Gender attitudes become more traditional after birth of first child

When their first child is born, men and women grow more traditional in their gender attitudes towards mothering, as well as about who does housework and caregiving, according to a new study.

The study of nearly 1,800 new parents led by Janeen Baxter, Professor and Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course, found the changes in gender beliefs varied significantly between men and women.

The research found that both sexes changed their previous views to support more strongly the ideas that a woman’s main role is being a mother, that mothers should work only if they need the money and that young children should not stay in childcare for prolonged periods of time. However, women also believed more strongly than they did before the birth that working women can be just as good caregivers as stay-at-home mums. New mothers also became less likely than before to say that working mothers care more about their careers than about their children.

New fathers, on the other hand, became more consistently traditional in their views on gender roles. They were less likely than before to agree that men and women in dual-earner couples should share housework and childcare equally. They were more likely to agree that a working mother is less able than a stay-at-home mother to establish a bond with her child.

The researchers says that although the study was of Australian new parents, data from other countries suggests that many Western societies – the US, UK, New Zealand and Canada – show similar results.

Professor Baxter says: “Our findings should concern policy makers because these differences may indicate that couples face extra stress at a difficult time in their lives – the first birth – which is typically associated with deterioration in the quality of couple relationships. This shift by both sexes towards supporting traditional gender roles around motherhood – reflecting and reinforcing typical social, employment and cultural structures – may also have downsides for children. It leaves reluctant mothers with less opportunity to rethink intensive roles that may not fit them, their partners or their children. More traditional attitudes on gender may also make it more difficult for enthusiastic fathers to be as involved with their children to a degree that might be better for everyone. In short, our society is not providing a full range of opportunities and choices for either men or women in the field of parenting, to which we should be attracting the most able and willing talents.”

The researchers say the research shows attitudes are not stable over the course of someone’s life. Professor Baxter says she doesn’t believe there is a biological explanation for the change in attitudes to gender roles, given that there is no similar shift in some, particularly non-western, societies where there is more sharing of childcare.

She says: “It seems more likely that the way we organise work, parental leave arrangements, public services for children, schools and social networks create structural barriers to involved fatherhood and also encourage the traditional social construction of women’s mothering role. Whether you are male or female, you have to be very confident and persistent against overwhelming odds not to conform amid such powerful messaging.

“An explanation rooted in social pressure also fits the apparently contradictory attitudes that many women express about work and motherhood. Welfare benefits introduced by most western governments prioritise the mother’s role around the birth. However, they also encourage women to go back to work, even when they are single parents and their children are quite young. This confusion in policy seems to mirror contradictions in women’s identity.”

She adds that male and female constructions of fatherhood seem “riddled with contradiction” between support for the breadwinner role and greater involvement in children’s lives.

The researchers call on governments to assist by providing greater support to parents and employers to provide leave arrangements, social services and financial assistance to allow parents to develop work-parenting arrangements “that suit their specific needs at different stages of the parenting cycle”.

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