest fairy tale brought to you by those same Washington soothsayers who said Fred Thompson was the man to beat and that young people don’t turn up to vote.

Thursday, June 12

When Mom and Dad Share It All

On her first day back to work after a four-month maternity leave, Amy Vachon woke at dawn to nurse her daughter, Maia. Then she fixed herself a healthful breakfast, pumped a bottle of breast milk for the baby to drink later in the day, kissed the little girl goodbye and headed for the door.

But before she left, there was one more thing. She reached over to her husband, Marc, who would not be going to work that day in order to be home with Maia, and handed him the List. That’s what they call it now, when they revisit this moment, which they do fairly often. The List. It was nothing extraordinary — in fact it would be familiar to many new moms. A large yellow Post-it on which she had scribbled the “how much,” “how long” and “when” of Maia’s napping and eating.

“I knew her routines and was sharing that with Marc,” Amy recalls.

She also remembers what he did next. Gently but deliberately, he ripped the paper square in half and crumbled the pieces into a ball.

“I got the message,” Amy says.

That message was one the Vachons had agreed on from the evening they met, though they were clearly still tinkering with the details. They would not be the kind of parents their parents had been — the mother-knows-best mold. Nor the kind their friends were — the “involved” dad married to the stressed-out working mom. Nor even, as Marc put it, “the stay-at-home dad, who is cooed at for his sensitivity but who is as isolated and financially vulnerable as the stay-at-home-mom.”

Instead, they would create their own model, one in which they were parenting partners. Equals and peers. They would work equal hours, spend equal time with their children, take equal responsibility for their home. Neither would be the keeper of the mental to-do lists; neither of their careers would take precedence. Both would be equally likely to plan a birthday party or know that the car needs oil or miss work for a sick child or remember (without prompting) to stop at the store for diapers and milk. They understood that this would mean recalibrating their career ambitions, and probably their income, but what they gained, they believed, would be more valuable than what they lost.

There are Marcs and Amys scattered throughout the country, and the most interesting thing about them is that they are so very interesting. What they suggest, after all, is simple. Gender should not determine the division of labor at home. It’s a message consistent with nearly every major social trend of the past three decades — women entering the work force, equality between the sexes, the need for two incomes to pay the bills, even courts that favor shared custody after divorce. And it is what many would agree is fair, even ideal. Yet it is anything but the norm.

“Women entering the work force changed the work force far more dramatically than it changed things back home,” says Jessica DeGroot, whose senior thesis for college 27 years ago was about this conundrum and who, as the founder and president of the ThirdPath Institute, coaches families wanting a shared lifestyle. “When I graduated, I thought things would change, if not for me, then for my children.” Her daughter, Jocelyn, is now 17, and her son, Julian, is 11.

“If you gave people a survey they would probably check all the answers about how things should be equal,” says Francine M. Deutsch, a psychology professor at Mount Holyoke and the author of “Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works.” But when they get to the part where “you ask them how things work for them day to day,” she says, “ideal does not match reality.”

Deutsch has labeled the ideal “equally shared parenting,” a term the Vachons have embraced. DeGroot prefers “shared care,” because “shared parenting” is used to describe custody arrangements in a divorce, and while “equal” would be nice, it is a bar that might be too high for some families to even try to clear. Whatever you call it, the fact that it has to have a name is a most eloquent statement of both the promise and the constraints facing families today.

“Why do we have to call it anything?” Amy asks.

Marc adds, “Why isn’t this just called parenting?”

Marc Vachon was one of six children, raised in a working-class Massachusets town with a high crime rate and, for a few bad months, a nightly curfew. His mother stayed home, his father worked for a small manufacturing company and neither had a college education. “My father’s job was a means to an end,” he told me when I first met him and Amy at their home last fall, “a way to put food on his family’s table.”

Marc paid his way through the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and then set out with his degree in mechanical engineering (and later an M.B.A.) to earn a lot of money. Working on the management track at an electric company, “I was playing the game,” he remembers. “I was working 60 hours a week. I bought a fancy sports car.”

But a few years in, he came to see that he only used that car to drive to and from work. When the human-resources department sent out a memo outlining a reduced-hours plan, he applied. His manager seemed surprised that a single man was asking for part-time status, but eventually he agreed.

