Karina Kononenko/Shutterstock
Source: Karina Kononenko/Shutterstock

For most heterosexual couples, the partner with the larger paycheck contributes less at home. Not so in same-sex couples. Those in heterosexual marriages and partnerships may have something to learn from “modern families" and end up feeling  happier and less burdened.

The Families and Work Institute has released findings from a new study, “Modern Families: Same- and Different-Sex Couples Negotiating at Home.” The Institute looked at 225 dual-earner couples, married or living together for a minimum of a year. Some had children, some did not, but most worked over 40 hours per week.

“In the final analysis, the defining feature of satisfaction with family responsibilities may not be who does what, but who says what they want to do,” says Kenneth Matos, Ph.D., author of the study and senior director of research at the Institute.

A panel of four—representing two gay male couples, a lesbian couple and a heterosexual couple—has discussed the division of labor in their households with emphasis on child care. Andrew Solomon, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and the National Book Award-winning author of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, posited that mothers in particular experience a certain amount of ambivalence around parenting. In a recent New York Times magazine cover story about pregnancy, he wrote, “Mothers often exaggerate, to themselves and to others, their protective, adoring feelings, and ... discount their feelings of irritation or anger as weaknesses.”

Women in different-sex couples have the lowest levels of satisfaction with household and child care responsibilities—significantly lower than men in same-sex couples. “We want to avoid the default mode of traditional mother-father roles,” Solomon said.

Straight couples can be seen as not “modern” because their male-female roles are so etched in our culture, says Tiffany Dufu, chief learning officer for the Levo League and an advocate for advancing women and girls. “We take on what we saw our mothers do and have such a low expectation of what our partners can do.” To feel less overwhelmed, Tiffany has assigned her husband the children’s social schedules, the hiring of babysitters, and other tasks more typically assumed by mothers.

The Institute discovered that among different-sex, dual-earner couples, gender, income, and work hours predict how responsibilities are divided. Women earning less and working fewer hours are primarily responsible for stereotypical chores such as cooking, laundry, and cleaning, for example. Such women may be less satisfied with division of labor at home than men in same-sex couples, Matos suggests, “because women in different-sex couples may be less likely to share their thoughts about dividing roles when they first move in together.” 

But rather than allowing themselves to be resigned to those roles, heterosexual couples can learn from same-sex couples, particularly those who are raising children.

Also: The best divisions don’t have to be fifty-fifty.

Negotiating at Home

Matos explains that societal household responsibility norms are changing, especially for same-sex couples. During an episode of the sitcom Modern Family, stay-at-home father Cam, told his lawyer husband, “I don’t like to clean up [after dinner]. It’s smelly, it’s sticky, and after I eat, I’m tired, and I just want to lay down.” At-home mothers in heterosexual couples may not similarly speak up, but it's beneficial to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

When it comes to caring for children, same-sex couples also share more of the responsibilities than different-sex couples. In same-sex couples, the study reported, household/child care chores and routines were shared 74 percent of the time—versus just 38 percent of the time in male-female couples. The difference appears to rest in making deliberate decisions about the division of labor. To ensure that both parties are satisfied, those decisions need to be made early in a relationship and discussed or changed when one party, like Cam or Dufu, is unhappy.

How to Go Forward

  • Focus less on establishing an equal division of responsibilities and more on what works best within your relationship.
  • Don't assign chores or responsibilities simply due to traditional or deeply-ingrained gender models or expectations for those roles.

Because men in same-sex couples parcel chores on an individual basis and not so much on who earns more, they may be more content in their home lives. It’s more about feeling adequately appreciated and having a voice, rather than how specific chores are divided. Adopting these principles may go a long way in shifting motherhood and fatherhood to “parenthood.”

Related

Resources

Matos, Kenneth. “Modern Families: Same- and different-sex couples negotiating at home.” Families and Work Institute, June, 2015.

Solomon, Andrew. Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. New York: Scribner, 2012; paperback, 2013.

Solomon, Andrew. “The Secret Sadness of Pregnancy with Depression.New York Times: Magazine, May 28, 2015.

Copyright @2015 Susan Newman

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