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June 13, 2008

It's Been a Century, and Women Still do Twice as Much Child Care

When men and women argue about the gender gap when it comes to time spent on household chores -- cooking, cleaning, yard work, and home repairs -- men often suggest that women should lower their standards. In other words, if you want the apartment to be neat and tidy, and he wants it to be a pig pen, you can compromise on it being disheveled and dusty. Right?

Whatever you think of that argument, it's a lot tougher to make the case that a "middle ground" can be reached on child care chores; cleaning, dressing, shopping for, and feeding kids. Researchers who study the division of child care between married couples don't count reading to kids or playing with them among these chores. As a result, they've found something startling, Lisa Belkin reports in a Times Magazine feature:

Where the housework ratio is two to one, the wife-to-husband ratio for child care in the United States is close to five to one. As with housework, that ratio does not change as much as you would expect when you account for who brings home a paycheck. In a family where Mom stays home and Dad goes to work, she spends 15 hours a week caring for children and he spends 2. In families in which both parents are wage earners, Mom’s average drops to 11 and Dad’s goes up to 3. Lest you think this is at least a significant improvement over our parents and grandparents, not so fast. ...

Back when women had to tend fires to cook and put clothes through the wringer and then onto the clothesline, they spent 50 hours a week on housework and men spent 20. (A ratio of 2.5 to 1.) And back in the 1950s, when no one was even bothering to measure how many hours men spent on child care because it was thought to be negligible, the average mother spent 12 to 15 hours caring for her children — the same as they spend today.

That's remarkable. Over the course of a century in which women's roles outside of the home expanded radically, mothers continued to spend the exact same number of hours on basic childcare chores as their great-great-grandmothers did. And the average working man with a working spouse still spends just three hours a week on basic child care.

Belkin's article focuses on a program called ThirdPath that promotes "Equally Shared Parenting" -- a systematic approach that "trains" parents to equalize the time they spend at work, on child care, and on domestic labor. The chart-making system may seem overly rigid to many people, and indeed, some couples tell Belkin ThirdPath didn't work out for them. It seems impossible for many husbands, for example, to internalize the mental "list making" that's essential to parenting: which kid needs to go to the doctor and when, which birthday parties are coming up and when to buy a gift, and so on. Women, on the other hand, often have trouble giving up control. It's all very discouraging. But it's also worth remembering that the travails of these middle-class and affluent hetero couples aren't representative; about a third of households with children under 18 are headed by a single parent.

In any case, the piece is worth a read, and is sure to be widely discussed.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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Over the course of a century in which women's roles outside of the home expanded radically

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