Ages ago, I posted a response to “She Looks Just Like You” by Aimee Klempnauer Miller, and like many readers, was struck by the extreme difficulties she and her partner had preserving their relationship during the early months and years of parenting. After that post, blog friend MamaDeux posted a response in which she, when faced with the gloomy future foretold by the marital difficulties Miller describes, thought she’d better get some books to prepare. They’ve since had their baby and seem to be making a top notch transition to parenthood. I don’t know if they ever got any books, but it got me thinking on which books have helped us along the way, and how it really can help to read some books before you have the kid.

I also get asked, a lot, how Gail and I do it. I work in a male dominated and competitive scientific field (as in, I was sitting in lab meeting last week, looked around the room, and realized that in a room of 10 people, I was the only woman present). I get asked pretty frequently by colleagues, mostly women who are considering kids, how parenting is really going for us, how they might make it work. My usual response is that it is going great.  There’s pretty much nothing about my life I would change right now, but that this is largely because I have a true partner in this endeavor who values my contributions both at work and at home (and I value hers). I advise that they think long and hard about who they have kids with, and that they do some reading (and some bargaining and planning) now, because once they actually have the kid, it is a total game changer, and there is work you can do before you get there that really will help

So, with that, I present to you the FTST approved pre-kid reading list, focused on the relationship between parents (not so much the exact approach you take to parenting itself.) This stuff is good post-kid too, but depending on what decisions you’ve made, some of it can be hard to hear (that applies particularly to book (3)). And in some ways, the most power you have to control how your relationship plays out, comes in how you lay the groundwork ahead of time, before the sleepless nights and endless laundry kick in.

1) The Transition to Parenthood by Jay Belsky and John Kelly.  This book is a qualitative sociological look at why some couples have relationships that improve after adding their first child, but others have relationships that go into a precipitous decline (even if they seemed great ahead of time, like in “She looks just like you”). We read this book before Leigh was born, because we found it suggested in a book on preparing for birth. It started a bunch of essential conversations that continued once Leigh was born, and really helped get us going on the right foot. This book makes no assumptions regarding whether or not it is better for parents to share care in an egalitarian manner, or with a more traditional division of labor, but does do a nice job of pointing out where pitfalls can come with any arrangement, depending on the expectations of parents going in. I do offer this suggestion with some reservations. It was written in the 80s, several parts will make even borderline feminists squirm, and of course the the thought of queer parents never crossed the authors’ minds, but even so, they write about patterns that definitely apply to queer families too, and we’ve never found this info anywhere else.

This book is also one of very few that takes the experiences of dads seriously.  Most books on parenting are written exclusively to (straight, primary parenting, bio-) moms.  Because the perspective of dads is included here, it means that when you are reading between the lines, trying to figure out how what is described might apply to a two-mom family, the experience of the non-nursing, non-gestating parent is included.  It’s still kind of a pain, but it gives you more to work with than books written directly to (straight, bio-) moms, most of which make an assumption that any co-parent is, at best, a peripheral benevolent presence, not a central player with thoughts, feelings and expectations of his/her own.

2) Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents by Marc and Amy Vachon. (on amazon here).  We love that this book exists now.  It didn’t before our kids were born (and for full disclosure, we were interviewed for the book.  It’s not hard to pick us out. We’re the only lesbians). Marc and Amy get into the nitty-gritty details of why and how two-parent families can choose to share all aspects of parenting (breadwinning, child care, recreation/fun, and housework), and for us, sharing parenting in this way has been the most important decision we’ve made to protect our relationship (and we think it’s good for our kids, too). This is the most positive take on division of labor in parenting we’ve read, and they lay out some great tools. Much of what they write does focus on gendered obstacles to truly sharing parenting (and they call both men and women to task). In families with same-gender parents, it might seem this doesn’t apply. But our families are not immune to gendered pressures (particularly when there is a distinction in biological/gestational relationship to the kid(s), or a big difference in economic status between parents), and a lot of what they write applies to us (they also get points for including a very convincing welcome to queer families). Even if you aren’t necessarily planning to share care, consider giving it a read.

3) Kidding Ourselves by Rhona Mahoney.  We read this one before Leigh was born, and it was a huge eye-opener for us.  Mahoney takes a look at the bargaining that happens behind the scenes, often unspoken, that shapes how families divide childcare.  She directs her book to an audience of (presumably disgruntled) straight women in two-parent families, and she’s not too happy about the state of affairs. Before Marc and Amy’s book came out, this was my number one recommendation to my colleagues to read pre-kid.  Now that there’s a more positive take, I think the Vachon Equally Shared Parenting book is a better place to start.  That said, this book says absolutely critical things, and in particular, helps you think through what your relative bargaining positions are. I hesitate to recommend this one to straight moms if they already have kids (it can make you feel pretty bad if you have a traditional division of labor that you aren’t so happy with, and is not at all kind to dads), but I recommend it to anyone pre-kid.  Again, particularly if you are in a queer family, you’ll have to read creatively to figure out what does/doesn’t apply for you, but this book helped us clarify a lot in our decisions around parenting, and to think through our unspoken bargaining positions.

4) Reinventing the Family: Lesbian and Gay Parents by Laura Benkov, specifically chapter 6, titled “Who’s the real mommy?” This book is older (1995) and you could argue that much has changed in queer parenting since then, but I’d guess not as much as we might like to think. Benkov pulls no punches in calling lesbians to task on whether or not we truly believe non-bio-moms are legitimate and “equal” parents. The rest of the book is interesting enough (sort of a history of pre-90s queer parenting), but I think all two-mom families would benefit from reading chapter 6.

There are more great books out there, and we’ve gotten nuggets along the way from other places (see also this great reading list on shared parenting at Marc and Amy’s blog) but these are the books that contained ideas that really stuck with us, and helped us find our way. If there was a book/post/article/idea that helped you through the rocky early parenting years, please do share in comments.