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Does equality between partners stabilize family life?
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The Council on Contemporary Families fetes Women's Equality Day with a report looking across decades at how family life was first destabilized but now finds happier footing as men and women work together to care for and support their children. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Parents increasingly make choices that let them share responsibilities for in-home tasks like child care and housework, as well as providing financially for their families.

A look across decades finds that family life was first destabilized when couples stepped away from traditional gender roles, but families now find happier footing as men and women make choices that let them work together to care for and support their children, according to a new briefing for The Council on Contemporary Families timed to coincide with Women's Equality Day.

Congress designated Aug. 26 as Women's Equality Day in 1971 as a nod to the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.

Women's roles have continued to stretch and change over the decades, and most women now work outside the home. The U.S. Department of Labor's Women's Bureau said that roughly 60 percent of women are employed about 72 million of those who are 16 and older. By 2018, the bureau projected, women would account for most of America's job growth.

"Women's progress in upward occupational mobility and earnings has been dramatic," University of Maryland demographer Frances Goldscheider wrote in the briefing, titled "Gender Revolution and the Restabilization of Family Life." She added that "in the U.S. and many other countries, divorce rates have fallen among couples who express the greatest support for gender equality. Women's higher education and earnings now seem to help rather than hurt their marriage chances."

It has not been a straight trajectory, as women and men make choices that fit their individual circumstances. An analysis of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data by The New York Times said that the percentage of employed women in prime child-rearing ages 25-59 has declined from 74 percent at its peak in 1999 to 69 percent last year. Possible reasons included the recent recession, workplace policies and women choosing to be full-time homemakers.

Work-life balance is a hot and heavily researched topic, tracking the changes occurring in American families. As a Pew Research Center report noted two years ago, "Dads are doing more housework and child care; moms more paid work outside the home. Neither has overtaken the other in their 'traditional' realms, but their roles are converging."

Rebalancing and stabilizing

For the council briefing, Goldscheider examined three time periods significant to changing roles within families. Before 1970, she said, men worked and were better educated than most women, who chose to stay home and raise children. Even women unhappy with that arrangement or the quality of their marriage nonetheless often had "stable" marriages because they had few options.

The next three decades were somewhat chaotic for families as more women pursued higher education or joined the workforce, often with negative results that destabilized families, according to Goldscheider. Many of those women "found it hard to get or stay married (and) marital partners who shared earnings or housework had less sex," the report said.

But Goldscheider and others say that families embracing egalitarian roles have since "restabilized." They cite as evidence declining divorce rates and research showing better personal relationships and higher-quality intimacy between married couples who divide earning, housework and parenting tasks.

"As late as the 1950s and 1960s, we tended to organize both our work and our home life on the assumption that 'different' was the way to go different paths and different obligations and different rights, both at work and at home," said Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the council and a history professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She has written several books on marriage and family life, including "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap."

Coontz said renegotiation of roles between men and women was hard, especially for men. When a woman outpaced a man in education, it predicted divorce. Early on, said Coontz, "it was unnatural for women to want achievement in the outside world and unnatural for men to want to be involved at home." They looked for opposite rather than shared tasks.

Increasingly, she said, equality rather than difference forms the basis of a good marriage. Couples no longer divorce if the woman is more educated or earns more than her husband "if the marriage is happy." In unhappy marriages, divorce may be somewhat more likely because women have more opportunities to leave.

Dad at home matters

Every poll in the last 20 years has shown that sharing housework is important to women's marital satisfaction, Coontz said. But it goes well beyond that.

New research presented this month at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting said dad's involvement with children and home matters to both partners. "Heterosexual couples who split childcare duties have better relationships and sex lives than those who don't," according to a study led by Daniel L. Carlson, an assistant sociology professor at Georgia State University.

The earlier Pew report said working moms and dads are about equally stressed trying to juggle employment responsibilities with family life. It found those dads were more likely to want to work full-time than moms. They were also more concerned about how much money they made, while moms were more concerned about flexible work schedules.

Carlson's team used data on 487 parent couples from the 2006 Marital and Relationship Survey. Three-fourths of the couples split child care duty in a fairly equitable fashion. In the other two categories, women more often than men provided the bulk of care, 20 percent compared to 5 percent. They also looked at relationship satisfaction and conflict, sexual frequency and satisfaction with sex life.

The only really problematic arrangement, Carlson said, was when women do most or all of the child care. Both men and women rate their relationship quality and sex lives lower in that situation.

Couples were divided when men provide most or all of the child care. The men reported being less satisfied with the quality of their sex lives, while the women rated it the highest quality, compared to others in the survey. Overall, though, men providing most or all of the child care did not hurt the quality of the couple's relationship, nor did it decrease the frequency of sexual intimacy.

Beyond that, said Coontz, is personal satisfaction.

"We're finding that equally shared housework and child care, instead of being something men grudgingly do, also gives the men more satisfaction," said Coontz. "And it also really enhances the partnership" between mothers and fathers.

She said that research from all over Western Europe, Scandinavia and the United States indicates that the more these formerly destabilizing factors are incorporated into family life, the more benefit and stability they provide.
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