Equality in the home breaks down when it’s time to look after the first child

Equality in the home breaks down when it’s time to look after the first child

A study involving María José González, professor with the Department of Political and Social Sciences at UPF, shows how half of the couples analysed who shared household duties equally during pregnancy stopped doing so during child care.



Can couples who share household tasks equally maintain such parity after the birth of the first child? How is the couple’s subjective satisfaction related with the work-life balance? What factors facilitate or hinder this satisfaction? And finally, what measures can be implemented to improve the situation?

Providing answers to all these questions is the goal of a study published recently in the journal L’Année Sociologique by María José González, a professor with the Department of Political and Social Sciences at UPF and member of the research group on Sociodemography (DemoSoc) and of the Centre for Gender Studies (CEDG); Irene Lapuerta (Public University of Navarre), Teresa Martín-García (CSIC) and Marta Seiz (UNED), in the framework of the interuniversity project ‘TransParent‘ (Transition to Parenthood).

The study revealed that half of the couples had shifted to a traditional and unequal gender division with regard to the tasks of caring for the new-born.

The authors conducted a longitudinal qualitative analysis of 31 couples in Spain, both with income, who shared household duties equally during pregnancy. The couples were interviewed first during the pregnancy, and second around eighteen months after the birth of their first child.

The study revealed that after the birth of the first child, half of the couples had shifted to a traditional and unequal division of gender with regard to the tasks of caring for the new-born, and only 15 of the 31 couples shared the responsibilities of caring.

“Contrary to our hypotheses, the equal division of household tasks does not lead automatically to an equal division of childcare. In the study, we attribute this result to other pre-birth ideals and expectations of men and women concerning parenthood”, say the researchers.

However, often this equality has not led to dissatisfaction with the work-life balance: “Couples’ satisfaction appears to depend less on specific strategies developed to achieve a balance within the couple than on initial expectations and prior ideas about parenthood”, they assert.

Different types of couples according to satisfaction and equality

The authors have identified different groups among the couples studied according to their degree of satisfaction with the balance between family life and equality. The classification would range from the ideal of “satisfied, jointly responsible couples” (in most of them, the woman was earning the same or more than her partner), through “satisfied and unequal”. The couples in this group had to give up their ideals due to circumstances beyond their control (work-related difficulties, etc.) or due to differing conceptions about parenthood (often poorly defined at the start, which then led to satisfaction).

Finally we find the “unsatisfied and unequal couples”, mostly expressed by women, that is related to the dissonance between their initial expectations and the agreements finally adopted. “Accordingly, as we expected, the degree of coherence between initial expectations and the actual practices help us to understand a wide variety of reasons and situations within couples”, claim the authors.

Factors that help to increase satisfaction in the work-life balance

One of the aspects that can influence the couple’s degree of satisfaction when it comes to finding this balance is what the authors call a favourable “institutional context” than can be achieved through employment programmes compatible with caring, flexibility at work and an environment conducive to work. However, they have found that a favourable work environment does not always lead to satisfaction, and vice-versa.

On the other hand, the availability of a family network to cover the gaps left by public policies and formal rights also helps to improve this degree of satisfaction. In any event, the authors identify two basic conditions for satisfaction: the couple’s ability to put their original ideals and plans into practice, and parental involvement that means that the two of them are committed and share responsibilities.

Measures to improve and need to change the work culture in Spain

“Our results suggest that there is much room for improvement in the promotion of more balanced, responsible and therefore more satisfactory strategies, between work and family life, especially by parents who showed an initial desire to share the responsibilities of parenthood and were unable to do so due to limitations and constraints at work”, the authors assure.

Some of the measures for improvement they mention in their study are to put implement public policies to increase the rights of parents and establish the first patterns of shared parenting. These policies would normalize new conceptions of parenthood as a phenomenon that affects men and women equally and that requires protection for both sexes, for society in general and for the labour market in particular.

To facilitate these improvements, the authors advocate the need to introduce changes in the work culture in Spain, often based on presenteeism and the expectation of spending long hours at work, especially for senior positions that require exclusive commitment. As a result, if these improvements could be implemented, “there would certainly be an increase in parental involvement in child care, more leeway for parents and greater ease for the couple to go ahead with its plans”, they conclude.

Reference work: González, M.J., Lapuerta, I., Martín-García, T. and Seiz, M. (October 2018). Satisfaction with Work-Life Balance: Couples with Egalitarian Practices in their Transition to First-Time Parenthood in Spain.  L’Année sociologique 2018 (2): 341-366.