Fair is Fair: How to Measure, and Divide, Work in Single-Earner Households

The days of mom greeting dad when he comes home from the office with his pipe and slippers in one hand and a cocktail in the other are long gone – and probably never existed anywhere other than on television. Today’s parents share the load – but not always evenly.

Working out a compromise where neither partner feels like they are shouldering more than their fare share or being taken advantage of is important, not only in families where both parents have jobs outside of the house, but also in families where one stays home. Taking care of a family involves a lot of time and effort, both for a stay-at-home parent and for a working partner, and dividing household chores and responsibilities fairly is a necessary challenge.

A Parent’s Job is Never Done

Families where one partner agrees to stay home to raise the children and run the household while the other goes off to work to provide for the family’s financial needs are once again becoming quite common. That traditional family division, however, is no longer limited by gender. There are stay-at-home dads as well as stay-at-home moms, even in families where both partners are of the same sex.

A working partner cannot expect to come home and take it easy for the rest of the night, especially when there are children to raise. Neither can a stay-at-home partner expect to turn over their responsibilities to someone who has been out of the house all day when they return home. Working out a compromise that is fair to both partners is not easy, but measuring and dividing work in single-earner households is important not only to reduce stress, but also to keep everyone in the family that much happier.

Working Mothers Still Do More

A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center shows that working mothers still put in more time on the job than working dads, especially in single-earner households. In an article entitled “Modern Parenthood,” researchers Kim Parker and Wendy Wang wrote that while couples who both work outside the home are more likely to share household and family duties equally, such is not the case in families where only one person works outside of the home.

Parker and Wang report that in families where the father is the sole breadwinner, he will put in about 57 hours of work a week. That includes time spent in paid work outside the home plus time spent on household chores and raising children. His partner will contribute about 46 hours, which means the dad is putting in about 11 hours a week more than the mom. In families where the mother is the sole breadwinner, however, report Parker and Wang, the mother will put in 58 hours while the dad only about 33. That means her total workload exceeds his by 25 hours. In some families this is because mothers feel guilty for spending so much time outside of the home and need to compensate. Men also spend more time on leisure activity, say Parker and Wang, although they do add that men are doing far more housework and spending much more time with their children than they did in the 1960s, or even in 2011, back when Pew did a similar survey.

When Husbands Do More, Both Spouses and Their Families are Happier

Parker and Wang report that in families where both parents share responsibilities more equitably, that both the parents and the children are happier. That goes for both single-earner and double-earner households. They are not alone in their findings. Adam M. Galovan, Erin Kramer Holmes, David G. Schramm and Thomas R. Lee came to a similar conclusion in a similar study whose results they published in the Journal of Family Issues. In their article, “Father Involvement, Father-Children Relationship Quality, and Satisfaction With Family Work,” these researchers found that “husbands and wives report higher marital quality when they are more satisfied with the division of labor.” The division of family responsibilities among paid jobs, child rearing and household tasks need not be exactly equal, note the researchers, but greater involvement by fathers in the raising of children in particular resonates strongest with women.

Working Together is Even Better Than Dividing up Tasks

Researchers Galovan, Holmes, Schramm and Lee discovered that it is not just the equitable division of responsibilities that make for a happier spousal and family relationship, it is doing those tasks together that really strengthens the bond that keeps a family happy and together. This is especially true for wives, note the researchers, who point out that “wives are more satisfied with the division of labor when they work with their spouse rather than alone.” In other words, doing chores together makes both partners happier.

Discuss the Issues, Set Priorities and Keep Things in Perspective

Working mothers often feel guilty for spending time away from their children, as the Pew study notes. Working dads are also more likely to feel a similar guilt these days, as both the Pew study and the article in the Journal of Family Issues notes. The stay-at-home partner can help assuage that guilt and thus relieve a lot of the stress that the breadwinner has placed upon him or herself. Breadwinners can also feel unduly stressed from the pressure they often put upon themselves to make more money so they can give their families a better life. Parents need to talk these issues out, and put their own needs and the needs of the other partner and the family in perspective. There are periods when putting in more time at the paid job is the most important thing that one partner can do for the family and for their spouse, but there are other periods when family time, or just time with their significant other, is what is really important.