Several years ago, Laura Segal’s husband read a quote that claimed the best gift you could give a working mom is time. He took the advice to heart.
“I think he read it around Mother’s Day time period, and that’s when he was like, ‘You know, I will start doing the laundry,’” said 48-year-old Segal, the senior vice president of communications and external relations for the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of University Women.
Segal and her husband of 14 years, full-time working parents to 9-year-old boy-girl twins, reached their current domestic-labor balance by sitting down and splitting up tasks based on their respective strengths. Today, Segal handles the playtime and child-care arrangements, as well as buying groceries and some cleaning. Her husband does laundry, some of the cleaning and the bulk of putting the kids to bed. Segal does the bill-paying, she said, but they work together on budgeting and finances for the house.
There have been concessions. They have simple dinners, with plenty of takeout and prepared meals, and “definitely don’t keep the house as clean as we would like all the time.” “Some things just have got to give, I think, or I don’t know how we would stay afloat,” she said.
Segal calls her husband “quite a feminist.” He’s “very attuned” to gendered expectations of domestic roles, she said. But to be fair, it’s probably not a total coincidence that an SVP at an equity and education nonprofit wound up choosing a partner who’s willing to pull his weight. “It is funny, working in the gender-equity space and also living it,” Segal said.
The same goes for Natasha Quadlin, a 32-year-old assistant professor at the Ohio State University whose research areas include social inequality, gender and family. “It started with choosing an egalitarian partner to begin with,” Quadlin said of her husband of four years. “I think a lot of us who study work and family are definitely selective about our partners, and wouldn’t be marrying people who weren’t on board with an egalitarian partnership to begin with.”
Quadlin enjoys cooking, while her husband tends to care more about cleaning. They outsource yard work at their Columbus home and subscribe to a meal-delivery service — assistance, she admits, that they are privileged to have. She tries to cut down on the time she spends doing chores or thinking about the gender dynamics at play in her everyday interactions. After all, she said, thinking about those issues for a living can weigh on a person.
“Chores and gender is something that I think about all the time,” she said. “So a lot of times, my response is just to not do it, not engage with it, to the extent that I can.”
But Quadlin admits she and her husband, who don’t have children, have the luxury of negotiating and abstaining from chores if they want to. “Once children enter the equation, even among millennials, that’s often when these really gendered patterns in chores and child care really emerge,” she said. “We haven’t been put in that situation.”
What has and hasn’t changed
Men now perform a larger share of unpaid labor than they did before, and women have increased their participation in the paid workforce. But the fact remains that men spend more time than women doing paid work, while women spend more time than men on unpaid work.
‘Chores and gender is something that I think about all the time. So a lot of times, my response is just to not do it, not engage with it, to the extent that I can.’
For example, U.S. women spend an average of 244 minutes per day on unpaid work, compared to men’s 145.8 minutes, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Moms in 2016 continued to spend more hours per week than dads on child care (14 versus eight, respectively) and housework (18 versus 10), and fewer hours per week on paid work (25 versus 43), according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
Just 19% of men report doing housework like laundry or cleaning on an average day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2017 American Time Use Survey, in contrast to 49% of women. Men were less likely than women to have done food prep or cleanup (46% versus 69%, respectively) and a bit more likely than women to have performed lawn or garden care (11% versus 8%).
And there appears to be some disconnect in men’s and women’s perceptions of just how much housework they do: In a national survey this year by the Washington, D.C.-based gender-justice and violence-prevention organization Promundo, 48% of female parents said they thought their partner’s household workload was unfair to them, while 40% said the same about child care. But just 24% of male parents considered their own household workload unfair to their partners, and 22% thought that of their child-care load.
While same-sex couples tend to have a more equal division of household labor, research suggests that balance shifts after they have kids, as one person performs more of the domestic labor while the other earns more money. Many Americans still assign traditionally female tasks to the more feminine partner in a same-sex couple, and more traditionally male tasks to the more masculine partner, 2016 research by Quadlin found.
