The Way Breadwinning Parents Split Housework Might Surprise (and Infuriate) You

RioPatuca Images / Adobe Stock

woman picking up daughter at school

RioPatuca Images / Adobe Stock

Samantha Samel
Samantha Samel
May 27, 2024 at 10:48AM UTC
A good friend recently vented to me an age-old complaint —  in her household, she winds up bearing the brunt of errands and housework. One example she shared stuck with me: her husband had recently come up with a creative gift idea for his childhood friend’s wedding. He presented his idea to my friend, along with the nudge that she should be the one to execute it.
My friend described her husband’s behavior not as aggressive or antagonistic, but merely as a bit lazy, or even helpless. He had quietly assumed that she’d be more competent in carrying out this (not-so-difficult) task. She didn’t hesitate to call him out, and he didn’t push back when she did.
But what caused this dynamic in the first place?
I suggested that my friend and her husband read a Harper’s Bazaar article that addressed just this phenomenon. In the piece, aptly titled “Women Aren’t Nags — We’re Just Fed Up,” Gemma Hartley illustrates the root of so many women’s frustrations: in addition to paid work and the unpaid labor women do at home, they also tend to take on more emotional labor than their male partners do. This kind of work often goes unrecognized because it’s not always tangible, like remembering birthdays and dietary restrictions or researching services or finding a babysitter.
My friend found the article particularly helpful — as did, I imagine, many of its other 900,000-plus readers — in initiating a productive dialogue with her partner.
But for anyone doubting the anecdotal evidence of the “mental load,” new research from childcare provider Bright Horizons shows just how real and significant it is. The findings, compiled in the fourth annual report in the Bright Horizons Modern Family Index series, hone in on the mental load for working mothers in particular and reveal that, even as the percentage of female breadwinners increases (today, 40 percent of families have female breadwinners), women continue to take on the vast majority of household and family-centric duties.
Relative work obligations outside the home do not seem to account for how household tasks are assigned. Even when women are the primary earners, they are three times more likely to manage household and children’s schedules as compared to breadwinning fathers (76% vs 22%), they’re three times more likely to volunteer at schools (63% vs 19%), and they’re almost twice as likely to make sure all family responsibilities are handled (71% vs 38%).
It should come as no surprise, then, that 69% of working moms say their responsibilities at home and at work create a mental load and that 52% report burning out due to their household responsibilities.  
Bright Horizons’ summary of the study suggests that “these unstated expectations may also explain why male breadwinners report being more than three times less likely to stay on top of the family’s schedules. Fathers continue to be judged negatively by colleagues at work for taking care of issues at home, leaving women to take on the bulk of family responsibilities.
“Yet men want to be partners in parenting,” the report adds. “In the 2015 Modern Family Index, working dads indicated they want more time at home, and 46 percent experienced burnout at work due to lack of family time.”
The study also reveals that working fathers are hoping for change and are perhaps even more likely than working mothers to express their desire for that change. Working fathers are 9% more likely than working mothers to wish their employer offered more family flexibility, and they’re 32% more likely than mothers to give up a 10% raise for more family time.
This research indicates that the issues my friend was facing with the division of labor in her marriage are not only important to address on a micro level. Thinking about how they play out on a macro level can help businesses and industries as well. “The fact is that for most employers, much of their most valuable talent in the workplace is playing double duty as manager of family life as well,” explains Bright Horizons CHRO Maribeth Bearfield. “Now is a more important time than ever to break out of traditional male/female stereotypes — both at home and at work.
“By providing supports to working women, [employers] can help open up mindshare that can contribute even more to the workplace,” Bearfield adds. “And by creating environments where men are encouraged and valued for taking advantage of work/life supports as well, workplaces can start to catch up with the culture this generation of working families demands.”
Moreover, as companies across industries are more carefully scrutinizing gender inequality in the workplace in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it’s critical that they understand the deeply ingrained societal biases that women are up against. In order for women to successfully take on roles that have previously been dominated by men in the workplace, assumptions about their life at home may have to be reconsidered.

Why women love us:

  • Daily articles on career topics
  • Jobs at companies dedicated to hiring more women
  • Advice and support from an authentic community
  • Events that help you level up in your career
  • Free membership, always