The quality of women’s relationships with their partner is diminished if they view their parenting division as unfair or want to spend more time working, our new study of employed parents in Canada has found.

Emerging research shows women’s larger housework share deteriorates relationship satisfaction and leads to divorce. Our study shows inequality across the domestic sphere – housework and parenting – jeopardises relationship quality.

Housework and parenting: equally damaging?

Women consistently do more housework, even when employed full-time. They do more when they are married and after the birth of a child. Women also perform more of the least-pleasurable households tasks, like cleaning the bathroom.

Although men have increased their housework time since the 1970s, theymore typically perform the least-urgent chores, like changing lightbulbs or car maintenance.

Our study found working mothers assumed a larger parenting share, and this inequality deteriorated relationship quality – but only under certain conditions. It deteriorated when mothers perceived their parenting division as unfair, or when they felt trapped in their primary carer role.

Specifically, mothers who performed a larger parenting share and worked part-time had the lowest relationship quality. This pattern was also evident for mothers who preferred more time at work.

These paradoxical findings – mothers with part-time employment and preferences for more time at work reporting worse relations with their partners due to their larger parenting burden – suggests feeling trapped in the role of mother.

Mothers are expected to be fully available to the demands and whims of children around the clock. They are expected not only to provide primary care, but also to carry the mental load for the household. The mental load captures all of the planning work that is required to keep the household functioning, from organising after-school care to ensuring there is enough milk for breakfast.

The demands of this role are intense. It leads many mothers to reduce to part-time employment when children are young. Yet many women may be dissatisfied with the pressure to assume the bulk of the parenting at the expense of their employment and, as a consequence, relationship quality suffers.

So, mothers can be trapped between gender role expectations of a “good” mother and their desires to be more engaged in the labour market. This dissatisfaction bleeds into the marriage.

Relationship quality is better among some couples, such as those who equally share the parenting even when mothers work part-time, full-time or overtime hours. Simply, men’s equal parenting participation, regardless of mothers’ employment status, appears to be the linchpin for relationship quality.

- The Conversation

The Conversation