For six months he worked three eight-hour days, at a reduced salary. When his temporary “leave” ended, he had to go back full time, and he stayed at the company for only another year. “Once I got the sniff of other interests in my life,” he says, “there was no going back into the box.” He trained himself in computers and took a job doing information and technology-support, ultimately working five days a week, 7 a.m. to noon. When his bosses offered a promotion, he agreed to work his personal version of full time: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., with no lunch, at a big jump in pay. Periodically he would be offered a management position, which he turned down because “you can’t work part time as a manager.”

The only downside to this laid-back worldview was its chilling effect on his romantic life. The women he was meeting, he says wryly, did not aspire to say, “My husband works at the help desk.”

The last of those women was Amy, and they found each other eight years ago on, when they were both 37. Their first date was on a dreary March evening, and over dinner they learned each other’s stories.

Amy’s began with a childhood in Ann Arbor, Mich., shattered at the age of 8 when her father, a brilliant but troubled professor of biochemistry at the University of Michigan, committed suicide. Her mother, who had been a lab assistant until Amy was born, was forced back to work. Her “chemistry skills were rusty beyond repair,” Amy says. She eventually found a job as preschool teacher.

Watching her mother “get up each morning to face another day as the only parent” made Amy determined “to assume full responsibility for myself, because anything can happen at any time, and to share the entirety of my life with a true partner, because I saw how hard and sometimes empty it was for my mother to play all the parts alone.”

Like Marc, Amy also paid her own way through school, getting a doctor of pharmacy degree from the University of Michigan and starting a career as a clinical pharmacist. She married at 20 and then divorced at 31 because she was not ready to have children. All the married mothers she knew seemed nearly as alone in their roles as her own mother had been.

She and Marc talked for hours that first night. At the end of dinner, they split the check. Amy went home wary, thinking that “this guy was too good to be true.” Marc woke up a friend and announced he had met the woman he would marry.

Their wedding was in September 2001, and they moved into a house with a picket fence that Amy bought a few years earlier. Maia was born in July 2002, and during her pregnancy, Amy kept thinking: It’s real now. There’s no turning back. If this partnership promise doesn’t work, I’ll be saddled with all I feared.

Social scientists know in remarkable detail what goes on in the average American home. And they have calculated with great precision how little has changed in the roles of men and women. Any way you measure it, they say, women do about twice as much around the house as men.

The most recent figures from the University of Wisconsin’s National Survey of Families and Households show that the average wife does 31 hours of housework a week while the average husband does 14 — a ratio of slightly more than two to one. If you break out couples in which wives stay home and husbands are the sole earners, the number of hours goes up for women, to 38 hours of housework a week, and down a bit for men, to 12, a ratio of more than three to one. That makes sense, because the couple have defined home as one partner’s work.

But then break out the couples in which both husband and wife have full-time paying jobs. There, the wife does 28 hours of housework and the husband, 16. Just shy of two to one, which makes no sense at all.

The lopsided ratio holds true however you construct and deconstruct a family. “Working class, middle class, upper class, it stays at two to one,” says Sampson Lee Blair, an associate professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo who studies the division of labor in families.

“And the most sadly comic data is from my own research,” he adds, which show that in married couples “where she has a job and he doesn’t, and where you would anticipate a complete reversal, even then you find the wife doing the majority of the housework.”

Housework, in this context, is defined as things like cooking, cleaning, yardwork and home repairs. Child care is a whole separate category — one that is even more skewed. The social scientist’s definition of child care “is attending to the physical needs of a child — dressing a child, cooking for a child, feeding and cleaning them,” Blair says. It doesn’t include the fun stuff, like playing and reading and kissing good night.

Where the housework ratio is two to one, the wife-to-husband ratio for child care in the United States is close to five to one. As with housework, that ratio does not change as much as you would expect when you account for who brings home a paycheck. In a family where Mom stays home and Dad goes to work, she spends 15 hours a week caring for children and he spends 2. In families in which both parents are wage earners, Mom’s average drops to 11 and Dad’s goes up to 3. Lest you think this is at least a significant improvement over our parents and grandparents, not so fast. “The most striking part,” Blair says, “is that none of this is all that different, in terms of ratio, from 90 years ago.”

Back when women had to tend fires to cook and put clothes through the wringer and then onto the clothesline, they spent 50 hours a week on housework and men spent 20. (A ratio of 2.5 to 1.) And back in the 1950s, when no one was even bothering to measure how many hours men spent on child care because it was thought to be negligible, the average mother spent 12 to 15 hours caring for her children — the same as they spend today.

