Domestic happiness: it's not all about the division of labour

Carolyn Moynihan
Sep 24 2015
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

One of the burning gender equity issues of the day is the division of labour in the home between wife and husband/partner.

According to research aired on The Upshot blog at the New York Times recently, millennial men (ages 18 to early 30s) "have much more egalitarian attitudes about family, career and gender roles inside marriage than generations before them … yet they struggle to achieve their goals once they start families…"

Despite their desire to share earning and caregiving equally with their spouse, young men and women tend to find this is impractical and fall back on traditional roles. The inflexibility of workplace policies seems to be the culprit.

One researcher has called it an "unfinished revolution", but a big international study released this week raises the question of whether this revolution is really necessary.

The World Family Map 2015 crunched data for 7,695 couples with children in 32 countries and found that parents in most regions of the world - including the United States - are equally happy with any division of labour.

By measuring the happiness of couples with children they have given us another angle on the work-life/gender-equity conundrum.

Lead researcher for the project, Laurie DeRose, writes at Family Studies that they "didn't just compare couples dividing labor along traditional gender lines to those with a more egalitarian split; we also looked at couples where one partner was overburdened relative to the other." They then assigned each couple to one of the following categories:

Couples' happiness didn't seem to depend on fairness - avoiding the arrangements when one partner carries a second shift - and it didn't depend on traditionalism or progressiveness.

Every world region showed a marked diversity in how couples divide labour. And is it really surprising that couples arrive at their own customised solutions? Says DeRose:

"There may be no one best way to divvy up responsibilities, but people are not randomly assigned to various divisions of labor: their ideologies informed what kind of partner they picked and how they and their partner work things out.

"I can say with confidence that I am not just speaking from a U.S. perspective. The division of labor among couples with children was not significantly related to happiness in the U.S., Northern Europe, Southern Europe, Asia, or Central and South America. Western Europe was the one place people were happier when men performed a second shift than when women did. Eastern Europeans were happier when men did more paid work. Everywhere else, the differences in happiness were minimal."

What did make a difference to couples' happiness was … being a couple. When the researchers put single parents into the mix, those parents were significantly less happy than couples in any of the ways considered in the study. And that is not just because of the unshared burden of work. There's the unshared joy as well, says DeRose:

"There are moments when I delight in something like looking at one of my daughters dancing and I see my husband enjoying the same moment. One of us will often say to the other: "nice job on the baby." It just isn't the same to see something wonderful - like a toddler sharing without being asked to - without having someone else to savor the moment with. It also helps to have someone remind you of the moment later when the same toddler doesn't want to go to bed. I've been a single parent. I delighted in my kids. But some delights are better shared. Maybe that kind of thing matters more for happiness than how paid and domestic work are split up.

There's more to this study, which I'll deal with in further posts, but one more thing is worth noting here. A more detailed essay on the findings notes that religious practice is also linked to parents' happiness:

"People who attend religious services more frequently are more likely to be completely or very happy in Western, Eastern, and Southern Europe, plus Asia and Central/South America."

So millennials, relax. Stop worrying about divvying up the domestic work -- and go to church.