Equally Shared Parenting - Half the Work ... All the Fun

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Here's where we keep you updated on news about parenting as it relates to division of responsibilities, career versus home decisions, work/life balance, and legislative and grass-roots movements toward equality or better choices for families. We'll also throw in our opinions of life as equal parents in a nonequal world, regardless of what's in the news.

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Equality Blog

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Romance of Shared Housework

The Council on Contemporary Families released a briefing paper earlier this month that sheds light on the link between sharing housework (and breadwinning) and the strength of a marriage. The evidence is mounting, according to the paper, that couples who share these two domains are less likely to divorce.

The paper's author, sociologist Lynne Price Cook, mentions that some people claim that traditional male-breadwinner, female-caretaker marriages are more successful than marriages with two breadwinners, but then explains that this is only true if the woman in a two-breadwinner family continues to do all (or presumably almost all) the housework - the classic 'second shift.' In fact, according to Price Cook's own research, the couples who share both of these domains are the happiest.

Price Cook makes an interesting statement in this briefing paper; one that I would like to understand better by examining the raw data. She says that the optimum balance of workload (for lowest divorce rate) is when the man earns 60% of the family's money and the woman does 60% of the housework. In other words, what she calls a 40/60 split in each domain (although this definition does not match with our own, since she is using money to divide the breadwinning, not time spent working). She says that her data show "the divorce risk begins to rise again when a wife starts earning as much or more than her husband and he does more of the housework. But this risk does not exceed that of male breadwinner marriages until the woman earns more than 80 percent of the couple's income." Her conclusion is that neither Mr. Mom (SAHD) nor Father Knows Best (SAHM) is a stable marital arrangement today.

It makes sense to me that the most stable arrangement is one in which couples share these domains. I agree that when one person owns a domain (either housework or breadwinning) to a large extent, this can destablize marriages in which partners were expecting a more equitable and balanced way of relating to each other. So far, so good. I can even buy that her data show a 40/60 split to be the most stable balance point - because this is where our culture currently allows couples to safely go.

Men still connect their self-worth to their breadwinning prowess in our culture, and women connect theirs with their ability to care for home and children. So it is likely still uncomfortable for many couples to be true equals in these areas. Not because they can't be, but because they are holding on to gendered assumptions about their roles, and all their friends are doing the same.

Going 50/50 can be risky. Not as risky, per this paper, as going traditional or reverse traditional, but 50/50 can still push people's buttons if they don't consciously reject cultural expectations and if they cannot ground themselves in their own dreams instead. I think that's why some reactions to ESP are so dismissive; it can be threatening.

But once you're past this artificial barrier, the fear becomes a non-issue. Fifty/fifty is fantastic to those of us who want it. My guess, and of course I'm biased here, is that Price Cook's data might look different if she measured time spent working rather than money earned (and I wonder if she had enough true 50/50 couples to compare with 40/60 couples to reach statistical significance on the difference in divorce rates). I also believe (and perhaps she does too) that she is reporting something that will be changing rapidly. Younger couples, for example, likely find social role norms far less important than older couples. My gut tells me they'll crash right through those artificial barriers and keep going without much discomfort. And they will reach the 50/50 promised land.

You can too. Anyone can, if they are ready.


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