Which does not mean women are happy about this. There are plenty of studies of that too, and according to Blair’s research, 58 percent of women say the division of labor in modern families is not fair to them. (Eleven percent of men, in turn, feel that the division of labor in their own marriage is unfair to them.) When couples argue, it is most likely to be about children, money or the division of labor. “Those are always the Top 3,” Blair says. “The order changes around, but the topics don’t.”

Why then does the status quo continue? “You assume people will look at relationships rationally, and if there is such inequity and such a sense of unfairness, they would end it,” Blair says. “When you look at this rationally, it is very difficult to understand why things are the way they are.”

The obstacles to equity are enmeshed and interwoven, almost impossible to separate from one another. Deutsch did a study of 150 couples who tried sharing to various degrees, and her results suggest that social norms play a large part in why so few marriages are truly equal. Choices are made in a context. It is rare that you choose something you have never seen. So men who do more around the house than their fathers and spend as much time with children as their neighbors feel that they are doing their share and their wives feel grateful to have such involved partners. That is why the single-most-predictive factor of how equal a couple will be, Deutsch says, is how equal their friends are.

Messages, loud and soft, direct and oblique, reinforce contextual choice. “A pregnant woman and her husband,” Deutsch says, “how many people have asked her if she is going to go back to work after the baby? How many have asked him?”

Looked at through that lens, what seems like an external institutional barrier to equal sharing becomes something else entirely. He makes more money than she does, so of course she should be the one to step back her career; she has a more flexible line of work than he does, so of course she should be the one to work part time. Those may seem like choices, but they have their roots in social norms.

“They weren’t born in those jobs; they chose them,” Deutsch says. What decision tree, planted decades earlier and steeped in unspoken assumption, she wonders, led him to be a surgeon and her to be a social worker? What led her to work in a field where four-day weeks are common and him to work where they are unheard of?

“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” she says. “Even when men and women start off with equal jobs, they make decisions along the way — to emphasize career or not, to trade brutal hours for high salary or not.”

She goes on to suggest that the perception of flexibility is itself a matter of perception. In her study, she was struck by how often the wife’s job was seen by both spouses as being more flexible than the husband’s. By way of example she describes two actual couples, one in which he is a college professor and she is a physician and one in which she is a college professor and he is a physician. In either case, Deutsch says “both the husband and wife claimed the man’s job was less flexible.”

She has a similar response to those who say that they would love to share equally but that one parent — almost always the wife — has parenting or housekeeping standards that the other cannot (or will not) meet. Dad dresses the children wrong and diapers them wrong and sends inadequate thank-you notes and leaves the house a mess. This may look like a cranky power struggle, Deutsch says, but the dynamic, which sociologists call “gatekeeping,” also reflects social pressures.

Women, she says, know that the world is watching and judging. If the toddler’s clothes don’t match, if the thank-you notes don’t get written, if the house is a shambles, it is seen as her fault, making her overly invested in the outcome. Many women will also admit to the frisson of superiority, of a particular form of gratification, when they are the more competent parent, the one who can better soothe the tears in the middle of the night.

Deutch says that equality in parenting should be every couple’s goal. Yet, as we all know, the nuances of relationships are complicated, built on foundations that even we may not see until we try to alter them. If your partner’s ambition is what attracted you in the first place and if his/her decision to dilute that ambition would make you think less of him/her, then this is not for you. If part of the security and warmth you feel from marriage is because of the familiarity and tradition of husband and wife roles, this won’t work for you, either. And if one of you is dead set against it or if both of you think the required regimentation that comes with equal sharing just isn’t a way to live, then Deutsch probably won’t persuade you. So go with your comfort level. But understand where that feeling of comfort comes from.

When Jo and Tim Pannabecker first met, their work was at the center of their lives. They knew they would not get rich trying to better the lot of the poor in Africa, but they did think they could change the world.

Jo, born in New Zealand, was working in Chad, researching how to grow crops in the dry season, and Tim was stateside coordinating the effort of development workers like Jo. They were both in their early 30s, having put off marriage for their peripatetic careers, and Jo in particular was worried that having children would table her dreams. “I was scared that if we had kids, I would be left home with the cooking, the cleaning and the children,” she says.

Jo had not yet put those fears aside when she married Tim in 2001. Living in Lancaster, Pa. (where their employer, the Mennonite Central Committee, was based), they tried sharing all housework equally so that they didn’t slip into the “wife as caretaker” pattern, and they got a dog and a cat “as our first step toward children,” Jo says.

