When mothers outperform their husbands, their household chores increase, the study found – Advice Eating

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When Betty Choi was pregnant with her first child in 2013, she was making three times as much money as her husband, who was also a doctor.

At the time, Choi held two jobs — as an attending physician and as a medical editor. Her husband had an intense schedule during his fellowship years, she said, often involving 100-hour workweeks.

But while Choi far outperformed her husband, she did more housework and childcare for about three years, she said.

“There weren’t enough hands,” said Choi, who is now 38 and lives outside of Santa Barbara, California. For a time, the couple had a part-time nanny, but juggling two careers, first-time parenthood and maintaining a home was difficult, 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 her time to writing due to her interest and flexibility. Although her husband was willing to do more chores around the house, their work schedule didn’t allow them to approach tasks evenly, she said.

This unequal distribution of housework fits a pattern documented in a recent analysis published in the journal Work, Employment and Society. New mothers do more housework than their husbands do – even more so when the wife earns more money than him, according to the article by Joanna Syrda, a professor at Britain’s University of Bath School of Management.

“We see these top earners as compensation by doing more housework,” Syrda said, “not when wives outperform their husbands, but when mothers outperform fathers.” So parenting seems to have this traditionalizing effect.”

Drawing on research from the Institute of Family Studies, Syrda’s study examined the relationship between spouse income and household chores in more than 6,000 double-income heterosexual couples between 1999 and 2017.

Women with children reduced household chores from 18 to 14 hours a week as their income went from zero to half the household income. But after handing over her husband’s salary, one woman’s homework spiked to nearly 16 hours a week, the analysis said. In contrast, a man’s housework ranged from six to eight hours a week when he was the main breadwinner, but then declined when his wife surpassed him.

Syrda posited that women who earn men more violate traditional gender stereotypes, so women do more housework to compensate and men do less. This hypothesis corresponds with her other research on couples’ income and men’s psychological distress.

“Men understandably have very high levels of stress when they are the sole breadwinner and lowest when their wife brings in about 40 percent of the household income,” she said. “Because it’s mostly less than half.”

The results also correspond with other studies that found that women with unemployed husbands still did significantly more housework than their husbands. But this research looked specifically at heterosexual couples with children.

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While counterintuitive to some, these results didn’t surprise economist Misty L. Heggeness, who has also done research on dual-income households and the distribution of household chores.

“Not only are societal gender norms stronger around parenting, biologically, women spend a disproportionate amount of time with young children because of childbirth, breastfeeding, and the bonding that develops from these activities,” she said. As a result, many tasks — changing diapers, putting children to sleep, cooking, completing appointments — fall disproportionately on women, she added.

That’s where Choi found herself logging more hours than her husband, she said. One of her two children has food allergies, making cooking and preparing food more time-consuming. She also said she became the default “on-call” parenting in case anything happened at school.

The couple talked about how to split tasks more evenly, which became easier when her husband’s scholarship ended and his work shifted to more manageable hours, Choi said.

Now her husband, who now earns more than her, cooks on the weekends, does “a ton of laundry” and helps get the kids ready for school because his day starts later now, she adds. Though he also worked most weekends during the pandemic, he took care of the kids whenever he could so Choi, who is now an author, could keep her book deadline.

“I have a lot of credit for him,” said Choi. “He loves to be involved and we’ve learned to communicate our needs.”

Historically, US women have taken on more responsibilities at home because they could not work outside the home or worked fewer hours and earned less due to limited access to higher-paying jobs. But since the 1970s, despite increasing labor force participation and rising wages, men have still not done their fair share of housework. This has been exposed during the pandemic as millions of women dropped out of the workforce due to distance learning and lack of childcare.

Biology, social constructs, and persisting traditional perceptions about gender may all play a role, experts say. Research has shown that wives who earn more than their husbands can put a strain on a marriage (which increases the likelihood of divorce by 50 percent) and cause partners to lie about their income.

Like Choi, Sarah Tuttle, an astrophysicist and assistant professor at the University of Washington, and her husband alternate as the higher-earning spouse. In grad school, they had similar salaries. But postdocs in her field earned more than her husband’s.

“Early on in our relationship, I definitely took on a lot more roles. When he did stuff, I was like, ‘Oh, I hate the way you do it’…all these stereotypes,” she said. “Then we worked through a bunch of them.”

There are also structural prejudices to combat, Tuttle said. Throughout parental leave — Tuttle, 44, is a mother of two — others assumed she would be the go-to for school, activities and appointments. Just recently, her husband tried to set up a doctor’s appointment for her 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 hers. But he often cooks dinner because he works from home, and he does the laundry, Tuttle said.

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

That kind of communication and refocusing has been key to bringing balance to their marriage, she said, especially after a stressful time during the pandemic. Tuttle said they initially withdrew into traditional roles as they had to manage remote school, their careers and their home, while taking on the organizational and emotional part of her family’s work.

Economic researcher Heggeness said: “There’s literally no reason why men can’t get involved in household chores in the same way as women, especially when children arrive. It just takes a more assertive commitment from men to take the lead on certain tasks.”

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

“You have to voice your needs,” she said, adding with a laugh, “I’ve learned to be more compassionate with my delivery.”

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