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21 September 2016

Brangelina break-up: how couples can enter a gendered parenting arms race when they have children

We don’t know if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s parenting styles clashed, but we do know how childcare can shift a relationship’s dynamic – particularly along gender lines.

By glosswitch Glosswitch

I first heard it on Tuesday afternoon, when a colleague suddenly looked up from her computer screen. “Brangelina are no more!” There followed a stunned silence. That a couple, so close as to be one linguistic entity, could have split seemed unfathomable. They’d been such an item we couldn’t even remember their first names. Bran? Gelina? No one was quite sure.

The precise cause of the split is unclear. Jolie has filed legal papers citing “irreconcilable differences”, applying for physical custody of their six children. Her lawyer has stated:

“This decision was made for the health of the family. She will not be commenting, and asks that the family be given its privacy at this time.”

Unsubstantiated reports have emerged alleging a variety of motives for the divorce – including Jolie’s dislike of Pitt’s parenting methods. All claims have been denied and we may never know the true reason for the separation.

The mention of different parenting styles does, however, raise interesting questions. This is a couple who stood for an alternative – if highly privileged – way of building a family structure, yet it would not be surprising if even money and high ideals cannot protect against the strain having children places on simply being together.

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How you parent can reveal an awful lot about the person you are. While we might all be destined to fuck them up in the end, most of us want to be doing it in unison, not each in our own, guilt-ridden, lonely way.   

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Although married couples who have children are less, not more, likely to divorce, they tend to report lower levels of satisfaction in the relationship itself. While one can blame the basic demands children make on time and energy for this, the shift in expectations people have of each other once children come along might also be a factor.

Many of these expectations are gendered, with cultural understandings and rewards for being a good mother remaining quite different to those for being a good father.

Yet parents are also individuals. The contrasting qualities that can make two people a good team can lead to wildly differing parenting approaches, which then become the source of spiralling tensions between them.

There are times when, far from supporting each other, a couple raising children together can find themselves making a rod for one another’s backs. This can occur on the most mundane of levels. The parent who has time for craft sessions, trips to the park and messy play is unwittingly raising the bar for the one who’d rather abandon the kids to Pokémon Go while catching up on The Great British Bake-Off. The one who is lax about screen time will end up playing good cop to the bad cop who’s ordering the kids to tidy their rooms. The one who writes endless blog posts about parenting while the other is actually tending to the kids… You get the idea.

There are enormous social, financial and practical benefits to shared parenting, but often it can feel as though the other person is not playing fair.

In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich describes a weekend spent parenting without her husband:

“Without a male adult in the house, without any reason for schedule, naps, regular mealtimes, or early bedtimes so the two parents could talk, we fell into what I felt to be a delicious and sinful rhythm. […] I remember thinking: This is what living with children could be – without school hours, fixed routines, naps, the conflict of being both mother and wife with no room for being, simply, myself.”

Parents might moan about the judgments of other families, but we judge each other. We don’t mean to, but we do. It’s not that we expect perfection from one another. Sometimes it’s more a case of “Christ, if he/she’s doing that with them, does that mean I have to, too?  To which the answer is always: “No, but you’ll dwell on it so much you might as well.”

Then, before you know it, you’re engaged in a parenting arms race, each of you stockpiling as many arbitrary rules as possible simply to make sure you’re not falling behind.

This may not have been an issue for the Jolie-Pitts. We just don’t know. These things are messy, because people are messy. A pair of individuals never becomes one person, not even when their names blend neatly for tabloid headlines. That’s just one of the many difficulties we have to negotiate when loving and caring, however we do it, together or apart.