“It was a test,” Tim explains. “We would have to decide who would take the dog out at night, who would walk her early in the morning, who could work with vomit.”

A test he passed, his wife says: “The dog was the only evidence I had that Tim would change his schedule to accommodate the dog. That was my intellectual bridge, into ‘I think I can trust this.’ ”

While pregnant with their first child in 2003, Jo read a short description in a woman’s magazine about ThirdPath, and the couple signed on to be coached in the ways of shared parenting. Jessica DeGroot and her husband, Jeff Lutzner, lead the life DeGroot teaches (they have done so for all 18 years of their marriage), and they keep track of who is home and who is working with the help of a color-coded computer chart. Lutzner’s schedule is blue, DeGroot’s is pink, child care from nearby grandparents is purple and time at school is gray.

To Jo and Tim, the idea of the chart was concrete evidence that sharing was more than just talk. “We saw it could be done,” he says. “It’s like a puzzle. You have a certain number of hours during the day, and you decide who does what when.”

At about the same time in a Boston suburb, Bill and Alexandra Taussig were also learning about ThirdPath and shared parenting. They met as undergraduates at Cornell, stayed together while she was at business school and he was at law school and were fiercely committed to work.

“My career is extremely important to me,” Alexandra says, referring to her job in marketing at a large financial-services firm. “It’s a big part of how I define myself.” When their first child was born in 1997, “it did not occur to me to opt out or go on the mommy track or take an offramp,” she says. “I wanted a career and wanted to be a good mother, but I thought it was up to me to figure it all out.” She did as she had assumed she would do — took a four-month maternity leave and then returned to the office on a four-day schedule.

Instead, it was Bill who did the unexpected. His firm had a gender-neutral policy offering three months of paid parental leave, and he asked for one. Looking back, he thinks he was responding as much to a desire to spend time with his son as to a gnawing realization that he wasn’t interested in the intense life of those who would make partner.

When the leave was over, he didn’t want to go back to his 60-hour weeks, but he didn’t want to become a stay-at-home parent either. “The work is very important,” he says. With a baby at home, he learned that sometimes he couldn’t “wait to get back to work because there’s sanity. It can be an oasis.”

The couple hired a nanny, and Bill switched jobs a few times — to a clerkship for a judge, to a solo practice, to a smaller firm — looking for the right fit. Alexandra rose through the ranks at her company, and after their second son was born in 2000, she continued working four days a week. Her schedule — every Friday off, spent with the children — appealed to Bill, who took a job in the compliance department of his wife’s employer, though it would be a while before he would get up the nerve to ask for a four-day week too.

In 2004, when Jo and Tim’s son was born, Alexandra was pregnant for the third time (she would have another boy), and Bill came across a ThirdPath conference about “Creating Work-Life Balance in the Law.” That was the first he knew that what he was trying to fashion had a name. Like Jo and Tim, he was reassured and inspired by DeGroot’s orderly charts, and while he did not go as far as making his own, he did adopt her worldview.

Jo and Tim did draft a chart. After her three-month maternity leave, their schedule worked like this, as Tim explains: “I would get up extra early and head to work, and Jo would be home until later in the morning and then take him to day care. She would leave work again at lunch for an hour to nurse him. I would take half a lunch and leave work by 2:30 or 3, pick Seth up and take him home. Jo would stay at work until 6.”

They agreed to share chores at home too, but their varying definitions of “done” soon made things unequal. “He would do the laundry,” Jo says, “but he was so slow about it that I took it back. His level of alertness to mess is quite different than mine. I see dirt two or three days before he does.” So she took back a lot of the cleaning too.

Their work-home time was evenly divided for about a year, and then in the summer of 2005, their daughter, Kate, was born. Jo tried to envision a schedule that would account for the demands of two children under the age of 2. “I realized what it would take to get all of us out of the house by a certain time in order for us to keep the life we had . . . ,” she says, trailing off. She calculated that her take-home salary, which was substantially lower than her husband’s, would barely pay for child care. She took a hard look at the satisfaction she got from her office job, which was nil compared with the joy she had found while planting crops in Chad. “If I could get a job that would pay me $50,000 a year, that would rival or compete with Tim’s . . . ,” she says, letting that thought trail off as well.

