Creating equality at home

Professor Francine Deutsch will speak about her new study on equal parenting at the Cambridge Festival next month. It looks at what equal parenting couples across the world have in common.

Working Dads

Dads want more time with their children, more equal parenting and employers who acknowledge that

What are the characteristics of couples who share parenting equally and are there some general principles that transcend culture and legislation?

Francine Deutsch, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College in the US, has been studying the division of family labour for decades. Halving it all, her first book on the subject, back in 2000, was based on a huge study of families in the US who shared parenting equally. She was keen to do a more international study, but knew that to do so she would have to enlist researchers from around the world. Her interest was in the general similarities of couples, rather than the differences. “The book spans couples from Iceland to Indonesia. I wanted to look at whether there are things that cut across cultures when it comes to sharing parenting,” she says.

It took more than a decade to complete the project which is based on 25 couples from around the world. Indeed during that time the researcher she found in Tunisia was appointed a minister for women’s affairs following the Arab Spring and then had to flee into exile.

Professor Deutsch will be speaking about the study and the book she co-edited on it, Creating equality at home, at the online Cambridge Festival on 2nd April.

Studying equal parenting

She says the project started with her going through countries alphabetically and seeking potential collaborators in the social sciences, who had done qualitative family-based research and had published in English. The couples involved in the project had to be heterosexual [since she was looking at gender dynamics], married or co-habiting and both partners had to be working. Their children had to be under 18.

In the event most couples had children under the age of 12. Professor Deutsch says talking to parents with younger children was vital: research shows that the kind of hands-on care required in the early years tends to be highly gendered, with dads generally becoming more involved in parenting as their children get older.

Her group of parents were mostly sharing equally from the very beginning. They were also all ‘non-conformists’, even in the more liberal countries, and many had faced criticism from their families or the wider society about their choices, including a couple in Iceland, which is known for its family-friendly policies. “They have to put up with societies that are not very supportive and require a certain level of self confidence to thwart norms,” says Professor Deutsch. Some of the fathers loved that non-conformist aspect – one Austrian father revelled in being the only dad at home with his child. Many picked their friends carefully – for instance, other couples where men were very hands on so they didn’t feel alone. Some ditched old friends – an Australian couple, who both worked part time and saw their earnings drop substantially, moved away from friends who didn’t share their anti-materialistic approach.

Changing the narrative

Asked about the impact of wider society on children’s attitudes to gender, Professor Deutsch says research shows that children do absorb egalitarian attitudes they experience at an early age and that, in any event, people have the agency to overcome social attitudes. Indeed, most of the couples in the book grew up in traditional families with only a minority having a relatively egalitarian family background. “In many instances, their parents were anti-models. Women saw their mothers being in a subordinate position – a mother in Singapore mentioned that she didn’t want to be a servant. A father in Austria said that the only thing he learnt from his father was how not to parent,” says Professor Deutsch.

Some of the men learnt through helping their mothers with housework and childcare to be more confident about doing non-traditional tasks. Professor Deutsch said the theory is that children learn most from what parents of the same sex as them do – and sometimes do the opposite of that when they grow up – but her research shows that boys also learn a lot from their sisters and mothers, including how their fathers treat their mothers. A number of the fathers had not had a close relationship with their own dads and wanted a different kind of relationship with their children.

Legislation vs agency

Professor Deutsch says that legislation on issues such as parental leave and flexible working is important and that it is no accident that more families share parenting equally in Sweden than in Indonesia, but she adds: “The caveat is that people have to use the policies. Even in Iceland which has the best policies and a very egalitarian rhetoric it is a minority of couples where fathers share as much of the leave as mothers. Fathers get part of the leave, part is reserved for mothers and they can share another part, but often that goes to the mother.”

And she says that even in countries such as the US, which has no national statutory parental leave entitlement, and where sharing parenting is harder, if parents are really determined they can find ways to share. One dad in the US had saved his holiday time up to enable him to share time off after the baby was born.

Moreover, in some countries broader cultural issues played a part in parents’ equal parenting decisions. In Indonesia, which is very traditional in its attitude to gender, a couple who were sharing parenting equally based this on a collective ethic. “Once you take gender out of the equation it is easier to share because Indonesia is a more collectivist society. In the West we are more individualistic so there is a different mentality,” says Professor Deutsch.

She agrees flexible working is hugely important for sharing parenting, enabling men to prioritise their families over work. Some of the fathers in her book had changed career or gone part time so that they could share parenting. But even where there was flexible working legislation, some fathers had had to negotiate with unsupportive employers about both taking parental leave and working flexibly. What distinguishes the dads in the study is that, where employers were unsupportive, they were willing to take the penalties, such as lower earnings and lower chances of promotion.

For Professor Deutsch what is important in couples who share parenting equally is the commitment to undoing gender, whether that means men putting family over work or women making room for men to be equal care givers. “People need to have the fortitude to thwart social and cultural norms,” she says.

*Creating equality at home: how 25 couples around the world share housework is published by Cambridge University Press.

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