Working moms need to negotiate better terms on childcare burden

February 09, 2005

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---A recent study from the University of Michigan suggests that the Super Mom syndrome is real, and that many married working women will volunteer to work a "second shift" as primary parent that's equal to the time anticipated by full-time, stay-at-home moms.

Although past research has clearly documented working women's tendency to shoulder most of the burden of child care and housework, Marlena Studer's study, "Gendered Negotiations: Marital Decision-Making about a Labor of Love," examines the decision-making process that leads to the division of labor and child rearing in the household. Women often shoulder the majority of the duties, but little is known about how couples "negotiate" this labor of love. One of the most surprising findings is that women in dual working marriages negotiated nearly the same child care work load as women who planned to stay home full-time to raise their children.

"Women do have a role in defining what trajectory the family and work responsibilities will take, and the role is most critical in the beginning...that's a time when couples are laying the foundation for their future," said Studer.

Studer, a visiting scholar at the U-M Institute for Research on Women and Gender, interviewed 50 pregnant couples regarding their plans for work and family roles after their expected baby's arrival. Studer found that couples fell into one of four different family patterns: traditional families (stay-at-home moms and breadwinner dads), dual-working families (dad as primary earner and mom as primary parent and secondary earner), egalitarian families (shared parenting and breadwinning), and non-traditional families (mom as primary earner). Not all of the couples in the study were first-time parents.

The women in dual-working families, dubbed "second-shifters," agreed to spend 2.87 times more hours per week on infant care than their husbands, in addition to outside careers. Full-time, stay-at-home moms predicted they would spend 2.98 times more than their husbands on infant care---yet those women did not have to juggle an outside career.

"When women do work, they also tend to be the primary parents, so what they end up having is a "second shift" at home after they come home from their paid jobs," Studer said. "By doing so, they experience more stress and role conflict than their counterparts." These second-shifters anticipated doing more of the child care than their husbands, at a rate nearly the same as women in traditional couples, Studer said.

Each couple began the interview by "negotiating" which spouse would serve as primary parent in each hour of a 24/7 child care schedule (24 hours a day for a generic week) during infancy, preschool and school-aged years. Then each spouse independently completed a two-part questionnaire about family background, attitudes, marital patterns and future goals.

The videotaped discussions between spouses reveal differences in patterns of negotiation and identify how some strategies are related to better outcomes than others. For instance, Studer said, during negotiations between one high-earning, dual-income couple, a highly successful career woman volunteered to pull the "second shift" and get up with the infant in the middle of the night even though she worked just as many hours outside the home as her husband. She never tried to get a more equitable agreement, Studer said.

Studer said that there are many reasons that working women do not ask or expect their spouses to share the tasks of caregiving, such as guilt or lower earning expectations than their husbands. One of the factors that appears to set egalitarian couples apart from dual-working families is the egalitarian couples' ideological commitment to sharing housework and to investing equally in each of their earning potentials.

Studer would like to follow the couples as they settle into their new roles as parents to see how the actual duties they assume compare with what they negotiated.
Center for the Education of Women
Institute for Research on Women and Gender

University of Michigan

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