New research looking at how couples spend their time after the birth of their first child suggests that men tend to engage in more leisure activities than women, especially on days off. Conversely, mothers are more focused on their child-rearing and household duties.

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Women tend to focus more on child rearing and household chores compared with their partners, a new study suggests.

The topic of differing gender roles in the household is much discussed. Even in couples wherein both partners hold down jobs, research has shown that women still tend to shoulder more work related to the house and child rearing.

This trend seems to persist even among couples with egalitarian views, who set out to share the workload equally.

A new study from Ohio State University in Columbus aims to find out just how much time women put into childcare and household chores versus men in couples wherein both partners are highly educated and qualify as "bread earners."

Drs. Claire Kamp Dush, Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, and Jill Yavorsky - who all co-authored the study paper - noted a significant contrast between the way in which women and men divided their time during the three months after the birth of their first child.

These imbalances were especially visible at weekends, the researchers found. Their results were recently published in the journal Sex Roles.

Men engage in leisure more than women

The researchers worked with 182 heterosexual couples in which both partners were typically white, highly educated, and in paid employment. The data were sourced through the New Parents Project, which is a study analyzing the development of family relationships after the birth of a first child.

Dr. Kamp Dush and her two colleagues decided to focus on the couples' activities during the first three months following their baby's birth; this period - although known to be crucial to the way in which gender role expectations play out in the new family - is currently understudied.

In order to understand just how much time each partner spent on leisure activities versus childcare and household chores, the researchers asked them both to keep minute-by-miunte time diaries.

This allowed Dr. Kamp Dush and team to see how new mothers and fathers divided their time on the same day, and it enabled them to compare the results for workdays versus days off.

On average, men and women seemed to spend a roughly equal amount of time caring for their child and doing household chores on workdays, although the mothers still worked slightly more than the fathers.

However, on days off and weekends, the researchers noted significant differences.

They saw that for 35 percent of the time in which women were doing housework, the men were engaged in leisure activities. The same did not hold true for women, who engaged in leisure activities for 19 percent of the time that men spent engaged in routine housework.

More specifically, the team explains, men are more likely to spend time relaxing than their partners, especially if no urgent task awaits.

"On non-workdays [...] [i]t's very much 'all hands on deck' but when there is more time available on the weekend and parents are not so pressed to get everything done," says Dr. Yavorsky, "then we see the emergence of gendered patterns and inequality where women do a lot more housework and childcare while he leisures."

When it came to childcare, too, the pattern remained consistent. Fathers relaxed for 47 percent of the time that their partners were looking after the child, while mothers did the same for only 16 percent of the time that their partners were performing childcare duties.

Overall, the study reports that "fathers had significantly more time in leisure on the non-workday compared to mothers (222 [versus] 170 min)."

Inequitability 'may last several years'

Dr. Kamp Dush says that the findings surprised her, considering the couples' high educational and socioeconomic status. "I was expecting to see a lot more minutes where the couple was doing some kind of housework or childcare together," she notes.

"I suspect," adds Dr. Kamp Dush, "the situation may be even less equitable for women who don't have all the advantages of the couples in our sample."

The researchers warn, however, that the sample was small, and that their results may not extend to couples facing different contexts.

"It is a small sample. It is not the definitive answer, and is mostly relevant to similar couples. But we need to look into this further and understand how dual-earner couples are sharing housework and childcare," says Dr. Kamp Dush.

In the meantime, they advise expecting parents to start the conversation about child rearing and housework-related expectations as early as possible.

This, Dr. Kamp Dush hopes, might prevent unequal shares in family duties, which can be perpetuated for years once partners start this vicious cycle.

"At the time we studied them, these couples were setting up routines that may last several years as the kids grow. Couples need to be having these conversations from the first few months [after the child's birth]."

Dr. Claire Kamp Dush