Will equal sharing of housework and childcare reverse the trend toward smaller families?
The enormous time and energy investment of mothers compared to that of fathers probably greatly influences the number of children they bear. The division of labor ratio between husbands and wives continues to run about 2:1, a ratio that Sampson Lee Blair, associate professor of sociology at the University of Buffalo, finds is no different from 90 years ago when women stayed home. In hard numbers today, the average wife participates in 31 hours of housework a week while the average husband does 14.
Given that so many women work, one would think men would pitch in more. Employed mothers manage the same household tasks and childcare activities as homemaking mothers equaling two full-time jobs for women who work and raise children. Women are well aware of this reality. In her New York Times Magazine article, "When Mom and Dad Share It All," Lisa Belkin wrote, "Gender should not determine the division of labor at home." But it does.
In my book, The Case for the Only Child, I discuss how husbands pressure wives to add to their family. The female vote should be counted twice since she's the person who winds up doing the lion's share of the work. In general, most men don't think domestically. Francine Deutsch reports in her book, Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works, that men continue to use age-old strategies for avoiding housework and child responsibilities : They ignore requests for help, claim incompetence, or declare the wives are better at the task since males have lower standards for this sort of thing.
Honey, It's Your Day to Vacuum
Women's education and elevation in the workforce and in earning power have created an environment in which change is possible. Ten years ago, Barbara Risman, professor of sociology at the University of Illinois and Danette Johnson-Summerford wrote an article for the Journal of Marriage and the Family, "Doing It Fairly: a Study of Postgender Marriages," stating that in families with dual incomes, especially when the wife's income is substantial, child care and household chores are more likely to be equitable.
We are not close to being there and women, as the declining fertility rates suggest, continue to think about what it means to them to have a second or third baby. One savvy husband who finally agreed with his wife to keep their only a singleton told me: "What Sally does or doesn't do, how she feels about taking care of Jamie and me, affects us every single day. If she's not happy, it's going to be difficult for us to be happy."
Belkin's article focuses on these families who, unlike Sally's husband, are attempting equality in the home with different degrees of success. But let's face it, men who cut back their job hours or stay home full-time are rare. In an effort to change the imbalance, couples have begun (at a snail's pace) to enroll in programs to help them learn how to share the home jobs. They learn to take turns staying home with the kids when they are sick; they make precise charts to help them stick to a fair schedule of chores and errands. One husband-wife team started Equally Shared Parenting, a website "for fathers and mothers who have made (or wish to make) a conscious decision to share equally in the raising of their children, household chores, breadwinning, and time for recreation."
It is highly likely that until we see a dramatic swing toward equitable distribution of "labor" in the home, the upswing in only-child and small families will continue. Lyn Craig at the University of New South Wales' Social Policy Research Centre put it this way, "Children are a social benefit to everyone, but they are a public good for which mothers are paying a disproportionately high price. If women experience a huge disparity of opportunity and equality according to whether or not they are mothers, then who is going to have kids?"
If your partner took on more of the housework and childcare, would you consider having more children?
Copyright 2008 by Susan Newman