Jo would not disagree with Deutch’s point that she had a role in creating that inequity — choosing to major in international rural development, with little practical career application, while her husband obtained two master’s degrees, one in counseling and the other in college student personnel, with better job potential. Even marrying a man who was ahead of her on the career ladder, and therefore likely to remain ahead of her, was a choice. But there comes a point where the origin of the cards you hold becomes irrelevant, and you have to play the hand you are dealt.

Jo left the work force completely. Now she is home full time, doing nearly all the cooking, child care and cleaning — exactly the life she feared a few years ago when she returned from Africa and married Tim. While there are “a lot of days” that she thinks “this isn’t what I signed on for,” for the most part she is far more content with her choice than she could have predicted before the children were born.

Contrast their lives with those of Bill and Alexandra. What Bill took from his involvement with ThirdPath was that he had the same right to flexibility as his wife, and he requested a four-day schedule. While hers was granted automatically, his met with resistance, and eventually he “just took it,” he said, by negotiating a paternity leave that he would parcel out one day per week for 10 weeks. When the 10 weeks were up, he kept taking Fridays off.

A year later, his somewhat amenable manager was replaced by “the kind of guy who came in early and stayed late and had a stay-at-home wife” and who called each employee in for a schedule review. Bill was asked to return to a full-time schedule.

And that was how he worked until Alexandra, who has always had a more senior position than her husband, was offered a new job within the company. That job would require a five-day week, at least at the start. She made it clear to Bill that it was his turn to spend an extra weekday with their children.

Bill was able to negotiate a 90 percent plan — every other Friday off — in part, he thinks, because the company didn’t want to risk losing both of them. Eventually Alexandra took on that schedule, too, and now they alternate being home on Fridays. The 10 percent salary cut that they each take is a price they consider worth paying, understanding that this is an option available only to those who can make ends meet in the first place.

They are each equally likely to plan birthday parties or put the children to bed or be the parent who goes along on the school field trip. They have noticed that whoever is home on a Friday becomes the boys’ “favorite” parent — the one they call when they are hurt or want a bedtime story — for the rest of the weekend, which they see as the payoff for making sure that Bill is equally immersed in and responsible for their lives.

Less equal is their allotment of household chores. Alexandra shops for groceries. Bill deals with the cars. She calls the baby sitter. He drives the baby sitter home. He has gotten better at putting birthday invitations on the calendar, but she is the one who remembers to buy the gift. Most of all, she keeps the literal and mental lists. “I know that Teddy missed his dentist appointment and needs another appointment, and that was three months ago, and it hasn’t happen yet, but at least I am tracking it,” Alexandra says.

The keeping of those lists, they agree, makes her the defacto C.E.O. of the Taussig family. “Ideally that should be 50-50,” Bill says, “but Alex is just better at that. Also, outsiders expect her to do it — we both gave the teachers our e-mail addresses, but the teachers only e-mail her.” (But of course, says Deutch. There’s the world getting in the way again.)

Periodically they make an effort to rebalance, but it feels forced and accusatory, “too much like keeping score,” as Bill puts it.

“I’d prefer to have it unequal than spend all our time measuring,” Alexandra says.

“It’s a 60-40 split, with her doing the 60,” Bill says. “I am aiming to bring my percentage up to 42.”

For Amy and Marc Vachon, 42 percent is not enough. After Maia was born, they negotiated part-time schedules, which turned out to be the easy part. Amy worked four days a week, Monday through Thursday; Marc worked three 10-hour days, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The division of work led naturally to the division of child care. On the days he went to the office, Marc would leave early and bike to work (having only one car, despite two commutes, is one way they are able to afford life on two part-time salaries), while Amy did the entire morning child routine. On Monday and Wednesday, when she worked too, she would take Maia to family day care across the street from their house. On Friday, she and Maia would spend the day together. On Tuesday and Thursday, Amy would sleep a little later and leave Maia in Marc’s care. If Maia got sick on a Monday, they agreed in advance that Marc would take off from work, and Amy would do the same if the sick day was a Wednesday. It was a schedule that continued after Theo was born three years later.

Less seamless, though, was the division of everything but child care because they had lapsed into unequal patterns during their parenting leaves. Amy, the planner of the duo, spent those months reading every child-care book she could find — and hating most of them. “Those books don’t mention men,” she says.

But while she disagreed with what she read, she was learning nonetheless. How to structure a nap schedule. How to introduce solid foods. How to soothe a colicky baby. “We had fallen into the trap,” she says, “of master and apprentice.” Marc, despite all their intentions and expectations, “was settling into the helper role.”

