How much do dads need to help at home?

Carolyn Moynihan
19 May 2010
Reproduced with Permission

Four jobs a week. Honestly, guys, that is all it takes after the birth of your first child to reassure your wife that you want to be helpful at home, and prevent your risk of divorce increasing. That is what a new study in the UK has found, and it suggests that those four tasks protect your marriage even more if your wife is not going out to work.

OK, so the data goes back to the 1970s when most mothers with young children were not working and the social context was different. But even then divorce rates were climbing steeply and economists (some of them, anyway) linked that with the rising number of married women working. Both spouses seemed better off under the old division of labour -- paid work for men and homework for their wives. More or less.

But a feminist researcher at the London School of Economics analysed data on married couples who had their first child in 1970 -- actually, in one week in 1970 -- and found that even a modest domestic contribution from fathers made a positive difference.

Dr Sigle-Rushton focused on 3,500 couples who had stayed together for five years after the birth of their first child (around 20 per cent divorced by the time the child was 16) and looked at the fathers' participation in housework, shopping and childcare during one week, as reported by their wives in 1975.

Just over half of fathers in 1975 were reported to have helped with none or one task (51%), while 24% carried out two tasks. About a quarter carried out three or four, the highest contribution.

Nearly a third of mothers were employed, only 5% of whom were working full-time.

The research found, relative to families where women are homemakers and men do little housework and childcare, the risk of divorce is 97% higher when the mother works outside the home and her husband makes a minimal contribution to housework and childcare.

However there is no increased risk of divorce when the mother works and her husband's contribution to housework and childcare is at the highest level.

The lowest-risk situation is one where the mother does not work and the father gets involved in the highest level of housework and childcare, the study showed.

Dr Sigle-Rushton says that in economic and sociological research there has been too much attention to women's paid work and not enough to the "division of unpaid work".

As a matter of fact, quite a lot of attention has been paid to the latter in recent years. For example, Brad Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, working with much more recent data, confirms Dr Sigle-Rushton's findings to this extent: his research shows that wives who have children in the home are happiest in "neo-traditional" marriages where their husbands take the lead in breadwinning and yet also share the domestic work.

What he does not find -- should anyone be tempted to draw this conclusion from the new UK study -- is that an "egalitarian" division of domestic labour is what most wives want. Many mothers today might think that a 50:50 share of housework would make them happy, but his research shows that, apart from some mothers whose children have left home, it does not.

The decisive factor in seems to be a wife's maternal status. It makes sense that a mother with young children wants to give more time to them and is happy for her husband to be the main breadwinner. What she wants from her husband at home, says Wilcox, is not an equal share of domestic work but a sense of solidarity with him in domestic life.

For people who are not married it may be a different story.