Q&A: Marriage expert says home roles for men and women have changed over time

Posted April 21

In 1992, during a presidential election cycle in which family values took center stage, Stephanie Coontz' book "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" was published. Fast-forward 24 years to this presidential election cycle, and Coontz has just released a "substantial update" that covers what's changed and what's stayed the same in America's family life.

Coontz is a noted expert in the history of marriage and family, author of several books and a semi-retired professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She is also the director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, for which she recently wrote a "briefing paper" on American family life over time.

Her insights are widely sought: Coontz was a featured panelist at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia last fall when Pope Francis visited, and she is one of the experts cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2015 landmark ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

Drawing on some of the topics she covered in the new book and in the briefing paper just prepared for the council, we talked to Coontz about family life and marriage. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

As a majority of women began working for pay outside the home, some experts predicted their children would receive less attention. You call it "outsourcing" developmental care. Did that happen?

Mothers' time with children did fall between 1975 and 1980 when they were first entering the workforce and having to adjust and men weren't stepping up to the plate at home. But since 1985, both parents' time with children has really increased. Fathers have tripled their time. Mothers have increased time across the board and educated mothers have really increased it to the point that many think they overdo it.

Single mothers and married working mothers spend more time with their children — not just being around in the background — than married homemakers did in 1965. So kids are getting a lot of time and attention. The big variation is not by whether mother works. (Researchers) found the difference in time between homemaker mothers and comparably educated working mothers is something like five hours a week. Where these mothers cut back is not on time with the child, it is on stuff like shopping, where they are not paying attention to the child. The big difference is between educated and less-educated moms. Less-educated moms have increased the developmental time, but it's not enough to keep them from falling behind (educated mothers).

Has the work and child care division at home changed between moms and dads?

Men have stepped up to the plate quite a bit, though in the first year of life, maybe not. … Women still carry the bulk of the executive planning. There are a growing number of families where women themselves say men do half or more, but in large numbers, a man who wants to help says 'what should I do?' That kind of responsibility for figuring out what has to be done even if the guy steps up is stressful for women. But they are certainly not neglecting their kids. Kids are getting a lot more developmental time and attention.

For low-income children, you can see an increased spending of time, but it hasn't increased as much as for the wealthier and more educated. So there's a growing gap, based on income and education of the parents.

I tend to attribute that not to parents' lack of desire, but a lack of ability in a world where increasingly you have to pay for extracurriculars that used to be provided for free. And they don't have time off from work, either.

What do working moms and dads do after a baby is born?

When a child is born, men tend to increase their paid work hours, while women are more apt to cut back on hours or stop working, in large part because they don't have either adequate paid leave or affordable child care. Often their decisions are not based on their preferences, but on workplace and public policies and preferences.

Paid paternity leave is just as important as paid maternity leave, and to my mind that's one of the most pressing issues we've got — in addition to getting mothers guaranteed time off with pay. A survey by the Department of Labor did find many moms went back to work after two weeks. That's insane, obscene. Mothers should have the right to restore themselves physically as well as make bonds with the baby.

But it's equally critical to really push for paternity leave for fathers. For one thing, when moms are the ones who take the lead at home, that immediately reinforces the notion that women are second-class workers who are going to cut back and lose seniority. But it also reinforces the notion that men are second-class parents. They lose out on the early months when you first relate to the baby. When men lose out on that, it's a lifetime deficit in parenting.

Studies of men who have taken leave — in the United States, Canada, across Europe — find they are more involved, better parents. They are more likely even years later to read to their kids and take care of their kids.

Anything you'd like to add about the changing roles of men and women in the home?

When we talk about the household division of labor, I made the point about the old habits get in the way of moving forward, so on the man's part he doesn't see a need to plan in advance. That's a problem for men. But for women, gatekeeping is a problem. We are so used to doing it our way, we tell them they're doing it wrong when they do help. Take loading the dishwasher. A man and woman may do it differently and she says, "Just let me do it."

I think it's extremely common that, just as men want to have their cake and eat it, too, so do women. We women want the help, but we still want at some level to be the acknowledged expert. "I'm the chef; he's the helper."

Email:, Twitter: Loisco


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