The problem made itself clear on the morning Amy went back to work and in that clarifying moment handed her husband the List. She was feeling anxious and vulnerable when she scribbled the schedule, she says. He ripped it not in anger (because Marc is the laid-back type who rarely gets angry), “but he clearly was telling me to butt out of his day with Maia.”

Other couples might have resigned themselves to inequity, redefining it as choice, but Marc and Amy fought back. If they were to avoid skirmishes over their parenting standards and if they were to avoid defaulting to Amy as the expert, they would have to decide what those parenting standards were. Marc explains: “Did we want to work toward a set nap schedule? Yes. Did our daughter’s outfits have to match perfectly? No. Did we need to take the diaper bag when our daughter came with us to the grocery store? Not necessarily.”

They also had to give the other the freedom to do things the “wrong” way — i.e., not “my” way. In the hours before bed, they decided, Maia would be the responsibility of the parent who would be tucking her in that night. If it was Marc’s turn and he wanted to roughhouse and “party in the tub,” Amy would bite her tongue and not object. She would not point out that this might not be the best way to ease a baby toward sleep. She would not point out that the books suggest evening calm. After all, if Maia was too worked up, that would be Marc’s problem, wouldn’t it?

That settled, they moved on to the details of housework. Like Jo Pannabecker, Amy feels happier and more centered when her house is clean enough for unexpected company. Marc thinks fretting about cleaning is “an undue burden.” In many homes, as in the Pannabecker home, the result would be that the wife cleaned to her standards. But in an equally shared home, what is the solution? That he clean to her standards? That she lower her own?

Each question led to another. How often should the dishes be done? What constitutes “doing the laundry”: Washing it? Folding it? Putting it away in the drawer? How often do we need to vacuum, mow the lawn or dust the shelves? Does the litterbox need to be scooped every day or is once a week acceptable?

Marc’s first reaction was to point out that he was far more of a contributor to home and hearth than any man he knew. Amy told him — à la Francine Deutsch — that other men were beside the point.

Slowly, consensus emerged. The cooking is done by whoever is home from work that day. The laundry is divided in half, with Marc doing the darks and Amy doing the lights. And yes, it has to be put away. Marc pays most of the bills, because he enjoys it and Amy does not. Ditto for mowing the lawn. Amy, in turn, buys nearly all the clothes for the children, an activity she loves and would feel “cheated” if she couldn’t do. And thank-you notes to Marc’s family? Amy has agreed that if Marc doesn’t want to write them, they won’t get written, and she will stop feeling as if his relatives are somehow blaming her.

Sure, some of their tasks would fall along traditional gender lines. The point, they say, is not to spit at tradition for the heck of it but rather to think things through instead of defaulting to gender. The result of all their talking, Amy says, is that “there is no nagging, passive-aggressive forgetting, feigned incompetence, unspoken resentment or honey-do lists.”

There is one pocket of American parenting in which equality is the norm or, at least, the mutually-agreed-upon goal. Same-sex couples cannot default to gender when deciding who does what at home. How these parents make their decisions, therefore, sheds some light on why married men and women act the way they do. They are the exceptions that both prove and challenge the rules.

“Heterosexual couples can learn from gay couples about sharing housework and child care,” says Esther D. Rothblum, a professor in the women’s studies department of San Diego State University whose comparative study of the relationships of 342 couples — lesbian, gay, heterosexual — was published in the journal Developmental Psychology in January. “They are good role models.”

One standard research questionnaire for looking at the division of household labor has been a survey known as “Who Does What?” created by Philip and Carolyn Cowan, both emeritus professors at U.C. Berkeley. Respondents are asked to rate “How It Is Now” and “How I Would Like It to Be” in dozens of household and child-care tasks. Created with straight couples in mind, it was adapted by Charlotte Patterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, for lesbian parents. The study found little of the inequity that shows up when heterosexuals fill it out. (There has not been the same research attention paid to gay men raising children because only recently have gays begun adopting or hiring surrogates in large enough numbers to support a study.)

Which is not to say that lesbian mothers do not argue often over child care. But, says Dr. Nanette Gartrell, a psychiatrist with the University of California at San Francisco who has been studying lesbian families for 22 years, the arguments among those in her study sample tend to be the opposite of heterosexual couples’. While “straight parents get into the blame game about who is shirking responsibility,” she says, “lesbian moms bicker about not getting enough time with the kids,” a dynamic that can be intensified in families in which one of the women gives birth to the baby.

