Research Findings

Does money shape couples’ labor division after the birth of their first child?

September 21, 2023

After the birth of their first child, different sex couples often opt for a gendered labor division, with mothers assuming more of the primary responsibility for childcare, which often leads to a reduction in their salaried working hours, while fathers continue full-time employment. In my research, I analyzed the role financial aspects play when new parents negotiate their labor division. What role do childcare costs play when parents decide whether to work outside the home or take care of their children by themselves? Are mothers more likely to reduce their paid working hours and take on more unpaid work than fathers, because, on average, they earn less?

To answer these questions, I traced the financial decisions of 54 parents (27 couples) living in Switzerland. While most of the couples belonged to the middle-class, their income configurations varied: before childbirth, the man earned more than the woman did in 12 couples.  In 9 couples, both parents earned the same.  In 6 couples, the woman earned more than the man did. Each parent was interviewed once before and once or twice in the first two years after the birth of their first child. This longitudinal data with more than 130 in-depth interviews provided a detailed picture of how the couples navigated their financial decisions.

In Switzerland, parents of young children receive little state support. Paid parental leave is short (14 weeks for mothers, 2 weeks for fathers), and professional childcare is poorly subsidized, expensive, and hard to find. Consequently, parents must bear most of the costs of child raising. Surprisingly, despite the financial strain, my study revealed that the parents choose their labor division without fully considering the resulting costs. For instance, one father, after enrolling his child in childcare, admitted, “I haven’t checked the rates, I don’t even know how it can affect the budget either.” Similarly, another father said: “I have no idea how much having a child costs”. When asked if he was worried about not knowing these costs, he answered, “I have a pretty good salary … if we couldn’t manage to raise a child there would be many people who can’t either.”  For this father, a comparison with other families replaced a more exact calculation.

Parents’ lack of information regarding the cost of their labor division was not solely due to a lack of effort, but also stemmed from the limited availability of necessary information. The childcare market is a complex mixture of public and private professional and non-professional services. Because spots were scarce, parents often enrolled their child in multiple institutions without knowing where they would finally get a spot and whether that spot would be subsidized or not.

However, parents who said outright that they did not know how much their labor division cost were the exception. Instead, most settled for a rough estimation of costs, factoring in some expenses while neglecting others. The selective calculation became evident when parents estimated the cost of childcare. When parents relied on non-family care (which accounted for 5–20% of their joint income), they considered childcare to be expensive. “Paying as much for childcare …  it’s clear that this creates troubles in the budget” stated one father, for example.

When parents chose not to rely on non-family care, and instead reduced their working hours to care for their child themselves, the financial cost was reduced wages. For families with one child, the salary they gave was clearly more than childcare fees. When a father reduced his working hours to take care of the child, the parents took into account the cost of childcare and calculated whether a reduction was financially feasible. Many fathers concluded that a reduction would be too expensive and opted for full-time employment. When a mother reduced her working hours, the calculation was different: Parents usually disregarded her loss of income and instead calculated how much the mother earned. A mother who worked two days a week, for example, said she did so “to earn money” and “get out of the house a bit”.

In sum, parents considered childcare costly when they relied on non-family care or when the father took care of the child, but when the mother did it, they considered it to be free. Parents’ perception of childcare costs depended less on real costs than on who was taking care of the child.

In addition, in line with the prevailing social norm that childcare is the mother’s responsibility, many mothers deducted childcare costs from their own income rather than from the couple’s joint income. Consequently, mothers sometimes questioned whether their paid work was financially worthwhile if childcare costs had to be paid. But none of the mothers reduced her paid work hours because of childcare costs. If they found childcare to be too expensive, they opted for a more affordable solution. Some switched from professional care to less costly non-professional care, while others sought assistance from family members, typically relying on grandmothers, who often provided childcare for free.

Hence, expensive childcare led to an increase in informal care solutions and not to a decrease in parents’ working hours. This finding does not mean that childcare costs can be completely disregarded when parents choose their salaried working hours. Studies show that childcare costs play a role, especially for mothers with fewer resources and those without relatives.

In addition to childcare expenses, another significant cost factor for the family was the reduction of parents’ working hours. Due to the relatively high working hours in Switzerland (usually 42h/week), dual full-time employment is unusual. In the sample, for one couple, both parents continued working full-time, whereas among the others at least one parent reduced her or his working hours in order to take on caregiving responsibilities. It is evident that reduced working hours put less strain on the family budget if the parent with the lower income chooses to work part-time. But regardless of whether the mother or the father earned more, in the majority of couples it was the mother who reduced her paid work hours. This finding was not unexpected, as previous research conducted in different countries has presented similar results (e.g., United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium), showing that when mothers earn the same or more than their partners, they still mostly assume a greater share of unpaid work and reduce their paid work hours more than fathers following the birth of a child.

Interestingly, the parents who opted for a gendered division of labor despite having the same income, explained their choices based on their relative resources rather than gender. As an example, consider one couple where, before childbirth, the mother earned more because she had higher working hours. After childbirth, the father opted for full-time work while the mother wanted to reduce her working hours, but could not find a  part-time job and therefore stayed at home. When the parents were asked 6 months after childbirth how they had negotiated their labor division, the father said, “It was not quite planned that way.” He added that he did not like working full-time and remarked “Ideally, I would be the first to reduce my working hours a little if my wife would earn [money].” This father’s reasoning was very common. Parents who initially had equal incomes first opted for an unequal division of labor, with the mother earning less but spending more time at home. Subsequently, they interpreted the inequality they had created by their own previous decisions as the cause of their labor division. They said the mother did more unpaid work because she earned less and because she had more time. By framing the situation this way, parents rationalized their unequal division of labor and downplayed the influence of gender norms, which they believed did not affect their decisions.

In some couples, the mothers continued to earn more after childbirth. For these mothers, it was evident that the family relied on her income, leading her to maintain long working hours. However, this did not lead to a more equal labor division, because most fathers who earned less did not increase their contribution to family work. On the contrary, they chose to pursue better-paying employment opportunities, engage in further education or to start a new business. Fathers who earned less ended up working even longer hours in paid employment compared to fathers who earned more, as among the latter some also slightly reduced their paid work to take on family work.

Overall, the study revealed that within a couple, not all dollars were perceived as equal. Parents attributed less financial value to mothers’ financial contribution to the family than to fathers’. The analysis highlighted that achieving greater gender equality at home requires not only gender wage parity, workplace policies allowing the combination of paid work and family responsibilities and easier access to childcare, but also a more equal valuation of mothers’ and fathers’ financial contributions within the family.

Read more

Regula Zimmermann. “Do Couples Take Financially Rational Decisions When They Become Parents? No, But They Believe They Do” in Gender and Society 2023

image: pixnio (CC0)

This post was originally posted on the Gender & Society blog.

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