The long read: Equal parenting – and why so few of us do it

When parents share duties at home, it boosts mothers’ careers, fathers’ happiness, children’s educational outcomes, and parents’ relationship satisfaction. So why do so few of us do it?

Illustration showing mothers and fathers and an equal sign

 

When Angela went back to work in late 2021, her husband took Mondays and Tuesdays off to look after their one-year-old daughter. Angela, a youth justice case worker in London, was out of the house for at least 6.30am-7.30pm on those days. Her husband was most definitely flying solo.

Angela says having a husband who is involved at home has been central to her successful return to work. “That support has allowed me to continue my career, to continue doing the work that I wanted to do,” she says.

This year, the public debate about mothers’ careers has centred on the UK’s patchy and expensive childcare system. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a big expansion in ‘free’ childcare schemes in last month’s Budget, in response to mounting public pressure (although he hasn’t yet announced enough funding to carry out this pledge). 

Formal childcare is certainly a key factor in mothers having more choice over how much they work. But it is striking that another factor is hardly mentioned: fathers. 

Several studies have shown that, in heterosexual two-parent households, the father’s involvement at home directly impacts the mother’s ability to have a career. PwC’s Women in Work report, published last month, forecast that even just giving UK fathers five weeks of paid paternity leave, as opposed to the statutory minimum of two weeks, would boost mothers’ working hours and earnings further down the line.

There’s no question at all that [mothers and fathers] sharing childcare is key to women having successful careers that they can really invest in.

“There’s no question at all that [mothers and fathers] sharing childcare is key to women having successful careers that they can really invest in,” says Francine M. Deutsch, a professor emeritus of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, who has studied equal-sharing couples for several years.

“Even if you have [formal] childcare, somebody’s got to drop off and pick up the child…and childcare doesn’t work when the kids are sick. All kinds of things come up,” says Deutsch, who co-edited a 2020 book that interviewed 25 equal-sharing couples in four continents. “Not to mention that, when you get home [each day], there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Angela’s husband returned to full-time work a year later, on top of a second job doing night shifts at a warehouse. Their daughter is now in childcare five days a week. During this phase Angela is doing more of the work in the home, while her husband works longer hours, although they still share many tasks. Because either of them can take the lead at home, they can adjust this balance as they go, depending on their career demands.

Equal-sharing isn’t merely a favour for working mothers – it also boosts fathers’ happiness, children’s educational outcomes, and parents’ relationship satisfaction, a 2021 government review of existing research found. But if this approach to our home-lives is so great, why do so few of us actually do it?

“Before you know it, you’re back in the 1950s”

Retro photo of woman hoovering while man and child lift their feet out the way

Roughly a year ago, Amanda started falling asleep at work. And then one day she fainted.

“I was absolutely exhausted,” she says. “And [my] doctor was saying: ‘You can’t keep on, you can’t function like this, or you’re going to get really ill.”

Amanda had recently returned to her job as a teacher after her second maternity leave. She was pregnant again and having a tough first trimester. She was also doing the bulk of work at home – she would get her sons ready, drop them off at nursery and school, pick them up, and make dinner for everyone, on top of her work day.

Amanda’s set-up was not unusual – UK households are becoming more equal, but change is slow. For every hour that working mothers spent on childcare in March 2022, working fathers spent 39 minutes, according to an analysis of official data by the Fatherhood Institute. For every hour of housework that working mothers did, working fathers did 37 minutes. On both fronts, fathers were doing seven minutes more per hour in 2022 than they did in 2014/15. 

Illustration showing ironLooking at these numbers, it’s easy to hastily conclude that men are dragging their heels. But the truth is much more nuanced.

Amanda now says that, without realising, both she and her husband had simply stayed in patterns that were established during her maternity leave, when she was the chief parent and home-maker. But this wasn’t sustainable once she was back at work.

After the fainting episode, and the doctor’s warning, they sat down and worked out how tasks would be redistributed. Her husband was happy to help. He started doing the morning drop-offs. They both started bulk-cooking at weekends.

In the UK, working women are entitled to 39 weeks of paid statutory maternity leave (albeit on extremely low pay). Men are entitled to just a fortnight of paid leave. This creates a dynamic where mothers spend several months becoming the “expert parent” and taking the lead on everything at home, and these habits can be hard to undo.

