Better Life Lab

Searching for an Equal Co-Parent: Six Factors That Influence Whether Dad Pulls His Weight at Home

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock, Unsplash.

A woman who’s searching for a partner may swipe through Tinder looking for someone who shares her love of old movies and interest in hiking. However, for a woman who wants to find a partner to have children with and to share in all that goes into raising them, a more important question may actually be, “are you willing to fold your half of the laundry even if we both work?” Most Americans are probably unsurprised to learn that women still perform the majority of housework and child care in heterosexual relationships. (Same-sex partners do better.) This is true when men and women are both employed full-time and when researchers account for all types of housework, including home repairs and lawn care.

Though women still do more housework and child care than their partners, significant progress has been made in closing this gender gap in recent decades. Compared to their fathers and grandfathers, dads today are more involved in the rearing of their children and regularly participate in routine housework. But beyond “pitching in,” there’s tons of evidence to suggest big benefits for everyone when men and women share equally in the family workload. The advantages that women gain from equal partnership are clear: Women’s labor force participation and wages would increase, women could more unabashedly pursue their careers, including promotions at all levels, and hopefully, a more equitable division of labor would reduce negative “motherhood” bias held by many employers.

For men, those who share housework and child care more equitably report higher marital quality and more sexually satisfying relationships. Given that women initiate the majority of divorces, with some evidence pointing to unequal divisions of labor as the root cause for some of these splits, relationships are on the line. And men in particular benefit from marriage, reporting significantly better health than separated or divorced men.

Things start off well, until a baby arrives

Michelle, 35, who like others in this story chose to not give her last name to protect her family’s privacy, is a corporate manager who lives in Columbus, Ohio. She describes the difference between planning to share the work of a new baby with the reality. “My husband and I talked about equally splitting up specific tasks, like I would do the feeding and he would be on diaper duty. But then the baby came, and there were all these additional baby-logistical tasks that fell on my shoulders. … I’m the one who schedules the doctor’s appointments, ensures our baby gets his shots; that we have enough diapers, wipes, and baby food in the house; not to mention the constant acquisition of new clothes for a child that grows to a new size every 2–3 months; confirm that child care is arranged, etc. It’s another layer of work that I have to contend with.”

Michelle’s experience aligns with the findings of a 2015 study I conducted, along with Claire Kamp Dush and Sarah Schoppe Sullivan, on 167 couples who both worked full-time and had their first child. In this research, we found that couples evenly shared housework immediately before they had a baby. After the baby was born, a different story emerged. Men reduced their housework by five hours per week (women’s housework remained constant), and women took on 22 hours of child care per week versus men’s 14. These findings align with nationally representative reports that estimate that mothers perform about two times the amount of child care and 1.9 times the amount of housework that their husbands perform. Men do spend more time at their paid jobs than their female partners once they have children, but this is largely because women reduce their paid work participation after they have children to cope with their new responsibilities at home. Notably, in our study, women—by nine months post-birth—had absorbed all of that additional child care without reducing any hours in their paid jobs.

So if we know that having a child drives a lot of these inequalities, which men do closer to their fair share? Luckily, researchers have been studying divisions of labor for decades and have accumulated a ton of information on this topic. Based on this body of research, six major areas stand out in determining how involved men will be as true partners in cleaning the bathroom and prepping for a school bake sale.

1. Higher education helps.

First, men’s educational attainment matters a lot. More highly educated men (those with a bachelor’s or advanced degree) tend to share child care more evenly, despite that they often work longer hours at their jobs than lower-educated men. This pattern is partly due to the fact that higher-educated men tend to have more flexible jobs where they can, for example, leave early to pick up a sick child. Men in middle or upper-middle classes also have greater “intensive parenting” pressures that encourage them to spend a large amount of time with their kids in order to cultivate their children’s interests and talents such as playing sports or perfecting the cello.

2. Men’s beliefs really matter.

Importantly, men’s beliefs about gender roles, rather than women’s beliefs, largely determine how big or small the gender gaps in unpaid labor are in households. For example, when men believe that mothers should be the primary caregiver for children, their female partners tend to have lower labor force participation and spend fewer hours at their paid jobs. On the flip side though, women’s egalitarian attitudes largely do not influence their husband’s housework or child care contributions. In other words, men do not seem to alter their housework- or child care–related behaviors to better fit with their wives’ beliefs. Despite that egalitarian gender beliefs are important – particularly when they come from certain people (ahem, men)—they aren’t everything.

