It’s a common refrain among working mothers that somehow, despite slogging away at full-time jobs alongside their husbands, they come home to a heftier load of childcare and housework, known as the “second shift.”
A new study from Ohio State University gives them some welcome ammunition. The study of time diaries for 182 highly-educated working American couples found that, nine months after the birth of their first child, men did roughly 10 hours a week of onerous child-related tasks (for instance, diaper changing and bathing) compared to 15 hours for women.
When it came to housework, women spent the same amount of time on it after the baby came as before, but men cut back their contribution after a baby came by five hours per week. Nonetheless, men still managed to chip in for ”fun” baby work, like reading and playing with their child, devoting four hours a week to these tasks, compared to six hours for women. This aligns with broader findings from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which show that working mothers do more housework and childcare than men, even when they are breadwinners.
This isn’t revelatory stuff for many women. Which begs the question, if women are aware of these discrepancies, what’s stopping them from changing course?
The household gender gap is often explained by research that has found that breastfeeding and paid maternity leave cultivate a stronger early bond between a mother and her children, and that men and women base household responsibilities on how they were raised (paywall). But as more men embrace modern familial roles, there should, in theory, be more room for women to claim a less burdensome stake in the home.
So why aren’t women choosing to give more of the housework away? Imbalances in chores and childcare in my own home don’t arise because my husband is lazy, sexist, or less devoted to our child. They tend to come up when I take control of the tasks first, assuming I’ll do them better, or faster, or both.
Whether by nurture or nature, once one parent takes ownership of the home, the responsibilities involved can feel harder to give away. That could explain why mothers are less likely to take leisure time on weekends than are fathers—because they find it harder to let go of their guilt about spending less time on housework and their children to focus instead on “me.”
There are consequences for working moms who resign themselves to the double load. When frustrations build, mothers who critique rather than encourage fathers when they chip in can drive them away from doing more. At work, overwhelmed mothers who reduce their hours early on can find themselves stigmatized in part-time roles. Meanwhile, it’s the mothers who muscle through their early working years who tend to gain more flexibility later in their careers.
Of course, women shouldn’t feel bashful about stepping away from paid work if they want to focus on family. But, by the same token, they also shouldn’t give into the guilt of leaving fathers to burn dinners and botch diaper duty when their career calls.