Harlyn Aizley, mother of a 6-year-old daughter, describes the moment that her then-partner, Faith Soloway, first took their newborn in her arms in the delivery room. “Just moments after I gave birth,” Aizley writes in the anthology “Confessions of the Other Mother: Nonbiological Lesbian Moms Tell All,” “Faith scooped up the baby, cooed into her squishy newborn face and said: ‘Hello there. I’m your mommy.’ I wanted to kill her. Faith, that is. I wanted to be Mommy, the only Mommy.”

Where a birth mother can feel possessive, the nonbiological mother (or co-mother, eliminating the negative vibe) can feel left out. For lesbian parents, as with straight biological parents, breast feeding means one partner has an additional, intimate, way to bond. In Gartrell’s study, 64 percent of co-mothers acknowledged feelings of jealousy and competitiveness around bonding and child-rearing issues. “Whenever [the child] is tired or sick or cranky, [the child] wants the breast,” said one co-mother, quoted by Gartrell. “I sometimes get upset that I can’t soothe [the child] in the same way that [the birth mother] can.”

Aizley says that while she felt possessive, her partner in fact felt excluded, referring often to “the holy trinity — baby, Mommy, breast.” As a result, she theorizes, Soloway became “more like a working dad, and I was the default mom.”

Most lesbian couples work hard to return to equal balance, however, Gartrell says. And how do they do that? More or less the way Marc and Amy Vachon did. They trade off breast and bottle feedings, share bathtime and bedtime rituals and talk out the conflicts. “We talked, and we talked, and we talked, and we talked,” says Dorea Vierling-Claassen of feeling like the odd-woman-out when her wife, Angela, was breast-feeding their daughter, who is almost 2 years old.

“We developed a wonky theory,” Dorea says of all that talking. “You need a rabid N.G.P. — nongestational parent. The N.G.P. has to push if you are going to get an equal relationship.”

All this deliberate sharing means that 75 percent of couples in Gartrell’s study considered themselves “co-parents.” The other 25 percent said they consider the birth mother the primary parent, but that the day-to-day tasks of child care are nonetheless equally shared.

Who does what, lesbian couples say, is instead determined by personality and logistics. “Gaeta tends to be the soccer mom, the coordinator of the sports, while I am the coordinator of music lessons,” says Dr. Audrey Koh, an ob-gyn in San Francisco whose sperm donor was a close relative of her partner, Gaeta, so that both mothers would share a genetic link to their two children. “Gaeta keeps mental track of the children’s shoe sizes, shops for their clothes,” Koh says, “but when they are sick in the middle of the night, they come for me.”

Lesbian couples also have a more equal division of housework. Rothblum found that it is only heterosexual mothers who do the lion’s share of housework for the family each week — between 11 and 20 hours for her survey respondents. Lesbian parents, gay parents and heterosexual fathers all look the same on paper when it comes to cooking and cleaning — they all report doing between 6 and 10 hours a week.

Both partners in lesbian couples seem to make equal professional sacrifices in exchange for this equality. That does not mean there are no “traditional” relationships — Koh works long hours and earns more money as a doctor, while Gaeta, a naturalist for the local park district, earns less and is home more. Similarly, Aizley’s partner worked full time while she was home with their daughter for several years. (The couple split up about two years ago; Aizley has gone back to work and says Soloway is still very involved in their child’s life.) But more common is the couple in which both women “typically work shorter hours or have declined career opportunities so they can be more available at home,” Gartrell says.

Their work schedules look far more like those of Marc and Amy Vachon or Jessica DeGroot and Jeff Lutzner than like a “typical” family. Patterson found that while heterosexual fathers work an average of 47 hours for pay each week and heterosexual mothers work 24, the average for lesbian mothers, both biological and nonbiological, is about 35. Added together, both sets of families are working a total of slightly more or less than 70 hours; they just divide the work differently.

It is not clear, however, why lesbian couples split parenting more equally. “Is it because you take gender out of the equation or because women are better at sharing or because parents of the same gender see things more similarly?” Gartrell asks. “We don’t know,” and won’t know, she says, until there is equivalent data on gay men who become parents.

In the absence of statistics, however, Rothblum’s informed guess is that it is the last of these reasons. “If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, it’s really a miracle that hetero couples manage to ever make things work,” she says.


