What Will It Take for Dads to Share the Second Shift?
Moms are beyond fed up—but norms aren’t budging. We ask Brigid Schulte what to do.
When Brigid Schulte penned Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, she briefly feared it would be received as old news. Published in 2015, her book was an illuminating look at the pressures of modern parenting, but it also served as a road map for renegotiating the division of labor at home, where Schulte, like most moms, had been shouldering more of the burden.
After all, she thought, we’ve been talking about how it’s overwhelmingly moms, and not dads, who work “the second shift” since 1989, when sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the term in her book of the same name, to describe unpaid labor performed at home.
“Then I realized, well, that's the story,” Schulte recalled. “It was 26 years later at that point, and it really hadn't changed appreciably.”
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I called Schulte after Pew Research released new data this month showing that even when husbands and wives earn similar salaries, men spend more time on leisure, while women devote more time to caregiving and housework. To borrow Schulte’s phrase, I’ve been covering household gender inequity for years, and it hasn’t really changed appreciably.
That’s despite the fact that women’s financial contributions have grown steadily over the last half century among married couples in the United States, according to Pew. In 1972, husbands were the primary or sole breadwinners in 85 percent of opposite-sex marriages. By 2022, it dropped to 55 percent. In nearly a third of opposite-sex marriages, both spouses earn about the same amount of money.
That’s also despite a veritable cottage industry of writers, researchers and advocates, like Schulte, gamely illustrating the gap and crafting clever frameworks to reduce it, both at home and as a matter of public policy. On my bookshelf, for example, is Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play, which even comes with a card game to help couples equitably split household duties. There’s Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up, which was inspired by her searing, viral essay, “Women Aren't Nags—We're Just Fed Up.” There’s Reshma Saujani’s Pay Up, a call to action for corporate leaders and families alike to finally recognize the sacrifices moms make and, well, pay up. Then, of course, there’s my dog-eared copy of Overwhelmed.
It also hasn’t changed appreciably despite a pandemic that scrambled social norms, erasing the boundaries between work and home and forcing moms and dads to split child care while schools and daycares remained closed.
“Talk about a catalyzing event! You would think that if anything would change these deeply entrenched cultural norms, that was it,” Schulte said to me. Research suggests that nearly one fifth of fathers have continued to do more child care than before the pandemic, and one quarter have continued to do more household work, but most families have reverted to their old divisions of labor.
Here we are, decades after women started getting sick of the second shift, and heterosexual married moms are working harder than ever in their paid positions, and just as hard as ever in their unpaid ones. Today’s dads certainly tackle more diaper changes and daycare drop-offs than their fathers, but, in short: It’s not enough.
Plenty of ink has been spilled about why women won’t be able to catch up with men at work, in rank and pay, without ditching more of their duties at home, so I won’t belabor the point. Plus, I suspect regular readers of this newsletter are intimately familiar with this struggle. (I know I am. Drop a comment below if you’ve successfully—or not-so-successfully—renegotiated the division of labor at home.)
“With deep cultural norms like this, we need to be aware of and celebrate even the small wins,” Schulte said, reeling me back in from my dismay. “It's not like nothing has changed, but it hasn't changed as much as many of us have been hoping it would, or as much as it really needs to for real gender equality at work and at home, and to get to that more egalitarian human future that so many of us have been envisioning and working towards.”
Is there anything that can shift this stubbornly persistent dynamic? I asked Schulte, who now works as the director of the Better Life Lab, the work-family justice program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank.
Schulte’s work is focused on creating the systems and supports that would enable dads to do more at home. That’s key, she said, because Better Life Lab research shows that an overwhelming majority of fathers believe the unpaid work of care and home is just as important as paid work, and they want to share it fairly with their spouse. However, the majority feel they can’t, because they would be punished at work, or they fear violating a cultural expectation that men are providers, and women are caregivers.
One important step is to get dads more involved from Day One of their child’s life, with paid paternity leave. The patterns that couples establish in the earliest weeks of parenting are powerful. Research shows that men who take paternity leave are more involved in their child’s care, even years later. Schulte pointed to more gender egalitarian countries like Sweden, Norway and Iceland, which incentivize fathers to take paid leave by making a portion of it available only to them. (In other words, it can’t be transferred to Mom.)
“Overnight, the cultural norm of what a good father was changed. You were no longer a good father if you were this distant provider, staying late at work and making more money,” she said. “If you did that, you were robbing your child of this critical time to develop and bond. In those Nordic countries, the policy design ended up changing the cultural norms.”
Of course, paid paternity leave is just one small part of a broader set of policies that are needed to help working fathers feel more confident about cutting back at work to do more at home, but this is another area where Schulte said we should celebrate the small wins while working towards the bigger ones.
On Tuesday, President Biden signed an executive order that issues more than 50 directives across nearly every Cabinet-level agency in an effort to expand access to long-term care and child care, CNN reports. It’s not nearly as comprehensive as the reforms proposed in the administration’s Build Back Better legislation, which failed to make it through Congress, but it should help bolster the struggling child and senior care industries.
“A lot of the investments in care infrastructure will certainly help ease some of the stress on families, and the commitment to having good jobs is going to help ease some of that financial burden on families,” Schulte said. “If this gives families just a little bit more breathing room, maybe that can help them make the changes inside their families that will work for them.”
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Great article! It's so important to recognize that true gender equality means both men and women taking on caretaking responsibilities at home. Companies need to do more to support fathers in sharing the burden of childcare, including offering flexible schedules and parental leave. Ultimately, we need to challenge societal norms and expectations around gender roles and parenting so that both men and women feel empowered to prioritize their families.