Are you an “equal parent”?

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about the age-old work-family balance called When Mom and Dad Share It All. It very much tracks some of the debates and sentiments from my last post on maternity versus parental leave. The NYT article describes three families and goes into significant depth describing how each manage (or don’t) the gendered dynamics of career and childcare. Behind these featured families are statistics such as women doing 38 hours a week of housework on average and men doing 12 (when only the husband is working). This three-one ratio goes down, but only to a two-one ratio when both parents are working — women doing 28 hours a week of housework and men doing 16.

The child care dynamic is even more drastic (and not counted in the housework statistic):

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.”

I was saddened to hear that little has changed in almost a century??!! Okay, so perhaps moms have “more flexible jobs” than dads do (for reasons of socialization or something else), and therefore can take care of the children more. To be sure, I thought, as a professor, I have much more flexibility than my husband, which explains why I do more of the child care during the week. But wait… , the article explains:

…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.”

Yikes! I started wondering how flexible is my job as compared to my husband’s? Who is making it “more” or “less” flexible? Which policies and preferences are preventing us from equal-parenting in the ways this article describes? And then I wondered whether the professor-fathers out there do as much child care as I do — that is, do they perceive their job to be more flexible than their spouses, as do I? I would guess the trend is that more fathers with flexible schedules (as this article documents) are doing more of the child care, but the trend is sadly slow and (also as this article documents) greatly imbalanced still after so much time.

There is more in this article as well … worth a read.

Especially interesting is the comparison of heterosexual parenting to lesbian parenting when it comes to division of labor (no put intended).

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.)

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6 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    Maybe little has changed in over a century because the fact that our’s is a sexually dimorphic species has remained unchanged. Women and men might be “equal”, but we are not “the same”.

  2. Andrea says:

    Sexual dimorphism doesn’t explain everything, as much as some people would like to try and use that language (and behavioral evolutionary language) to do so. It explains why men are generally better at touch football, and why only women can give birth and breastfeed.

    But when it comes to caring for a child past newborn stage? Men have the same ability to feed, wipe, play, discipline, chauffeur, and cuddle. It’s something much more than biology explaining why the ratio is still the way it is.

  3. John Esberg says:

    Yes, we are sexually dimorphic. Yes, men can feed, wipe, play, etc. just as well as a woman. But these physical abilities don’t measure the emotional need men feel vs. women in our parenting. I would love to see people do actual research accounting for this , wouldn’t you?

  4. Jessica Silbey says:


    I would be surprised if the research hasn’t been done (although I am a bit confused as to what you mean by “emotional need … in our parenting”). But in any case, what would it tell us? That women do more of the parenting or are programmed (biologically or culturally) to do more of it? I am not sure what help that is when the difference (be it biological or cultural) affects a material inequality in women’s lives as compared to men’s lives (as regards earning power, political representation, protection against violence, etc.). I would think that the goal is to find a way to equalize the gender dynamic regardless of the source (biological or not) of the imbalance. But perhaps your point is that knowing the source will help achieve that balance?

  5. Brett Bellmore says:

    “I would think that the goal is to find a way to equalize the gender dynamic regardless of the source (biological or not) of the imbalance.”

    But if biology leads to women wanting to do more of the child care, you’d be “setting out to equalize the gender dynamic” in the teeth of what the people involved actually WANT. Is an equalized gender dynamic more important than human liberty?

  6. Trying to reduce a complicated and hierarchical system of social ordering (gender) or a complex social behavior (parenting) to claims about sexual dimorphism is silly. Note that the definition of child care in the article is “attending to the physical needs of the child”–preparing meals, dressing, cleaning. It specifically excludes “the fun stuff, like playing and reading and kissing good night.” It’s hard to credit a biological, sex-linked drive to wash diapers and make peanut butter sandwiches. The article also reports that 58 percent of the women say they are unhappy with their existing division of labor.

    Jessica, I’ve had the same experience regarding job flexibility. My husband is a self-employed freelance writer. On the large scale, he moved across the country for my teaching job, and he changed his last name to mine when we got married. But on everyday matters, we’ve often fallen into treating my job as the more flexible one, even when I was a practicing trial lawyer.

    On the housework front, the NYT article reports that the woman does more housework even when she is employed full-time and the husband has no job. As I recall, in _The Second Shift_ (researched in the 1980s), Arlie Hochschield reported that when husbands made more money than wives, the wives did more housework to make up for their lesser financial contributions. When wives made more money than husbands, the wives did more housework to make up for the implicit threat to the husbands’ masculinity.

    Hochshield also describes how couples arrive at their gendered division of labor through combinations of their gender ideologies and “economies of gratitude.” Some of this is alluded to in the article–such as where one of the husbands indicates that he first tried to claim credit for being more involved than other dads they knew. Social norms largely determine which actions are taken for granted and which receive “credit.”