Monday, August 12, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Negotiating, Bargaining, and Equally Shared Parenting

I finally finished Patricia Roberts-Miller's Deliberate Conflict, which is my new favorite book. You should read it sometime.

I've already written a Blogging to My PhD post inspired by the book, but while I was finishing up my notes, I found another thing I want to talk about.

In a section on the problem with communitarian approaches to rhetoric (which she aptly points out often silence dissenting voices in the name of harmony), Roberts-Miller says that:
While in theory negotiation may imply equality and reciprocally binding obligations, in practice, negotiation is often indistinguishable from bargaining. 

I immediately thought of the context in which I have the most personal experience with negotiation: equally shared parenting. 

For those of you unfamiliar with the term equally shared parenting, it's basically exactly what it sounds like, a management of parenting responsibilities where everything is equally shared, from breadwinning to caregiving, from diaper changes to discipline. Some couples take the definition very literally, engaging in a tit for tat tally of their contributions, diaper for diaper and dollar for dollar. More practically, it is a guiding principle for a parenting co-operation that ensures neither parent takes on the brunt of caregiving responsibilities, or--to put it in more positive terms--that both parents equally contribute to the nurturing of their children. 

This is the model my husband and I use as a framework for our own parenting and household management. And, as I've written about before, it can be difficult. Before having a baby, we were very egalitarian in our divvying of household duties, but once a child was thrown into the mix, there were some assumptions and gendered norms that we had to really dismantle in order to get into a rhythm that worked for us. 

That took negotiation. 

But reading that Roberts-Miller quote, I wondered if it was always negotiation. Looking back, I think it was sometimes bargaining. 

Bargaining v. Negotiating

The OED defines "negotiate" like this:
To communicate or confer (with another or others) for the purpose of arranging some matter by mutual agreement; to discuss a matter with a view to some compromise or settlement.
And "bargain" like this:
To treat with any one as to the terms which one party is to give, and the other to accept, in a transaction between them; to try to secure the best possible terms; to haggle over terms.
On the surface, they seem pretty similar, but it's clear that Roberts-Miller sees them as different, and she also clearly sees negotiation as better and more equal than bargaining.

This is because negotiation is a "mutual agreement" while bargaining is an agreement where one gives terms, and the other accepts.

The difference is subtle, but negotiation seems to imply that the agreement is reached through mutual discussion while bargaining may be more one sided.

Bargaining for Equally Shared Parenting

Early in our parenting experience, I think I was bargaining for equality. Since I was the one who physically carried the baby and then gave birth to her and then nursed her with my body and stayed home with her during maternity leave, I was naturally taking on more of the day-to-day tasks of parenting.

It was my breasts that were needed for nourishment, so I was the one who was getting up in the middle of the night, and then of course that meant I was the one who knew how to clean the breast pump and prepare the bottles once daycare started, and since I was only working half-time, it only made sense that I should be the one to do the ever-growing piles of laundry.

It wasn't that we were intentionally falling into these gender roles, it was just that they happened. But I was the one who became overwhelmed by them, and I was the one who was crying (literally, crying) at my husband to make it better.

Early on, he would say (because he is an excellent father and husband) "Of course!" But it was followed by "What do you want me to do?"

And that was the question that turned it into a bargain rather than a negotiation. Instead of each of us bringing forward the responsibilities and problems as we saw them, it was on me to identify the "flaws" in the system and suggest a "fix" that he would then agree to.

Shifting to Negotiation

We figured it out. 

It took a lot of starts and stops and bumpy trials, but we eventually got to a place where we were negotiating instead of bargaining. 

And it took exactly what Patricia Roberts-Miller says deliberative discourse has to take: time and listening. 
Thus, public deliberation leads to better and more just political decisions only if there is equal access on the part of people with genuinely different points of view, the opportunity to make arguments (rather than simply assertions), the time for exploration of different options, and a cultural milieu that values listening.
This. Is. Exhausting.

Look at this list of resources for equally shared parenting.  It includes suggestions like:
  • Negotiate each parent-initiated change in your baby’s life through lots of communication. For example, decide when and how to start solids, which foods to try and when to move to the next food, what type of meal routine to aim for, and what type of bib to use.  
  • Try very hard not to remind each other of childcare responsibilities. If one parent begins to own all the remembering, the other will eventually abdicate this duty and dumb down.
  • Have a serious discussion about your philosophies on sleep habits. Trade off putting your child to bed so that each parent does it 50% of the time.  
Just the sheer number of conversations this requires is sometimes overwhelming, especially when they are conversations you need to have while simultaneously trying to sleep, feed yourself, keep your house clean, go to work, and parent a new baby. 

But it is worth it. The framework for handling problems that has grown out of those practices has carried forward. We are building upon a continuous negotiation that isn't always smooth, but it is always sincere. 

Is Bargaining Always Bad?

Roberts-Miller seems very opposed to bargaining, a practice that she sees as clearly inequitable and untenable in terms of creating an egalitarian deliberative sphere. 

But I don't know if we could have gotten to negotiation without bargaining. 

My bargaining came out of desperation. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I offered what I could and took what I could get. It was not where we wanted to end up, but it was where we were able to start. 

What do you think? Are your parenting/household duties negotiated or bargained? Is the time and energy commitment required worth it in the end?

Photo: Sean


  1. Bargaining, in my experience, seems to have a weakness in that if the person asking for help doesn't ask for enough or feel they can ask for enough, the problems continue, and the other person or people involved don't feel they have a stake in solving the core problem.
    In a negotiation, the first step is for all the people involved to figure out the core of the problem, and what needs to be done, and then, together, they figure out how to do it.
    I have been stuck in bargaining before. Hopefully I can move on to mostly using negotiation now that I can see the difference.

  2. "the other person or people involved don't feel they have a stake in solving the core problem."

    Yes! That's exactly it. The person asking for the bargain feels like they don't have enough power because they have to ask for the help, and the person being asked feels like they don't have enough power because they don't have control over determining the core problem. It leaves both people frustrated and the problem unsolved.