Bill Taussig, the lawyer married to the marketing executive, was recently promoted to a vice president of his company, giving him some confidence that his 90 percent schedule will not sideline his career. He has also joined the board of ThirdPath. “I am a poster child for being equally engaged with your children and still succeeding at work,” he says. As far as the chores go, he adds, “we outsource a lot.”

Mia Pannabecker was born last May, which means that Jo is home caring for three children under age 4. That home is now in Bluffton, Ohio, where Tim grew up, where his parents still live and where he works in the development office at Bluffton University.

He is at the office from 8 until 5 and travels often. The children spend a lot of time with their grandparents. Jo is now pursuing a degree in dietetics, the science of food, hoping to eventually establish a career in nutrition.

She says that she is pleased that she tried equal parenting but that she is also fine with the fact that it was not right for her family — at least not right now. Yes, she misses work, she says, and yes, she still wonders how she became “the happy homemaker,” but sometimes you take the least stressful route for the family as a whole, and this seems to be it.

“The question should not be, Is it all exactly equal, but, What is best for all of us as a group right now?” she says. “If we decided it’s really important that we are 50-50 on everything, we would work on that. If we decide it’s really important that we be close to family, then we work on that.”

Rather than thinking in terms of equality day to day, she says, she has begun to strive for equality over the course of a working life. Before getting married, she and Tim agreed that they would live, for several years at least, in New Zealand, where she plans to go back to work. Maybe then, she says, Tim will stay home.

A year ago, Marc’s department was eliminated. At first, he wasn’t worried. He and Amy deliberately live well below their means, so their necessary bills can be paid with one salary. He spent a relaxed summer buffered by a separation package, enjoying time with the children and working on their Web site,, because he and Amy wanted to spread the word.

As the months passed, the dynamic of home changed. Amy started letting Marc take charge of the children every morning while she took a “long leisurely shower.” While she was at work, he did most of the cooking and the grocery shopping. He began to feel frustrated with the imbalance. She, in turn, began to feel guilty that she wasn’t having one-on-one time with Maia and Theo. She also felt stressed. “I had guilt that I wasn’t doing enough around the house, and also I could understand what a primary breadwinner guy would feel, especially if his wife was complaining,” she says.

The solution? They divided the days as if Marc were working. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he left the house early and went for a bike ride while she had her usual morning time with the kids.

As he sent out résumés, Marc struggled with how much of his tale to tell upfront. At first he bared all, stating in his cover letter that he had been working reduced hours for several years and that he planned to continue with that schedule. No one responded.

Next he took the information out of his letter, waiting to raise the question of schedule in person. That led to many interviews, but when he asked about a three-day-a-week option, friendly conversations became frosty, and he did not hear from the companies again.

In February, he got a lead on a job that looked like a perfect fit. It was advertised as a full-time position, and he said nothing about hours in his cover letter, during phone interviews or even at the interview. He waited until he received a firm offer, which was far lower for 40 hours a week than he earned for 27 hours at his previous job.

He used that as an opening, but was told the job required at least 55 hours a week. He turned it down.

In April, he had another hot lead, and again he kept his goals to himself. When an offer was made, he replied that he needed to come in and talk in person about some details. Before he left home that Monday morning, he and Amy agreed that he would turn down the job if the schedule was not negotiable. “There was a point where I would take a full-time job, because I have a responsibility to my family and to my kids’ future,” he says. “We weren’t at that point yet. We were close, but we weren’t there.”

His prospective bosses at the marketing firm of Chadwick Martin Bailey were surprised, but they didn’t say no. Instead, they asked what schedule he had in mind. He offered two choices: four eight-hour days, which would be his preference so he would still have a full day off to be with the children, or a five-day week, with three days working 9 to 5 and two days working 8 to 12.

They chose the five-day option, a 32-hour week with a 32-hour salary and an agreement that he will always carry a BlackBerry and be available in emergencies.

Now he bikes to work every day, and when he leaves on his two short days, at least five hours earlier than everyone else, he must walk through the center of the office, dressed for cycling. There is no way to hide the fact that he is leaving. Not that he wants to — he’s proud of how he has constructed his life and work — but he sees no reason to rub it in either. So he has learned to walk on the sides of his biking clamps, making the noise a little less noticeable on the polished wood floor as he heads out the door.

Lisa Belkin, a contributing writer, last wrote for the magazine about her former nanny, who was accused of assaulting two elderly patients in Ireland.