Even once parental leave ends, fathers continue to face barriers to being more involved at home because many employers still see flexible working as “a female thing”, says Jeremy Davies, head of impact and communications at the Fatherhood Institute.

[Lots of couples] think they’re going to be super-equitable about it all – and then the baby arrives…

“[Lots of couples] think they’re going to be super-equitable about it all – and then the baby arrives, she’s off on maternity leave, and before you know it you’re back in the 1950s,” he says. “And it’s not that either of you wanted that. But, [due to these] structures, it’s almost forced on you.”

It’s hard for couples to swim against these tides and share home-duties more equally. But not finding the right balance can lead to another damaging habit: arguing. Unequal sharing of childcare and housework “leads to lower marital satisfaction and a higher likelihood of divorce amongst heterosexual couples”, the 2021 government research review found.

“What I see a lot of is people fighting for the victim role,” says Andrew G. Marshall, an author and couples therapist with over 35 years of experience. He sees how both mothers and fathers can feel trapped in their rigid caregiver and breadwinner roles, leading each partner to think that the other person has the easier ride. 

“Both [people] are competing to be the biggest victim. So I’ll say: ‘I’ve got all of this to do.’ And you’ll say: ‘Well, I’ve got all of this to do.’ ”

So, where do we go from here?

Equal sign

So, what would help working parents share duties at home more equally and achieve a balance that they are happy with?

When it comes to society-wide changes, Davies says we need to offer fathers better paternity leave and challenge stigmas around flexible working for men. Fathers should be entitled to four weeks’ paternity leave on 90% pay that they can take whenever they wish, in addition to the existing two weeks’ leave just after the birth.

Davies adds that, ideally, the father should take his second stint after the mother returns to work, so he is the primary caregiver and builds his confidence as a parent. “Otherwise, you’re not challenging the ‘expert parent’ thing…it’s not changing the dynamic,” he says.

Many employers offer “enhanced” maternity and paternity leave packages, which go beyond the statutory minimums. Some companies are also starting to offer “equal parental leave” to mothers and fathers. For example, the insurance company Aviva gives all new parents a year off, six months of which is fully paid. Etsy, the online market, and Reuters, the news agency, are also among the employers that now have non-gendered parental leave policies.

Illustration showing nappyEmployers should also think about how staff are treated when they return from parental leave. Managers should ask returning fathers if they require any change in their working patterns now that they are parents, as often happens with returning mothers, says Jasmine Kelland, a lecturer in Human Resource Studies at the University of Plymouth.

Structural changes take time – and sometimes do not materialise. But that doesn’t mean individual couples should give up. Deutsch, the academic in Massachusetts, says her research showed how couples around the world were still able to divide duties.

“Was it easier for somebody in Iceland with a whole structure that supports them? Yes. But in [countries like] Brazil and the United States, you also had equally-sharing couples,” she says. “The structure helps but it’s not determinative. That’s what I found.”

Wherever they lived, the men in these couples accepted that they would have to make career compromises, while the women learned to let go of the “expert parent” role. They shrugged off judgements from relatives, colleagues, and peers.

The structure helps but it’s not determinative. That’s what I found.

Marshall, the couples therapist, sees many couples where women find it hard to relinquish their expert role, even though it is wearing them out. He encourages mothers to share decisions, not just tasks, if they want sharing to appeal to their partners.

“To have parenting where you always have somebody looking over your shoulder, you’re not rushing to do more of it,” he says. (In other words, if you actually want your partner to get the children ready, you have to roll with whatever outfits they pick.)

Equal-sharing is often viewed mainly as a boost for women’s rights – something that can unchain women from the nappy table and the kitchen sink. But it can also unchain men from long-hours work cultures and the harmful stereotype that they don’t need time with their families.

Angela, the case worker in London, says that her husband’s two days a week of solo parenting with his daughter were precious. 

“I think he enjoyed it – well, not if she was having a tantrum!” Angela laughs. “But, yes, I think he did. That was ultimately his quality time with her…Not everyone has the opportunity to do that. I think now he misses it.”



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