Salaries and promotions also begin to diverge after heterosexual couples have kids. A 2018 paper distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that women’s incomes dropped nearly 30% after their first child was born and never recovered, while their occupational rank began to fall behind men’s. This was in Denmark, which offers generous paid parental leave. (The U.S. remains the sole industrialized nation that does not offer paid family leave by law.)
One lab study published in 2007 found that participants would offer an average of $11,000 less to job applicants who were mothers than to women without children. Still more research has suggested new dads receive a 6% “fatherhood bonus” in earnings after having a kid, while new moms get hit with a 4% wage penalty.
While there has been a marked change in the attention paid to modern fatherhood, society continues to “expect so little of dads,” said Promundo president and CEO Gary Barker, who has a 21-year-old daughter with his wife. He recalled, for example, some people in his graduate program 20 years ago being impressed that he would care for his young daughter — or even referring to his child care “babysitting.”
“If we do something close to 50/50 … it looks like we get credit for simply showing up,” Barker said. “I think there is something that’s shifted. It’s still, however, that we get a lot of credit for doing not yet [our] full amount.”
Shattering the status quo could pay off in spades. An alternate reality in which women achieved identical paid participation to men in the economy would add up to $28 trillion (26%) to the global gross domestic product by 2025, according to a 2015 report by the consulting firm McKinsey. And research has linked more balanced housework arrangements with less depression and greater marital satisfaction among women.
‘We more or less both did everything’
When Georgene Huang and her husband were engaged and living together seven years ago, they had a big fight about the division of household labor. “We’d been living together for awhile, and I just felt like I was doing more,” Huang, 39, the co-founder and CEO of the New York-based women’s career community Fairygodboss, told MarketWatch. So they sat down and made lists of the chores they perceived each of them did, and then tried to re-divide responsibilities based on their own preferences and tolerances. They outsourced tasks neither of them wanted, like laundry.
“I think it’s always anchored us in terms of how to be fair about household work,” Huang said. “Actually, writing it down made me realize it was more equal than I thought.”
They later had two sons and a daughter — aged 1, 4 and 6 — who brought with them a whole new set of adjustments. But while certain child-care tasks fell to Huang, like breastfeeding, she says her husband would take on a greater share of non-child-care tasks. And after she no longer had to wake up at night to breastfeed, Huang said, her husband would be the one to tend to the kids at night.
“We’d gotten into the pattern before we had kids of trying to divide equally,” she said. “We would adjust even based on the stage of the child and their needs.”
Some couples struck a domestic-labor balance thanks to unforeseen circumstances. Writer Gemma Hartley, author of a viral 2017 Harper’s Bazaar piece on women’s unpaid emotional labor and the 2018 book “Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women and the Way Forward,” says her household dynamic shifted after her husband was laid off around the time she snagged her book deal. The sudden change meant he had to learn how to run a household for an extended period of time, she said, tending to their three kids now aged 4, 6 and 8.
“He did about four months of really intensive parenting, emotional labor, doing the stay-at-home-dad thing,” Hartley, 30, of Reno, Nev., told MarketWatch. “That was a really big shift for him. I think now that he is back in work, it really affects the way that he takes care of the home and notices what needs to be done when he is at home.”
‘Both of us had to feed children, both of us had to put children to bed, both had to dress and play with children.’
And writer and activist Soraya Chemaly, the author of the 2018 book “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger” and mother of three daughters in their late teens and early 20s, says having her younger twin girls helped pull her and her husband away from traditional gender norms.
“We more or less both did everything,” she said of raising three young children close in age. “Both of us had to feed children, both of us had to put children to bed, both had to dress and play with children.”
“In some ways, it was a real gift because we didn’t have an out,” added Chemaly, who is in her early 50s. “I think very often when you have children sequentially, there’s never enough concentrated demand that you have to disrupt the traditional patterns of parenting. So our situation was altered by that fact, and I’m grateful for that because I think it would’ve been easy even for us to slide into a different situation.” She described their parenting method as “constant baton passing.”
