Parents of young children may (or may not!) be surprised by a recent study that shows new dads spend more time relaxing than new moms. The study, published in the journal Sex Roles, found that in households in which both parents work, men tend to devote more of their days off to relaxing, compared to women who spend them tending to childcare and housework.
Researchers tracked what couples were doing minute-by-minute on their non-work days, and found that when women were busy with kids or chores, men were often engaged in leisure activities. Men did help out with these tasks, but to a lesser extent—and when they did, their wives were generally also doing so as well.
The study included 52 heterosexual couples living in Ohio, most of whom were white and well educated. Lead author Claire Kamp Dush, associate professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University, says she was surprised that even in middle- to upper-class families, the division of housework and childcare was so disproportionate.
“I didn’t really see that coming,” says Kamp Dush, who says she and her husband strive to share household responsibilities as equally as possible. “We expected these couples have pretty egalitarian ideals about the way the division of labor should go, but those beliefs really aren’t being practiced.”
The study participants all kept detailed diaries of what they were doing at different times of day—and how long they spent doing certain activities—both on a work day and a non-work day. They completed this exercise both before and after their first child was born.
Kamp Dush and her colleagues found that, three months after their babies were born, men spent about 101 minutes relaxing on their days off while their wives did some kind of childcare or housework. Women, on the other hand, logged only half that time—46 to 49 minutes—in leisure while their husbands had their hands full.
The amount of time women and men spent doing housework and childcare was more equal on work days, although women still got slightly less time to relax. On days off, though—Saturday and Sundays in many families—traditional gender inequalities emerged, the authors say: Women continued toiling away while men took the opportunity to kick back.
The husbands in the study weren’t necessarily doing this deliberately, says Kamp Dush. “For future studies, we’d like to look at husbands’ perceptions of how much work he’s doing versus how much she’s doing,” she says. “I’d like to see if he perceives that he’s doing a greater percentage than he really is.”
Women may also contribute to the uneven division of work, she adds, by choosing not to let their husbands handle certain responsibilities themselves. “During some of these times, women may be hovering over their spouses and making sure they’re doing things the 'right' way,” she says.
“One piece of advice I have for women is to actually let him get in there and do the childcare and the housework,” she says. “There are lots of ways to dress a baby and change a diaper and fold laundry, and if it’s not exactly your way, that’s okay.”
But she says men need to do their part as well, and make an effort to share the work when they see their partners are too busy to relax—especially when there’s a new baby in the house. (Surprisingly, men in the study actually logged twice as much leisure time on their days off after their child was born than they did before.)
Kamp Dush acknowledges that her research involved a small, homogenous sample, and the findings certainly aren’t representative of every couple. But she worries that household responsibilities may be even less equal among couples that don’t have all the advantages as the ones in her study.
Among her group of friends, she says women don't seem to be surprised by her study's findings. "The reaction has pretty much been, 'Duh, I could have told you that,'" she says. "I haven't heard from any defensive dads yet, but I imagine I will."
She hopes the findings can help all couples, regardless of their personal arrangements with each other, to be more sensitive to the roles and responsibilities each member takes on in a relationship.
“I know for me, it’s really irritating to do housework when my husband is playing on his phone, and I know it’s equally irritating for him when I do it,” says Kamp Dush. “When you see your partner is really working hard, make sure you’re really doing your part, too.”