Fathers Are Doing More Childcare Than Ever Before

More childcare also means fathers are becoming more stressed than mothers

Posted Sep 11, 2018

Though mothers in two-income households still do, on average, an hour more of childcare and housework a day than their male partners, those numbers hide an interesting trend among younger families. Narrow the research to families with children under the age of six, and focus on places where fathers have been given the right to take paternity leave after the birth of a child, and the numbers change dramatically. Studies from Austria by Georg Wernhart and his colleagues at the Austrian Institute for Family Studies are showing that dads now do up to one hour more domestic work in heterosexual families where both parents have paid employment. Mothers, meanwhile, are actually doing less than they did a generation ago, and in many cases, less than fathers.

The situation is made even worse (this time for men) by the fact that both mothers and fathers of younger children in Austria (and other similar European countries) are working longer hours, though it’s dads that tend to be putting in more hours on the job with little reprieve at home. Indeed, some comparative studies are finding that over half of men in dual earner families are working well over 40 hours a week. It appears that the double shift that used to affect women most has become the norm for men in contexts where there are social policies to promote gender equality. This trend is likely explained by bias among employers and stigma directed towards among men who care for children. While they may be scoring kudos at home, on the job men still feel like they should be workers first, parents second.

All those hours of paid and unpaid work are taking their toll. Mothers and fathers are both reporting sleeping less: mothers are sleeping 45 minutes less a night and fathers a full hour less than a decade ago. Even worse, researchers in countries like Austria and Norway are finding that it’s men who are reporting the greatest stress with regard to maintaining work-life balance.

If this all sounds a bit incredulous to mothers who are still doing the bulk of domestic labour, my Austrian colleagues suggest that we remember that this trend towards men doing more domestic labour only applies to families where both parents are fully employed, and younger in age. It seems that when national data on domestic labour remains aggregated, women as a whole still report doing far more housework. Dig a little deeper, though, and distinguish between households with older children (and therefore older parents who may hold more traditional values) and indeed new trends begin to emerge. As a father of five children, four of them in their early 20s, it is clear to me that my sons are very likely to be just as involved in childcare as their heterosexual partners (if they decide to make me a grandfather, that is).

It would seem, though, that despite the potential for problems, legislation to support greater gender equality by providing fathers with at least one month of “daddy leave” following the birth of a child, and up to three more months of paid or unpaid non-transferrable leave (the men have to take the time off themselves, or it is a lost benefit) is achieving its desired goal: greater involvement of fathers in childcare. However, as some US states and Canada increase parental leave benefits (Canada now offers 18 months to parents, with the non-birth parent eligible for up to 13 weeks of that total time) it is important that we ensure that gender equality doesn’t result in both mothers and, now, fathers, becoming victims of expectations to over-function. For a quick review of which countries are doing best with parental leave, documents are available from the US-based WORLD Policy Analysis Center. There, unfortunately, you’ll see that the US is one of a very few industrialized nations without a national policy governing the rights of parents to take leave. That is an unfortunate fact as sociologists like Karin Wall from the University of Lisbon are showing very clearly that gender equality is a likely outcome when parental leave policies ensure that men have time off from paid employment to be at home after the birth of their children.

But equality doesn’t necessarily mean families as a whole are functioning well. The double shift that plagued older mothers a generation ago (and continues in many places with antiquated laws that provide no legal right to maternity and paternity leave) is a risk for fathers too if we don’t think about parenting as just as important as paid labour. Gender equality in the home has to come with work-life balance if a family is to maintain healthy communication, good organization, and nurturing childrearing practices.