WASHINGTON, D.C. - Happy Mother’s Day! Your children are ruining your life.
Although research shows the imbalance in household chores for married couples is decreasing, gaps are reappearing when couples have children – even when women are spending the same number of hours at work in the office as their husbands. Four papers in a new online symposium from the Council on Contemporary Families reveal a complicated tangle of workplace policy, gender roles and THE GENERAL LAZINESS OF MEN (Just kidding. Sort of.) that contributes to the inequality.
The Council on Contemporary Families, which researches the whys and hows of modern families, updated common perceptions of household work in dual-income couples with this latest symposium.
“For many years, family researchers and working mothers have talked about ‘the second shift’ – the extra work that employed women put in at home after their paid work day ends,” wrote Stephanie Coontz, the director of research and public education for CCF. “And for just as long, feminist assessments of marriage have been shaped by earlier findings that when people married, the women began doing more household work, while the men started doing less.”
But as the papers reveal, today’s reality is a little more nuanced.
The second shift
First, the good news: A study by Arielle Kuperberg, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro, shows a general trend toward equal division of household chores (but women are still shouldering more of work).
As it turns out, vows don’t automatically lock women into a lifetime of indentured servitude! Hooray! In the past, scholars have found that wives tend to take on more housework than women in unmarried cohabitating couples. Kuperberg found no change in division of labor between couples who lived together before marriage and after they were married. And, bonus, men are contributing more to cleaning and cooking, not just the manly stuff such as mowing the lawn and opening jars.
But Kuperberg also found that married couples became “more traditional” as the kids arrived. Using data collected from 2001-2003, her follow-up study showed that women took on 10 more hours of housework per week than men after their first child, 17.6 hours more with two children and 20.2 hours with three or more children. So that's why they call it the "second shift"!
In a different paper, researchers at Ohio State University studied 182 couples who aimed to divide house and child-rearing work equally. Time diaries revealed that before the couples had children, they were logging comparable work hours in the office and at home. But nine months after having their first child, women had added 22 hours of childcare while maintaining the amount of paid work and housework as before. Men only added 14 hours of childcare, but did five fewer hours of housework. Men did four more hours of paid work than women, however. (But somehow, it doesn’t seem like those numbers add up equally.)
It isn’t because husbands aren’t trying – really! According to the University of Maryland’s Liana Sayer, research indicates both men and women want to spend more time tending to their children. But societal expectations often push mothers to take on the lion’s share of parenting. Oxford University researchers also noted that the way workplaces are set up often allows women to take more time off work after having a kid, which sets immediate expectations of who will take point over parenting.
Sayer notes that both parents are spending more time taking care of kids in the past 50 years. Economic insecurity has caused concerned fathers and mothers to redouble their efforts in raising competent humans who can survive in the real world.
To conclude, we’ve left behind the 1950s when men expected wives to scrub the bathtub in their Sunday best. But women still are taking on the brunt of the work, even in dual-income households. Having children expands this gender gap, but both parents are paranoid that their kids will be failures. So mom and dad are spending any free time trying to give their little nuggets the tools to succeed. But especially mom.
So, yeah. Happy Mother’s Day. Let’s hope you’re getting breakfast in bed for this.
Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter.