Is there really a fair way to divvy up household labor and childcare? Research says it's possible

Academic studies show what self-help books get right and wrong about equalizing domestic work

By Gail Cornwall

Published March 13, 2022 2:00PM (EDT)

Young couple and son washing the dishes in the kitchen (Getty Images/Giselleflissak)
Young couple and son washing the dishes in the kitchen (Getty Images/Giselleflissak)

This is a tale of many marriages, two popular self-help books, and a bunch of academic research — plus loads and loads of children and laundry.

It starts when Bella was a teenager, and her parents' system for dividing domestic labor made sense. Her mom was a housewife who had all day to relax, while her dad worked in a demanding corporate role. It seemed natural that her mother would have dinner ready when the bells attached to their front door jingled — and then it seemed equally natural that she would clean it up to the sound of the alternating hushes and gasps of the Golf Channel.

So 15 years later, Bella, who prefers a pseudonym for privacy reasons, rebuffed her husband's suggestion that he take some nights with the baby. That would be silly, she said; he needed to be fresh and sharp at work, while she was on extended maternity leave and could afford to move through life in a haze. What she couldn't afford was the daytime childcare he also suggested. Why shouldn't I be expected to pull my weight? she thought. (In retrospect, she describes this rationale as "a twisted perversion of feminism.")

Bella was wrong about the value and cost of care work. She says she spent a decade taking on the vast bulk of domestic labor, mental load (otherwise known as "cognitive labor"), emotional work, and childcare, while her husband worked long hours to support them. Then the two divorced.

Unsurprisingly, an uneven division of domestic labor and childcare has been shown to be bad for marriages, as well as for women — who, as a group, do more of those two things in every country studied worldwide, even those that regularly top gender-equality lists, such as Iceland, Finland, and Norway. There, as in the United States, division of household labor tends to become more traditional when children arrive. The COVID-19 pandemic only worsened these gender disparities in the U.S. According to one survey, nighttime child care now falls to women three times as often as men. As Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom put it: "[C]hildren can turn a cheerful and loving romantic partnership into a zero-sum battle over who gets to sleep and work and who doesn't." In heterosexual relationships, women lose that battle en masse.

(There are a bunch studies on division of labor in same-gender couples, but the vast bulk of the research is heteronormative  — focusing on cis-gender individuals in heterosexual relationships  — and throwing in a citation here or there wouldn't do the LGBTQ+ community justice. This article thus does not attempt that feat, but others have.)

Straight stay-at-home moms and those on maternity leave aren't the only ones losing. One innovative 2018 study asked dual-earner couples to record their time use in diaries and found that on non-workdays, fathers engaged in leisure 47% of the time during which mothers performed childcare and 35% of the time they did housework. Moms got leisure time only about 16% and 19% of the time that dads performed childcare and housework, respectively.

It doesn't have to be this way, and several books offer to lead the way to a more equitable division of domestic labor in individual families. In the 2019 book "Fair Play," Eve Rodsky takes a boardroom-to-bedroom approach, proposing a system to scaffold negotiations over everything from who empties the bathroom trash to who stocks Beanie Boos for unexpected birthday parties.

Rodsky is not the first to try this tack. In the 1920s, Lillian Gilbreth, the "Cheaper by the Dozen" matriarch, recommended that families create "Simultaneous Motion Cycle Charts" to assess whether each family member had been shouldering their fair share. Her assertion in 1926 that "a shared industrial burden must mean a shared home burden" was met with uproar. By 1932, she put it even more plainly: "The answer to home problems is to teach men how to combine a career and a home."


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Jancee Dunn recommends doing essentially that in 2017's "How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids." She proposes a less-formalized patchwork quilt of domestic reframing and problem-solving techniques meant to have the same effect as Rodsky's deck of "Fair Play" cards (just $20 on Amazon!). Both books are part of the $10.4 billion market for self-help in the U.S.

They sound reasonable on their own terms, but essentially instruct women to Jerry Maguire their partners: help me help you to help me. Rodsky, for example, tells wives to "create way more context" for their husbands by saying, "Here's how it's done from start to finish — and why we've agreed to do it this way." Women are being urged to take on more work, learning and implementing tips and tricks to housebreak the father of their children like a pet. This brand of self-help — husband-help? — seems like nothing more than a band-aid solution, giving women just enough relief so they can put up with systemic inequity.

Derek Thompson tried to thread this needle in his Atlantic piece about divorce rates spiking among women who earn a promotion: "It may be the civic responsibility of voters and their elected representatives to give ambitious women the space and opportunity to achieve their full potential," he concluded, "But a marriage is its own sovereign state, with explicit contracts and implicit regulations, and the division of labor in couples of all ages is the domestic responsibility of the men and women within them."

Thompson used gender-neutral terms, but because the default setting for those sovereign states assigns a larger share of family-related labor to women in heterosexual relationships, the onus tends to be on them to put things on the couple's agenda, including renegotiation of responsibilities. Cognizant of this reality, Dunn speaks directly to women: "Tell your spouse that changing his behavior will directly benefit him because you will be happier and more relaxed."

Similarly, Rodsky writes of her own relationship, "I outlined for Seth how we were both positioned to win from engaging in a time- and sanity-saving system for domestic life." Embracing and reinforcing sitcom tropes as she goes, Rodsky lists the rewards a helpful husband can reap: "far fewer explosions and less nagging, resentment, and control…. More levity. And probably more sex, too."

Both authors claim to eschew domestic scorekeeping and yet ultimately recommend exactly that. Dunn describes one mother "cannily" saying to her partner, in the declarative style recommended by a famed psychologist, "If you want to go play basketball for a few hours this weekend, that's fine. I'll stay home with the kids. Next weekend, I'd love to catch that new art exhibit, and you can take care of the kids."

The "horse-trading" model of parenting equity

As Bella recounts, this kind of horse trading is what she and her first husband did — and did well. She wanted to take an exercise class. He wanted time for carpentry. So Saturday mornings he shepherded the kids to swim class, and Sundays she took them to church. Responsibilities were clearly defined.

These days, Bella and her second husband do nothing of the sort, preferring an all-hands-on-deck approach. They rarely spend family time separately, each pitching in however they think is best and allowing the other to do the same. If she's loading the dishwasher, he wipes down the counters. If she sees him getting the trash ready to haul to the curb, Bella breaks down boxes. He hasn't been negotiated into a carefully defined corner. He splits the domestic load on his own initiative.

Could it be that Rodsky and Dunn are misguided, and an equitable marriage requires fluid partnering toward a common goal?

RELATED: Giving kids no autonomy at all has become a parenting norm — and the pandemic is worsening the trend

A 2020 book-length study out of Cambridge University Press called "Creating Equality at Home" profiles 25 heterosexual couples around the world who equally share housework and child care, sifting through their stories to find commonalities. The study is a scathing indictment of gender reveals and celebratory hashtags like #boymom (which many women use to describe their sons' adventures in mud and energy) and #girldad (where posts tend to focus on warmth, empathy, and "girl power"), along with other seemingly innocuous features of modern parenting that reinforce the gender binary and by their very existence assert that parenting girls should be different than parenting boys. But their findings don't necessarily incriminate Rodsky and Dunn. At least not completely.

Editors Francine M. Deutsch and Ruth A. Gaunt worked with other academic researchers to find that "the behaviors, attitudes, personality traits, and experiences that facilitate equality are quite similar across diverse cultures." In other words, Tolstoy was onto something when he said all happy families are alike.

Yet the studied couples differed in how they shared responsibility. Some of them purposefully hashed out a strict division of tasks in a manner similar to "Fair Play." Others took a more spontaneous approach like the one that's been working for Bella and her second husband. The Croatian couple negotiated everything, while for the Indonesian couple, Budi said, "There is no strict and clear division of labor; we just help each other."

When it came to other aspects of these couples' lives, however, there was remarkable consistency. And research reveals five patterns that seem particularly important.

Women pushed and held their ground

Couple after couple in "Creating Equality at Home" described the woman pushing for a more equitable division of labor.  Budi's wife Tuti reportedly told him, "You don't expect me to wash the dishes when I come home tired from work. You wash the dishes so that we can be together, the three of us in the afternoon." And he agreed. Others told similar stories. Maja (Montenegro) and Netta (Israel), for example, both made it clear to their partners "that being a helper was not good enough."

Rodsky and Dunn would seem to be vindicated by this data. "I can't believe how many hours I squandered fuming, in the hopes that Tom would intuitively leap in and help me out," Dunn writes. That's not going to happen, both authors essentially say. Husbands help those who help themselves.

But there's a catch and some caveats. First, unlike Bella, every single one of the women in the book-length study reported being employed at least part-time, and all of their partners relied, at least partially, on their income. In other words, these mothers had a firm footing from which to push. They didn't necessarily earn as much or more than their husbands, so Deutsch and Gaunt are careful to clarify that it isn't a cut-and-dried question of the person who brought in more resources doing less domestic labor or controlling its allocation (the "relative resources theory"). But the female working outside the home did seem critical.

That could be because it is a truth universally acknowledged that as a mother's career takes up less space, her share of domestic duties will expand to fill it. But the causation could work differently. Maybe the jobs and the equal sharing are just correlated, with something else driving both, say, a woman's sense of entitlement.

Men stepped up and pulled back

Then again, the amenability of these husbands to their wives' vision could be a more determinative factor. Inês, from Portugal, explained that she made sure her partner did his fair share, but also, "He would protect me; he wanted me to rest.… The worst tasks, the most annoying ones, he always wanted to do them himself."

The equal sharing men weren't just open to splitting household labor and childcare equally in what free time they happened to have; they had structured their time around those priorities. Deutsch and Gaunt summarize, "In ways usually associated with mothers, these fathers put their careers on hold; they work part-time; they negotiate for family-friendly concessions from employers; and/or insist on taking advantage of family-friendly rights and benefits, even when that jeopardizes their positions at their jobs." Part and parcel of this centralizing of the family was these men's willingness to embrace traditionally female chores and caregiving. In other words, the equal sharer dads stepped up at home and pulled back at paid work.

A competitor with the relative resources theory, the "time availability hypothesis" essentially posits that when women and men work an equal number of hours, equality will result. Time available to the family can also be created by government benefits like paternity leave, which eight of the fathers in the study received. "Payment schemes matter," Deutsch and Gaunt conclude. But others in the study "found ways to take time off to take care of children without the use of government benefits." Time available in these families was often the result of prioritizing family, not the cause of it.

That said, there's clearly a positive feedback loop when time is made available. At least 18 of the 25 fathers were involved in hands-on care in infancy and subsequently described their child as having equal attachment to both parents. Research with a much larger sample size published in 2018 and 2020 confirms that connection. As Deutsch put it in a talk, "The more they're involved, the more they want to be involved." And, "[w]hen men do care work, they develop 'maternal' traits, such as sensitivity and connection to the emotional life of the family," she and Gaunt write.

Looking at Rodsky and Dunn more generously, they're just trying to jump-start this virtuous cycle.

Women relinquished complete control over the domestic sphere

Perhaps it's because they know men can't step up if women insist on assuming a chief-caregiver role or maintaining an unreachable bar.

Per a New England couple from Deutsch and Gaunt's study: "Patty learned to back off on insisting the housework be done perfectly, which was not possible with children in tow. She stopped mentioning that [Nick] missed a corner dusting." Christine is well aware of the trap set by her own perfectionism and desire to micromanage: If she wants her standards met, she'll have to do more. Since that's not an option, she said, "I have to get used to him not straightening up." In Sweden, "Over time, Elisabet learned to lower her standards."

This urge to control surfaces with child care as well as housekeeping, and there's an academic term for it, "gatekeeping." Rodsky says moms have to stop insisting on doing everything "my way." She writes: "We can blame our men. We can blame society. And yet, there's some accountability women need to take as well." It sounds like a mixologist's cocktail of victim-blaming and bootstrapping. But is it?

Maybe not. Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan is a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University who runs its Children and Parents Lab. Her research has found an association between maternal gatekeeping and decreased paternal involvement, lower quality parenting by dads, and less positive interparental relations. Gatekeeping is more common when moms do the following, among other things: buy into traditional gender roles; put being a mom at the center of their identity; work less outside the home; feel very confident in their parenting; and have other-oriented perfectionist tendencies.

Schoppe-Sullivan told me she's proposed conceptualizing gatekeeping in four dimensions: (1) pushing (proactive encouragement of father-child interactions), (2) praising (reactive encouragement), (3) hindering (proactive discouragement), and (4) criticizing (reactive discouragement).

A combo of pushing and criticizing seems counterintuitive, but that's precisely what Bella did in her first marriage. She orchestrated opportunities for hands-on fathering and then hovered and corrected. The more she intervened and claimed tasks as her own, the less opportunity her husband had to practice dealing with the kids. The less opportunity he had, the less capable he became relative to Bella, and the more her gatekeeping seemed rational, inevitable even. Schoppe-Sullivan has written about how dads like this tend to decrease their involvement over time. In other words, Bella shot herself in the foot.

That all tells a neat story, but Deutsch and Gaunt's study suggests it's a little too neat. Often, female success at backing off and opening gates followed male pushback against gatekeeping.  Also, Schoppe-Sullivan's work with Lauren E. Altenburger finds that gatekeeping "is as much a response to as a regulator of fathers' behavior." In other words, mothers are more likely to monopolize childrearing when fathers are less motivated to parent, fathers lack confidence in their parenting ability, and mothers fear they aren't up to the task.

Writer Melinda Wenner Moyer, a friend of mine, has pointed out the larger context for the tendency of mothers to be more exacting about housework and offspring management than fathers in the U.S.: "[C]ompared with men, women are held to higher standards." If a child shows up to a friend's birthday party empty-handed or a kid's table manners are lacking over Seder, it's mom who's more likely to be judged, and she knows it.

That's why Rodsky's language once again rankles: "Admit it, even though we're super-tired and overextended, we still like to brag about all that we do and how much better women are at getting it done," she writes. That might be true, but her admonition to "consider that you may be just as guilty" ignores all of this important nuance. Gatekeeping is driven by multiple factors within family ecosystems, including partners' views of traditional gender roles.

Both partners reacted to their upbringing

Here's where the Golf Channel comes into play. Socialization theories of gender focus on the models set for us as children, a sort of monkey see, monkey do.

Deutsch and Gaunt found support for this theory in the 25 couples' family of origin stories, yet in the inverse of the norm. Ten of the men and six of the women reported having fathers who in some way defied expectations of masculinity. Dale's dad made curtains and "did quite a bit of cooking," in the U.K. David's did housework in the Czech Republic, and as a boy, he was expected to do so too. In Honduras, "Robinson's family raised him to think differently," and "they taught him the skills required to translate these ideological beliefs into actions."

Mothers and sisters seemed to be key, too. In New England, Sam said, "I think one of the things that has impacted me as a husband is that I had three older sisters…. If they had to do it (e.g., wash the dishes), I had to do it." Mike was the oldest child in an Australian single-parent household. Osman's parents both worked. Arnaldur had to care for his much younger brother in Iceland, and Tomaž said his mother taught him to perform domestic labor: "It wasn't like I was raised to be just a 'boy.'" These parents don't seem to have defined the terms "boymom" and "girlmom" as anything other than synonyms.

Some of the equal sharers instead reported rejecting the gendered messaging of their parents. The experiences of Li and Kai were complimentary:

Li said, "My mom often says to my dad, 'Honey, peel an apple for me,' and my dad would peel an apple." … Because he always thought the division of labor between his parents was unreasonable, Kai has tried not to act like his father.

Deutsch and Gaunt call this model and anti-model.

Yet men's views on gender weren't static. Tomaž's priorities shifted when he became a dad: "Before, I used to live for my job; I didn't want to be absent and went to work even when ill. With Lara this changed; now she was more important." Several fathers reported shaking essentialist views of gender only after becoming an involved parent. A critical view of gender stereotypes was thus a consequence of equal sharing as well as a cause. A 2021 study supports Deutsch and Gaunt's conclusion: those researchers found that men who take longer paternity leave are less likely to endorse essentialist gender roles.

The couples had help

Even with enlightened men wanting to step up and entitled women able to back off, domestic labor and childcare can be difficult to balance. It should come as no surprise then that domestic labor was outsourced in many of the families. Some couples had access to government-provided childcare. Many had the help of grandmothers. Some ate out regularly. Others hired domestic labor.

Because "it is women who typically do this low paid work," Deutsch and Gaunt write, "one could argue that equal sharers sometimes create equality by taking advantage of gender discrimination against poor women." (Megan K. Stack has more to say on that.)

No equally sharing couple evidenced just one of these five phenomena. Rather, Deutsch and Gaunt clarify, "Undoing gender in the family ... is an interactive process in which men and women have linked lives. Men's job decisions hinge on women's willingness to share breadwinning, and their involvement in infant care depends on women's relinquishing the prerogative of being the exclusive primary parent. Likewise, women's giving up that role depends on men's willingness to share primary care."

And, of course, there are matters of personality at play. In Germany, Hannes said that he gets shade from other men who will sometimes "insinuate that they would never capitulate to a wife's preferences." But he feels secure enough to shake off the drizzling stigma that recently rained down upon Pete Buttigieg.

What may be most important is that the equal sharing men often didn't assume labor usually assigned to women grudgingly; they largely saw sharing the work of the home as an opportunity to develop, diversify, and exercise their own capabilities, to not just be fair but also reap rewards for themselves.

This type of confidence and a desire for competence untethered from gender stereotypes seemed to be key for women as well. First, most of the mothers in the study eschewed the idea that women are naturally better at multitasking (men seem to do it just fine at work), emotional connection, and more. Second, they questioned the notion of the perfect mother, and largely brushed aside the judgment of others, both potential and actual. (The editors also note that these women rejected the myth that motherhood is unconditionally fulfilling.)

Deutsch and Gaunt summarize: "The lives of equal sharers argue that explanations of inequality that focus entirely on structure miss the importance of human agency." And yet, "Of course structure matters. It is certainly easier for middle-class couples … to forego potential income and set up their work lives to support equality than it is for [people] who barely earn minimum wage.... It is not an accident that, on average, Swedish couples have a more equal division of household labor than Brazilian couples do."

Beyond today's best practices

Where does all this leave us? Does the fact that every single one of these women worked outside the home mean that stay-at-home parents can't hope to achieve parity? And if women must push, how, exactly, should they push?

Not a single story in "Creating Equality at Home" sounded like this excerpt from Rodsky's book:

"The next time Paul 'forgot' to clean the litter," Emily reported back, "I held my breath and, when I was calm, I imitated Darth Vader and said something like: 'This is bigger than kitty litter. It goes beyond cat turds. It's about — the future of our family and MY TRUST IN YOU.' Paul laughed at my lame attempt to sound like James Earl Jones, and because I hadn't put him on the defensive, I was able to calmly explain why this one responsibility was important in a big-picture sort of way — to stay healthy, clean, and safe. And save me from killing him." … He emptied the kitty litter without reminders or being nagged by Emily because he now appreciated why he was doing it.

Elsewhere in the book, she calls BS on this sort of thing: "[R]eminding and praising is the daily work of parenting children, not partnering with husbands."

Dunn too seems aware of this inconvenient truth, especially in the section on how heaping accolades on a man for tasks that should be considered the table stakes of partnership can inspire him to clean a garage. As the title of "How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids" suggests, her book is less about striving for salvation, or even basic fairness, and more about harm reduction, about taking the edge off enough to preserve a marriage.

And that seems to be where these two authors part ways. Rodsky offers a simple suggestion: Threaten divorce. If a partner refuses to participate in renegotiating domestic labor, she writes, "remind him what you're playing for: the continuation of your marriage.

This is, once again, an argument with a history. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton advocated for the liberalization of divorce in the 19th century, it was both to enable women to escape marriages that could never work for them and to give them a bargaining chip within ones that could.

For some, a split may be the only path forward. The couple from Honduras were not each other's first: "They had both learned a great deal from their previous relationships." Bella and her second husband also share family labor in the shadow of their first marriages. She says now she receives texts like, "Ugh. Lots of little fragments of paper in the laundry," and feels like she has a true partner in the work of the home.

Still, focusing on improving her generation's lives shouldn't be the top priority. Just because these five elements are what seem to be required to make equity work in a society accustomed to patriarchy doesn't mean they're ideal. Is it really too much to ask for women to not have to push, to expect heterosexual men to step up in the domestic sphere without prodding of Rodsky's and Dunn's — or even the equal sharers' — variety? Expectations should be lowered enough to avoid other-oriented perfectionism, but should women have to live in squalor if they don't want to spend all day cleaning? Mothers shouldn't feel the need to gatekeep, the fear that not doing so will negatively impact their children. And the work of the home and the caregiver should be valued as work before, and without, threats of divorce.

If we want societal balance and fairness, the answer isn't adding one more layer of managerial skills for women à la Rodsky and Dunn; it's raising our kids to see themselves as entitled to the full spectrum of emotion, achievement, responsibility, and experience — for all of them to feel an entitlement to equal sharing.

The research is clear: Undoing gender in heterosexual marriages starts with undoing gender in our parenting: singing and reading to boys just as much as girls, talking to them about emotions with the same frequency, and offering equal access and encouragement when it comes to dirt and sticks and dolls and dinos and glitter. It starts with #kidmom — better yet, #kidparent.

That's the long winded version of the first item on a list of structural changes, shifts that go beyond the negotiations and value-inculcation of individual households, suggested by Scott Coltrane, a sociology professor emeritus who studied the role of men in families for decades:

  1. Teach all children to see the value of care work from an early age, and to see that care work is the responsibility of all, regardless of their gender.
  2. Provide training in which fathers recognize and challenge traditional attitudes, learn about gender-equitable parenting, and build skills involved in unpaid care work.
  3. Recruit more men into caregiving and other health, education, administration, and literacy (HEAL) professions.
  4. Train health sector and other social services staff to engage men as equal caregiving partners. (E.g., schools shouldn't always call mom when someone gets bonked in the head or throws up.)
  5. Use income-support and social-security programs to promote men's greater involvement in unpaid care work.
  6. Implement policies and practices that support individuals' unpaid care work as well as their paid work.
  7. Offer equal, paid, non-transferable parental leave for all parents.

Of course, Rodsky is right. There is some accountability women need to take as well. But the vast bulk of the problem is outside their control, and we need to start acting that way, especially in the midst of a "she-cession" that threatens even the incomplete gains of the gender revolution. Our marriages and well being — and our kids' marriages and well being — are on the line.


Miranda Berrigan, an advanced graduate student with expertise in the division of labor in families, provided consultation for this article.

Read more from Gail Cornwall's "Are We There Yet?" parenting column:


Gail Cornwall

Gail Cornwall works as a mother and writer in San Francisco. Connect with Gail on Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

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