Mothers across the country woke up Sunday to bouquets, handwritten cards, and breakfast-in-bed. But now that the celebrations are over, it’s back to business as usual, namely the disproportionate labor mothers invest in raising children.
As a gay father of two children, my family is less constrained by the norms and expectations that face opposite-sex couples. Still, we did confront the question of unequal household labor. Perhaps the system we developed to balance child-care responsibilities can be useful to others grappling with the challenges of raising children in the modern era.
A 2020 study found that American women spend over two hours more each day on child care, elder care, and housework than men. Women do more even when they earn as much or more than men, and in families where their husbands are unemployed. Balancing work and child care is especially challenging for single mothers and those with special-needs children. This long-standing imbalance has become more pronounced during the global pandemic, contributing to soaring stress and the exodus of 4.5 million women from the U.S. workforce. As sociologist Jessica Calarco surmised, “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.”
Of course, structural factors play a role in the child-care imbalance, including gendered workplace expectations and the lack of federal paid leave, subsidized day care, and free preschool. Our family benefits from reliable child care and flexible work schedules. Even so, to achieve fairness, we needed to be intentional. Early on in our parenting journey, my husband felt like he was doing more of the child care. I thought we were sharing it equally. To tackle this, we created a two-part framework to ensure that our labor would be more fairly distributed.
One part of our framework is focused on equality. We divide equally the time that either of us is alone with the children. We alternate putting the kids to bed after family dinner and playtime. On weekends and holidays, we structure our schedule so that each of us has me-time, solo time with the kids, and time when the four of us are together.
The other part is equity-focused. We roughly divide other child-related duties according to our interests and strengths. As an educator, I take the lead on school as well as the social calendar. My spouse is in health care, so he handles doctors as well as dinners. We have a similar division of labor for other household duties like laundry, finances, and house maintenance. While we do not track this time, the door is always open to renegotiation if circumstances change.
Having predictable and reliable me-time on the weekends allows each of us to juggle our jobs, volunteer commitments, exercise, and occasional sleeping-in without guilt. It also prevents a real or perceived imbalance which can lead to resentment.
For couples that aspire to fairness in parenting, a significant obstacle is the discrepancy in perception of current effort. An April 2020 poll of 2,200 adults with children under 12 found that 30% of men said they were doing the majority of child care, but only 2% of women concurred. In contrast, 70% of women said they were doing the majority of child care, but only 23% of men agreed. There are many reasons underlying these perceptions, including that men may be unaware of the range of labor that falls to their female partners. Women shoulder much of the planning and unexpected responsibilities related to children, like taking the day off when their child gets sick or organizing birthday parties.
An accurate sense of current effort is the first step toward rebalancing responsibilities. Couples can track time over a few days using what social scientists call a time-use study. In this exercise, each partner keeps a diary of time spent on child-related duties. Couples can also list occasional things they are responsible for — taking the children to medical appointments or facilitating video calls with the grandparents.
Once complete, the diaries can be shared and discussed. Which of these components could be shared more equally? Which would benefit from a balancing based on interest and experience? Couples can be creative and flexible. Duties can be evenly split, assumed entirely by one partner, or anything in the middle. Assignments can vary by week, month, or not at all. Switching off — even briefly — is a good way to gain insight and empathy for your spouse’s experience. And families can decide to stop doing certain things or outsource them if resources permit. Duties can also be shifted to children, many of whom are more capable than we expect.
As we celebrate the heroic efforts of mothers, especially during this pandemic year, we have an opportunity to reimagine how parents share their most important responsibility. I hope my children will one day experience the joys of parenting and the opportunity to pursue careers outside the home. And I trust that they will be better able to forge that rich and multidimensional life if they grow up with an equitable model of it now.
Aly Kassam-Remtulla is associate provost at Princeton University and cochair of the Faculty Advancement Network.