Negotiating housework and caring for children in early parenthood

Many parents who lived with their partner or other adult family members described negotiating responsibility for housework and caring for children. Often this had to be balanced against other commitments, such as paid work or studying. Most reached satisfactory arrangements around family life and household chores during pregnancy or following the birth of their babies. For others it took longer, and some people had to revisit or renegotiate their decisions when their circumstances changed. Different arrangements worked for different couples, and reflected the diversity of families parents lived in.

In the first few months to a year after having a baby, usually one partner stayed at home and took primary responsibility for housework and caring for children while the other had primary responsibility for earning income through paid work. In heterosexual couples, it was usually the mother who was the primary carer during this initial period, while in same-sex lesbian couples it was the ‘carrying’ mother.

Among the parents we talked to only a few described continuing with this arrangement (full-time income earner / full-time primary carer) after the first year or so. In most couples, the partner who was the primary carer returned to either part-time work or study at some time in the first few months to two years after their baby had been born. A small number of families shared housework, caring for children and paid employment relatively evenly between both parents. In weighing up who would stay home with the children and how much paid work each partner would do, parents described taking into account each partners’ earning capacity, career prospects, and how much they enjoyed looking after their children as compared with paid work (see Experiences of paid work and childcare).

In most families, regardless of how much or how little paid work each partner did, responsibility for housework and caring for children needed to be negotiated. In some families, the partner who worked full-time helped as much as they could with caring for children and housework when they returned from work. In other families, ‘long hours’ spent in paid work prevented this.

Michelle, the primary carer of a 10-month old baby, said her husband (who worked full-time) took a ‘pretty equal’ share of housework and caring for their son but she wasn’t sure if he was happy with this

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When both parents were working or studying, some described how both partners were doing ‘the best they could’ in relation to caring for children and housework.

Although Elizabeth worked part-time, her husband’s job meant he was not able to help much with chores or caring for the children, which sometimes caused ‘resentment’

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Luke talked about how tiring it was for him and his fiancé to look after their new baby whilst they were also working and studying

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For most parents, these roles and expectations had been negotiated well in advance of having their baby.

Rose, a migrant mother from Nigeria, talked about how helpful her husband was with both their children

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A few heterosexual parents commented on how the roles of income earner and primary carer seeming to diverge along quite traditional gender lines in early parenthood. Sara, a mother of two who worked full-time before having children and part-time afterwards, reflected: ‘I’ve never really believed that there’s been complete equality between the sexes but I was in a fairly balanced relationship – but once I became a mother it just all went out the window. The roles became so intensely divergent, and that in itself was depressing. The fact that gender has bitten you in the bum. Metaphorically and … all of the feminist sort of ideals – shattered really’.

Sara L had always felt strongly that her husband should take ‘half the responsibility’ if they had children and didn’t want being a mother to be her ‘sole definition in life’

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Louise felt that although her husband tried to ‘be equal’, they felt ‘forced’ into traditional roles of male breadwinner and female primary carer, especially after their second child was born

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Several parents talked about what it was like when they needed to move from one set of arrangements to another. For example, some mothers and fathers talked about moving from shared parenting to separate breadwinner / primary carer roles, or partners moving from the income earner to the primary carer role or vice versa. A few women whose partners were home for their baby’s first few weeks said this early experience of shared parenting made adjusting to separate roles additionally difficult.

Kate described her and her husband’s gender roles in terms of housework as not ‘too defined’ and said if they were unhappy with arrangements they usually told one another

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Some couples decided to ‘swap’ roles so that the female partner returned to work while the male partner was the stay-at-home parent. This was due to the male partner losing their job, a decision on behalf of the family to focus on the female partner’s career, or the male partner’s preference to be the primary carer.

Ajay, a migrant father from India, worked part-time while his wife worked full-time. When his parents or his wife’s parents were visiting they helped with housework and caring for their child, but otherwise Ajay had to take on more of these roles. He explained: ‘… in India, things are changing a little bit but still – even the women are working, after work they just come and need to cook, need to look after the kids and the husband, his needs and others. Well it’s very different here [in Australia], but I enjoy sharing this’.

Joanne’s partner worked long hours in a full-time job. She felt that although she was also busy studying and working part-time, it was her that took ‘control’ of caring for their son and housework.

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Couples who did not fit the ‘norm’ – same-sex couples, heterosexual couples with a male primary carer and female ‘breadwinner’, and parents who lived with other adult family members – saw the primary carer and ‘breadwinner’ roles differently.

Daniel and his male partner decided that as Daniel was more ‘work-focussed’ and earned more, he would continue working while his ‘more nurturing’ partner stayed home with their daughters. A single mother, Kahli lived with her mother and described how they divided housework and care of Kahli’s three children: ‘she cleans, I cook’. A couple of migrant families had grandparents come from overseas to assist with caring for children and housework.

Rumer said her husband’s job loss had been a ‘blessing in disguise’ as it had forced them to ‘rethink’ their roles and that it was good for their children to see them both share breadwinner and caring roles

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Daniel’s partner put his career ‘on hold’ for two years to look after their daughters

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A few couples in relationships in which ‘domestic duties’ and ‘breadwinning’ were mutually exclusive roles described their and their partner’s lives as being quite separate. Andrew, a stay-at-home father, described ‘craving adult conversation’ and enjoying taking his children to playgroup which he thought might be ‘more therapeutic for adults than it is for the children’. Melanie whose partner was working long hours in a new business said: ‘We are just two people living under a roof. There’s nothing. We love each other but there’s nothing intimate or deep going on there’.

An exception to this was Erin who was married to a man from northern Europe and was a stay-at-home mother to their six children. She described her husband: ‘He’s always been a pretty hands-on parent anyway. I think his nationality has a lot to do with it, because the way they are in that particular country, they’re very focused on kids. Which has been really lovely, because honestly I don’t think I could do six kids by myself, with a partner that’s not really hands-on’.

Lara said becoming parents had put strain on her relationship with her same-sex partner. She attributed this to the difference between being the biological vs non-biological mother.

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