Equality in Marriage: Why Young Dads Start Out Strong, But Many Backslide

More parents than ever work full time outside home and more are sharing child-rearing and household chores, a new study shows. But traditional roles tend to creep back.


In nearly half of all two-parent families, both parents work full time, a new study by the Pew Research Center finds. That’s a substantial change from 25 years ago, when just a third of two-parent families had both parents in the workplace full time.

Pew’s new look at how working couples divvy up child care and home chores is “Raising Kids and Running a Household: How Working Parents Share the Load.” Pew routinely peeks under the covers of American life by polling representative slices of the population. Details from this survey give a glimpse into the lives of some of the most-stressed Americans.

The financial advantage when both parents (married or sharing a child and living together) work full time is undeniable. Here’s the median* income when:

  • Both parents work full-time: $102,400
  • Father works full-time, mother works part-time: $84,000
  • Father works full-time, mother stays at home: $55,000

(*Median income means half earn more and half earn less.)

Revealing details

A richer picture of families comes out in the details. For example, those who tell researchers that they spend “too little time” with their children include:

  • Half of dads working full time
  • 41 percent of dads working part time
  • 39 percent of moms working full time

When both parents in a family work full time outside the home:

  • 59 percent say they share household chores about equally.
  • 61 percent say they share equally the role of disciplining children.
  • 64 percent say both spouses spend about the same amount of time playing and doing activities with their children.
  • 47 percent say both tend to sick children equally.
  • 39 percent say they share equally in scheduling and managing kids’ activities.
  • 62 percent said both parents are equally focused on work.

When it comes to earning power:

  • 50 percent say the father earns most.
  • 22 percent say the mother earns most.
  • 26 percent say they both earn about the same.

Sharing family work makes marriage succeed

Sharing the work of running a family is critical to a healthy relationship, Pew researchers have learned. An older survey, Modern Marriage, unveils an intriguing statistic: Couples said “sharing household chores” was the third-most-important factor (after “faithfulness” and “a happy sexual relationship”) in a list of nine qualities that make a marriage successful.

Chore-sharing mattered more than having enough money, good housing, shared interests, shared religious beliefs, having children and shared political values.

Agreement on this subject was nearly universal, without regard to gender, age or marital status. African Americans and Hispanics placed even slightly more emphasis on sharing chores, as did working married women.

Evidence of how things change: In 1990, only 47 percent placed importance on sharing chores, vs. 62 percent in 2007.

Best intentions

Oddly, even men with the best intentions often adopt more-traditional roles after children enter their marriages, says Clair Cain Miller. Miller writes about domestic roles for The New York Times.

“Millennial men — ages 18 to early 30s — have much more egalitarian attitudes about family, career and gender roles inside marriage than generations before them, according to a variety of research by social scientists,” Miller says.

But many younger couples who start married life with a more equal division of labor can’t sustain it after kids arrive, she writes. Researchers theorize that’s partly because of the inflexibility of workplace policies but also, Miller reports, men are less apt to seek out a job based on family-friendly benefits or more reluctant to use them if they’re available.

Writes Miller:

Women are more likely to use benefits like paid leave or flexible schedules, and in the absence of those policies, they cut back on work. Men work more.

“It’s not that they’ve (younger men) thrown over their ideals, it’s just enacting those are much harder given the workplace and cultural structures they’re encountering,” Hunter College sociologist Pamela Stone told Miller.

Reasons for backsliding

Atlantic magazine writer Alexandra Bradner speculates about other reasons for the imbalance. A sampling of her thoughts:

  • Maybe men can’t get the flexibility from employers that they need to pull their share of child-rearing duty.
  • Possibly guys don’t notice many jobs their mates do because they’re not things guys were brought up doing — helping with craft projects, coordinating with teachers, and household planning, for a few examples.
  • Perhaps men hesitate to dive into unfamiliar jobs, apprehensive about taking on things they might not do well.

Whatever the reason, Bradner says, the gap means that, because few couples can even the books by paying professionals to do housework, cooking, errands, laundry, shopping, home repairs and child care, women subsidize the economy with free labor.

A way forward

Bradner suggests that parents — dads, especially — ask themselves these questions:

  • Do I do half of the laundry and half of the dishes every day?
  • Do I buy half of the clothes and toys?
  • Do I take on half of the management of my care providers?
  • Do I write half of the lists and notes?
  • Do I wake up in the middle of the night to calm the baby half of the time?
  • Do I change half of the diapers?
  • Do I plan half of the travel?
  • Do I track half of the household budget?
  • Do I put the kids to bed half of the time?
  • Do I make half of the grocery, sports and after-school lesson runs?
  • Do I write half of the e-mails to my kids’ teachers?
  • Do I watch the kids for half of the weekend and for half of every weeknight?

Does your two-career family have a way of managing your lifestyle that you’d like to share? Let us know in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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