In fact, most men report progressive beliefs and generally favor an equitable division of labor. The issue is that fewer practice what they preach. In our 2015 study on new parents, we found that most highly educated men in our sample, when asked during the third trimester of their partner’s pregnancy, stated they intended to share the work evenly after the baby was born. Interestingly, men who claimed to strongly value an equal split in household labor and child care routinely overestimated what they were actually contributing. For example, men in our study estimated that they performed about 4.25 hours per day of combined housework and child care but time diaries—a more accurate measure of time use—showed that men actually spent about 1.75 hours per day on these two combined activities. Women overestimated the time they spent on housework and child care too, however, not nearly to the same degree that men did.

Julia, a 33-year-old mother who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and works as a marketing analyst, highlights this phenomenon, “I’ve heard my husband say to our friends that we split everything 50–50, and I’m always thinking, ‘Yes he’s a great father and is egalitarian in many other ways, but I still do a lot more work.’ For example, I pick up our daughter nearly every day from child care despite us both having really demanding jobs. By the time he is even home I have already fed her and am working on cleanup. He definitely believes in gender equality, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

3. Who’s bringing home the bacon?

Income holds a lot of weight in determining who does what at home. In families where both men and women work full-time, men who are breadwinners (i.e., earn a higher salary than their partner) report feeling more entitled to do less housework and child care and, indeed, contribute significantly less than their partners in both types of unpaid work. Essentially, many men “buy” their way out of unpaid labor, especially if they also work long hours at their jobs. We see more egalitarian relationships when women are breadwinners. Men who are financially dependent on women, including those who are fully employed but make less than their partner or those who are unemployed, do a lot more child care than other men (but interestingly, still typically not more than their female partners).

4. The wife’s job matters, too.

Men also perform relatively more child care when they are married to women who work long hours, have spent more years in education, and have higher incomes, suggesting that wives’ work characteristics do influence men’s child care contributions. This is less true, however, for housework. Women’s gains in income largely decrease the amount of housework they perform rather than significantly increasing men’s levels of housework. For example, high-earning women may choose to live in a dirtier house, say by vacuuming or doing the dishes less frequently; or they may use their incomes to outsource tasks, like ordering take-out for dinner or hiring a maid. While perhaps less ideal than men picking up the slack, women doing less work in total is one way to close this disparity in relationships.

5. Men who work in “women’s professions” help more at home.

Men’s occupations may also be important. Notre Dame professor Elizabeth McClintock shows that men employed in female-dominated fields such as nursing or human resources perform the highest levels of housework, compared to men employed in mixed-gender or male-dominated fields. It may be that men who choose to work in female-dominated fields hold more gender-progressive attitudes, which spills over into other domains such as housework. It may also be that hanging around women at work all day makes men more empathetic to their partners at home.

6. Dad will do more work if Mom’s not around.

Men are much more likely to be be spending time packing lunches and emptying the dishwasher when there is a mismatch of work schedules with their partners, as often occurs in working-class families. For example, this holds true in cases where men work the nightshift and wives work the day shift. Because women are literally unavailable when their partners are at home, these men perform significantly more “solo” child care than other men. Even though working-class men tend to hold more traditional gender beliefs (and are particularly likely to work in male-dominated fields), the cost of child care and the reality of work constraints may trump traditional gender beliefs. In the end, economic necessity maybe be the biggest gender equalizer of all.

Still, it’s notable that regardless of the economic arrangements of heterosexual couples, men rarely perform more housework or child care than their spouses, nor do men typically drop out of the labor market when their wives work long hours, like women often do for their spouses.

If you were going indulge in a thought experiment about what characteristics correlate to a man who was likely to share equally in household and childrearing work, he’d be highly educated with progressive beliefs, working in a female-dominated profession where he earns less money than his partner, and has extended time at home when his wife is at work. While few men may fit this exact bill, we hope that as men’s participation in family work rises across many categories, more men will be folding at least half of the laundry.