Opinion | Dads Still Get Extra Leisure Time. Moms Are Still Subsidizing It.
Last week, President Biden signed an executive order meant to make child care more accessible and affordable. Though it remains to be seen how much of this order will go into effect, or what impact it will have, it’s an indication that solving the child care crisis is somewhere on the priority list. It’s pretty much the first glimmer of hope for a more functional child care system since Build Back Better’s demise, and a sign that the Biden administration is paying attention to the ways parents have struggled since the pandemic started in early 2020.
And, despite the now-predictable grumbling from many employers over the normalization of remote work, new data shows that it’s unlikely that Americans will return to our pre-Covid way of office life. In March, my newsroom colleague Emma Goldberg looked into the numbers and found, per one academic study, that “27 percent of paid full-time days were worked from home in early 2023.” According to another survey, Goldberg reported, in Manhattan, “only 9 percent of employees were in the office five days a week, underscoring the reach of hybrid arrangements.”
That kind of flexibility is coveted by many of us, across demographics, including, particularly, working mothers, according to a report published in February by Future Forum (a consortium supported in part by the instant messaging provider Slack): “Location flexibility continues to be valuable to parents, including 84 percent of working mothers. Fifty-nine percent of working mothers say they want to work outside of the office three to five days a week compared with 47 percent of working fathers.”
If the Biden administration is able to make good on its efforts to ease the child care crunch and more employers accept that remote work appears here to stay, that’ll be, at least, a measure of progress for working moms. But there’s an aspect of our day-to-day that seems stuck in gender-normative quicksand, despite the tectonic shifts of 2020. And that’s the do-it-all culture around working mothers. There, the pace of progress is glacial, with a headline from earlier this month in The 19th pretty much saying it all: “Even When Women Make More Than Their Husbands, They Are Doing More Child Care and Housework.”
In that article, Chabeli Carrazana reports on new data from Pew Research Center showing that despite increases in female earnings and labor force participation over the years, women in different-sex relationships still do more household work and caregiving, and men in those relationships who work outside the home don’t pick up the slack. According to Pew:
This is true in egalitarian marriages — where both spouses earn roughly the same amount of money — and in marriages where the wife is the primary earner. The only marriage type where husbands devote more time to caregiving than their wives is one in which the wife is the sole breadwinner. In those marriages, wives and husbands spend roughly the same amount of time per week on household chores.
This “second shift” dynamic has, pretty clearly, been around for generations, and at least one reason for it was documented a decade ago: A 2013 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research said, “Our analysis of the time use data suggests that gender identity considerations may lead a woman who seems threatening to her husband because she earns more than he does to engage in a larger share of home production activities, particularly household chores.”
One way to read that is that so-called women’s work isn’t just doing the household chores but also doing them in such a way that men feel better about themselves.
What’s curious — and depressing — is that we have data from other countries that shows what happens, in some instances, when men do more caregiving. A 2018 study of Swedish couples looked at what happened when fathers got, starting in 1995, an added month of paid parental leave that was earmarked specifically for them — if they didn’t use it, it couldn’t be transferred to mothers. While the reform led more men to take paid leave, it didn’t affect the “long-run division of household work,” and it was followed by a greater incidence of couples separating than before the reform was introduced. (A subsequent reform in 2002 that allowed an additional nontransferable month was not found to lead to more separations.)
A 2019 study showed that in Spain, when fathers began to receive an added two weeks of paid parental leave starting in 2007, it “led to delays in subsequent fertility.” The study’s authors theorized that “men reported lower desired fertility after the reform, possibly due to their increased awareness of the costs of child rearing.” Apparently, just two weeks at home with a newborn made Spanish dads jittery about the entire enterprise.
The cultural hurdles women face at home overlap with hurdles women face in the workplace. Not just because they’re more stressed out and burned out from working this second shift — they are — but also because they’re being hampered in their careers by gendered expectations. According to a new report from the consulting firm Deloitte, which polled 5,000 women across 10 countries:
Nearly four in 10 women overall say they feel they need to prioritize their partner’s career over their own; notably, even for women who are primary earners, one in five still feel pressured to prioritize their partner’s career. This potentially creates a vicious circle which limits women’s chances of earning more.
I called Misty Heggeness, an economics researcher and associate professor at the University of Kansas, and asked her what we can do about the lack of balance when it comes to taking on household labor, and why this feels so impossible to fix. First, she told me that she’s done the math based on time-use data and found that women are, in effect, doing about an extra month of unpaid labor a year, while men get an extra month of leisure.
Which leads me to her second point, which is that conversations around division of household labor need to start happening more among men, even though it may be rational for them to not want to change. (Who wants to give up a month of extra leisure? I sure wouldn’t.) They need to step up and take action — to at least start entertaining the notion of working some of these second shifts — to “dilute some of the exhaustion” women are feeling, Heggeness said. “We can’t just, as women, continue to have these circular conversations with ourselves. Because we alone cannot solve the problem.”
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
When I was cutting two pieces of cake for my children, it was impossible to avoid a crisis. “She got the biggest one!” “No, he got the big one!” So I said to the older child: You cut it, but she gets to choose. Ever since, I’ve never seen two portions more identical.
— Pierre Mackay, Montreal
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