When mothers earn more than their husbands, their household chores increase, study finds

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In 2013, when Betty Choi was pregnant with her first child, she earned three times as much money as her husband, who, like her, was also a doctor.

At the time, Choi was working two jobs — as an attending physician and a medical writer. Her husband worked an intense schedule during his fellowship years, she said, often logging 100-hour weeks.

But while Choi earned significantly more than her husband, she also did more housework and childcare for about three years, she said.

“There weren’t enough hands,” said Choi, now 38 and living outside of Santa Barbara, Calif. For a time, the couple had a part-time nanny, but it was difficult to juggle two careers, first-time parenthood and maintaining a home. , Choi said. She remembers cooking and cleaning, and sometimes not seeing her husband in the morning or after work.

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As a pediatrician and writer, Choi devoted more of his time to writing, due to his interest in it and the flexibility it offered. Although her husband was willing to do more around the house, their division of labor did not allow them to approach tasks equally, she said.

This unequal distribution of domestic work fits into a pattern documented in a recent analysis published in the journal Work, Employment and Society. New mothers take on more household chores than their husbands – and even more so when the wife makes more money than him, according to the article by Joanna Syrda, a professor at the University of Bath School of Management in the UK.

“We consider that these women who earn the most do more household chores,” Syrda said, “not when women earn more than their husbands, but when mothers earn more than fathers. Parenthood therefore seems to have this effect of traditionalization.

Syrda’s study used research from the Institute of Family Studies and examined the relationship between spousal income and the division of household chores of more than 6,000 dual-income heterosexual married couples between 1999 and 2017.

Women with children reduced housework by 18 to 14 hours per week, from zero to half of household income. But after exceeding her husband’s salary, a woman’s household chores increased to nearly 16 hours a week, the analysis found. In contrast, a man’s household chores ranged from six to eight hours a week when he was the main breadwinner, but then decreased when his wife earned more than him.

Syrda posited that women earning more than men go against traditional gender stereotypes, so women do more household chores to compensate and men do less. This hypothesis aligns with his other research on couple income and male psychological distress.

“Men have very high stress levels when they are the sole breadwinner, understandably, and the lowest when their wives provide around 40% of the household income,” she said. “Because, above all, it’s less than half. »

The findings also match other studies that found that women whose husbands were unemployed still did significantly more housework than their husbands. But this research specifically focused on heterosexual couples with children.

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Though counterintuitive to some, these findings came as no surprise to economist Misty L. Heggeness, who has also conducted research on dual-earner households and the division of household labor.

“Not only are social gender norms stronger around parenthood, but biologically women end up spending a disproportionate amount of time with young children due to birth, breastfeeding and the bond that develops from these activities,” she said. This translates into many tasks – changing diapers, putting the children down for naps, cooking, taking care of appointments – falling disproportionately on women, she added.

This is where Choi found herself logging more hours than her husband, she said. One of their two children has food allergies, so cooking and preparing food has become more time-consuming. She also said she has become the default “on-call” parent in case something happens at school.

The couple talked about how to split the chores more evenly, which was made easier when her husband’s scholarship ended and his work moved to more manageable hours, Choi said.

These days her husband, who now earns more than her, does all the cooking on the weekends, does ‘tons of laundry’ and helps get the kids ready for school, as her day now starts later. , she added. During the pandemic, even though he also worked most weekends, he took care of the kids when he could so Choi, now an author, could meet his book deadline.

“I give him a lot of credit,” Choi said. “He likes to be involved and we have learned to communicate our needs. »

Historically, American women have taken on more responsibilities at home because they have been unable to work outside the home or have worked fewer hours and earned less, due to limited access to better paying jobs. But since the 1970s, even though women’s labor force participation and wages have increased, men have still not taken on a fair share of household chores. During the pandemic, this has been laid bare as millions of women have dropped out of the workforce due to distance learning and lack of childcare.

Biology, social constructs and lingering traditional perceptions about gender may all play a role, experts say. Research has shown that wives who earn more than their husbands may stress a marriage (increasing the likelihood of divorce by 50%) and encourage partners to lie about their earnings.

Like Choi, Sarah Tuttle, an astrophysicist and assistant professor at the University of Washington, and her husband have alternately been the highest-earning spouse. In graduate school, they had similar salaries. But in her field, post-docs earned more than those of her husband.

“Earlier in our relationship, I absolutely took on a lot more roles. When he was doing stuff, I was like, ‘Oh, I hate how you do that’…all those stereotypes,” she said. “Then we worked a bunch of them. »

There were also structural biases to combat, Tuttle said. Throughout parenthood – Tuttle, 44, is a mother of two – others assumed she would be the point of contact for school, activities and appointments. Just recently, her husband tried to book a doctor’s appointment for their son and the office called her instead, Tuttle said.

Now her husband is about to take a job at a big tech company, and his salary will be higher than his. But he often cooks dinner because he works from home and does laundry, Tuttle said.

“It worked the way it worked because we really intentionally had these conversations,” Tuttle added.

That kind of communication and refocusing has been key to balancing her marriage, she said, especially after a stressful time during the pandemic. Tuttle said that because they had to manage school remotely, their careers and their homes, they first retreated into traditional roles, with her taking on the organizational and emotional part of their family’s work.

Heggeness, the economics researcher, said that “there is literally no reason why men cannot engage in household chores in the same way as women, especially when children arrive. It just takes a stronger commitment from men to take the lead in some tasks.

Choi acknowledged that while her husband is a willing partner, it also requires constant communication — from both sides.

“You have to express your needs,” she said, adding with a laugh, “I learned to be more compassionate in my delivery. »

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