Darcy Lockman is a journalist turned psychologist and author of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership.
Men do a lot more than they used to in the home. Their involvement with their children rose as mothers’ labour-force participation increased through the recent decades of the 20th century. But the percentage of child care performed by fathers hit its peak and levelled off around the turn of the millennium without ever reaching parity. Recent time-use studies by the Bureau of Labour Statistics in the United States found that employed women shoulder about 65 per cent of child-care responsibilities, and men 35 per cent. Those percentages, all but carbon copies of what family research in other Western democracies turns up, have held steady since 2000. In the past 20 years, that figure has not budged.
I spent a year interviewing women parenting with men, and found many of them remain in what author Jill Filipovic, in her book The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, referred to as “a strange limbo where men’s actions haven’t totally caught up to women’s expectations.” Or as Berkeley psychologists and pioneering family researchers Carolyn and Phil Cowan put it many years ago, the ideology of the new egalitarian couple is way ahead of its time.
One woman I met, a lawyer in New York who gave birth to her first child two years ago, told me, “I went to a liberal arts school and I took a ton of women’s studies courses. And there was all this conversation about the dynamics of marriage and how things just automatically tended to fall in a certain way and I remember when I was in those classes being like, ‘Well, that’s not going to be me. I don’t know why they do that.’ And then that’s just the way it happened.”
She told me she’s adjusted to the demands of parenthood by making changes to her work life and enlisting outside child care. She loves her evenings with her toddler, but she’s struck by how little has changed in her husband’s life. She’s angry about the liberties he continues to take with his time, his assumption that his involvement at home remains discretionary and that all the many parenting tasks invariably default to her.
She told me, “It’s frustrating that I don’t feel like we have the same responsibilities. He has a cushion that I don’t have. If he has a big project at work, he’s just like, ‘Oh, I’m going to work late.’ He doesn’t have to worry about getting home so the nanny can leave and get back to her kids. If something comes up for me at work, I’ve got to figure out, can my mom come, and if she can’t, how is this going to go? For him, it’s just, ‘I’ve got to work and someone else will take care of it.’ It’s a strain. There’s definitely resentment. It’s not a deal-breaking kind of resentment, but it’s there.”
Men are equally unprepared for their own implicit assertion of privilege – of the implications of being raised in a world that favours their comforts and ambitions over girls’ and, later, women’s. Ask expectant fathers today how they anticipate dividing chores and child care (as researchers have), and most will say their wives will do somewhat more, often because of breastfeeding, but that they will not trail far behind. Six months into their children’s lives, however, these same fathers report that mothers are doing more than expected, and that they are doing less.
“Conventions embodying male dominance have changed much less in ‘the personal’ than in the job world,” says New York University sociologist Paula England, author of The Gender Revolution, Uneven and Stalled. “If you get down to it, we talk about equality, but the part people grasped on to was women changing. Women can have careers, be in the military, become clergy. But the fact is that all of that doesn’t work if household stuff doesn’t shift. And some things are more impervious to change than others.”
Egalitarian couples assume their progressive ideology will carry the day. Sociologists know that it doesn’t. While sharing child care is associated with valuing gender equality, this value is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for equally shared parenting.
Actually, there is limited support in the literature for gender attitudes determining family practices. Here’s one piece of evidence much like all the others: A 2001 study in Toronto looked at 40 couples making the transition to parenthood. The subjects expressed “a stronger commitment to sharing the work … than is usual.” But ultimately, the study found, most of them developed the gendered patterns typical in Canadian families, in which women either cut back on paid work and take charge of the bulk of tasks at home, or don’t cut back on paid work and take charge of the bulk of tasks at home.
Here’s something more recent: A 2014 report from the Families and Work Institute found that while 65 per cent of millennial men without children endorse combined breadwinner/caretaker roles for husbands and wives, only 47 per cent of their peers with children continue to do so. Idealism is all well and good before one has to accommodate its burdens. Or as British author Rebecca Asher writes in Shattered, her book about the state of her feminist ideals after children, “on becoming fathers [men] find that patriarchy suits them rather well after all.”
The trick is not to be caught unaware. A primer on the way gender plays out at home might consider broad swaths of social-science research, not only that fathers of babies spend twice as much weekend time engaged in leisure activity as mothers, but that men in the workplace systematically leave undesirable tasks to women as well. Not only that father-in-a-room-by-himself is the “person-space configuration observed the most frequently” in video recordings of the home life of dual-earner families, but also that men are less likely than women to share cash prizes equally with other participants in an economics experiment known as the dictator game. Not only that 77 per cent of employed mothers say that they are the parent most likely to miss work to care for a sick child, but also that women today report a greater sense of agency than past generations while men today report no greater sense of communality. A list such as this could go on at some length.
Inequality between parents is not, as family researchers the Cowans have observed, “a mysterious virus [parents] picked up when they were in the hospital having their baby.” The mothers I spoke with who were happiest with their division of labour recognized this. They understood that without a lot of effort and explicit conversation, things automatically tend to fall in a certain way.
In studies, spouses aspiring to equal parenting express awareness about gender politics, share dual commitments to work and family and feel poorly served by traditional gender roles. They try to reach their goals through actively negotiating family life, questioning gendered entitlements, developing new competencies and paying mutual attention to family tasks. Equality is not as much an end point as a process – a process whose great payoff is harmony at home for mothers and fathers alike.