Of course, Chemaly said, that division of labor can be in constant flux as parents’ jobs, kids’ needs and family circumstances change over time. “There were times when we did an equal share better than other times. And then there were times that the inequalities that we felt, either in terms of being responsible for income or domestic care … felt out of whack,” she said. “Then we would circle back and say, ‘OK, that’s out of whack, and how do we readjust?’”
Part of striking a balance means being OK with how the other person handles their share. Segal admits, for example, that she might shop for birthday presents or figure out camp schedules “with probably a different level of intensity” than her husband might. “If you want somebody else to do the activity or take on that responsibility, you also have to be willing and able to understand they’re going to do it the way they will do it,” she said.
It also means making sure one partner isn’t in charge of the most onerous tasks: Chemaly pointed out that dads will often do child-care tasks that are less stressful and more fun, while women get stuck with jobs like administering medicine.
Barker says that fathers are sometimes judged for not providing care in the exact same way in which mothers might. Dads may also bring a “task-oriented” and efficiency-driven checklist approach to child care, he added, which “doesn’t always work” in situations like putting your son to bed or caring for a sick daughter.
The friction doesn’t have to be between partners. Chemaly says she didn’t fight with her husband; rather, they formed a united front against “institutional pressures to perform in gender-traditional ways.” Parental volunteering at school was one such pressure, she said, as moms at her kids’ school were expected to provide unpaid labor simply by virtue of their being moms. Chemaly would ultimately choose to stop volunteering at her daughters’ schools, based on her belief that men and women should be asked to shoulder such work equally.
“I really do believe that even the most progressive families have to deal with these very traditional environments, once children enter institutions,” she said, citing sports, schools and religious institutions as examples.
They made it work, and so can you
If you and your partner struggle to divvy up household chores, child-care duties and emotional labor, here are some strategies to iron them out, according to experts who have thought long and hard about the issue — and lived it themselves:
1. Women, speak up. Men, be more conscious. “I think women a lot of the time don’t feel comfortable speaking up and voicing not only their needs, but their wants for their partnership,” Hartley said. “That was a really big thing for me to start speaking up and handing more stuff over.”
On the other hand, Barker added, “it often falls to women to hold men accountable, which is a huge burden.” “They do the work, and then have to remind a male partner, ‘You should be doing a greater share,’” he said. “How do we as men have a greater awareness?”
2. Keep it “caring and lighthearted and loving,” Barker said. “Otherwise, we just become co-administrators, and we don’t really want to hang out as much anymore — at least not in intimate, loving ways.” Chemaly agreed. “I don’t know how people do it if they’re constantly fighting with their spouse, but we didn’t have that situation because we really were just tied at the hip,” she said.
3. If it ain’t broke … “I don’t think you have to make it a perfect 50/50 balance — I think that’s a pipe dream for most couples because workloads are different; schedules are different,” Hartley said. “As long as you’re making sure that you’re in a place where it feels equal and you feel like there is not resentment building up, don’t fix what isn’t broken.”
4. If you need help, say so. “Cultivate empathy in the other person by not waiting ’til you’re at the point of a breakdown to say, ‘I need help … and here are some concrete ways you can help me,’” Segal said — “as opposed to kind of holding it in and expecting the other person to automatically know.”
5. Express appreciation. Paying compliments for the things that are working can provide positive reinforcement for the role you want your partner to play, Segal said, and show that you value their contributions.
6. Have honest conversations about child care before you have kids, Chemaly said. Will one partner take on a more flexible work schedule to accommodate family life? What kind of long-term effect could that have on their career? Consider the “butterfly effects” of starting a family, she said, and be forthright with your partner about your feelings regarding work, money, life satisfaction and gender roles.
“In the moment, you may not talk about it,” she said. “But five, 10 years down the road, you will be talking about it.”
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