October 24, 2017

Inequality Hits Home

Having kids tests the balance of work and responsibility in couples' relationships. Wives usually end up doing more than their husbands.

Women have made some progress in terms of gender equality at work, but at home it's another story. A study that provides evidence of what men actually do while their wives do housework and care for the kids shows that men are often not pulling their weight around the house.

Three months after the birth of their first child, on days when both partners were not at work, the Ohio State University and University of North Carolina researchers found that men were often enjoying leisure activities, while women were occupied with housework and childcare. In fairness, men did help around the house and care for the kids, but their wives were often doing the same thing.

Men were often enjoying leisure activities, while women were occupied with housework and childcare.

Household tasks are not being shared equally, even among couples one would expect to have an egalitarian view of the division of housework and parenting duties, Claire Kamp Dush, lead author on the study, told TheDoctor. And that is not the way it should be.

Nobody likes doing housework, but it needs to be done. “If couples want to foster a good relationship, both partners should take responsibility for all the parts of that relationship, not just the fun parts,” Kamp Dush points out.

Women Micromanage; Men Shirk

The data came from 52 couples who were participating in the New Parents’ Project, a study of mostly white, highly educated, dual-earner couples from the Columbus, Ohio area who were having their first child.

On their days off, women spent 46 to 49 minutes relaxing, while men did childcare or housework. However, men spent about 101 minutes in leisure activities on their days off, while their wives did some kind household or childcare-related tasks.

Kamp Dush, an associate professor of human sciences at Ohio State, said she was surprised by the disparity in the time women spent working while men engaged in leisure activities. “The amount of time women spent working while men were doing leisure activities actually increased across the transition to parenthood,” she said.

“Maternal gatekeeping” — how women manage men’s childcare and housekeeping — is behind some of the imbalance. Because society tends to judge women by how well they fill their roles as wives and mothers, women tend to hover over men and micromanage their domestic efforts. For example, if a child has mismatched or dirty clothes, people will look at mom, not dad, as having failed. If visitors find the couple's house dirty, the woman is likely to be seen as to blame, not her husband. This social pressure may be why women feel they must watch or help their husbands do childcare or housework.

Husbands may say to their wives, “Tell me what you want me to do.” But that’s irritating to women, who think, “You see the dishwasher needs loading, go do it!”

For their part, men might want to do childcare and housework, but don't like being told how to do it. Or it may be they take advantage of the fact that they don’t have to do things or do them well — their wives will take over and do it. They also could, consciously or unconsciously, perform these tasks poorly, so they don’t have to do them.

“When it comes to parenting, try not to sweat the small stuff,” Kamp Dush advises. Husbands will learn that if the diaper is not put on the right way, they will have to change the baby’s clothes, and they will put the diaper on properly the next time! Men also need to learn to say, “I know I do not do this the same way you do, but this way also works, and I want to support you doing housework and childcare, so let me do it.”

Sometimes people do not realize how they are spending their time. Husbands may not realize, for example, they are on their phones while their wives are doing housework. So they say to their wives, “Tell me what you want me to do.” But that’s irritating to women, who think, “You see the dishwasher needs loading, go do it.”

Having an honest conversation about these issues and looking at how both partners are spending their time can help, Kamp Dush said. Men may not want to give up part of their leisure time, but if they see it can lead to a better relationship with their wives and more intimacy, they are more likely to come to feel differently.

It may be a good idea to talk to a couples’ therapist before both partners develop a lot of resentment. “You don’t want to get to the point where you don’t even like each other and aren’t even talking,” Kamp Dush said. It is much better to deal with things head on, and then move forward with better strategies.

The study is published in the journal Sex Roles.

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