Babies – adorable little creatures – bring a whirlwind of nappies to be changed, bellies to be filled and often baffling demands to be met.
As any parent can attest, the birth of a child unravels life into chaos. In many households, mothers assume the bulk of this added labour, in part due to gender norms emphasising mother-as-best care.
Yet, as more mothers are entering the labour market and gender norms are shifting, questions about how mothers are faring in these changing conditions are increasingly pressing. Families are increasingly calling for solutions to the gendered carer problem.
Having spent the last three years studying this issue, I propose some policy solutions that can help address it.
What happens when the baby comes?
It is important to acknowledge that fathers are increasingly involved in childcare and reporting strong preferences for spending more time with children over work. However, it is difficult for fathers to be as engaged in fatherhood as they would like. After taking leave to care for children, they often face a “flexibility stigma” that can result in lower earnings and shorter career ladders.
These institutional barriers, taken together with social norms which equate “good” parenting with motherly love, mean mothers often remain the primary caregivers.
Thus, it is no surprise that gender inequality increases when children are present. New Australian mothers report twice as much pressure on their time as new fathers following the birth of their first child. This pressure only doubles after the birth of the second child, further widening the gap between heterosexual parents.
Lessons from Canada show that mothers, more than fathers, view their parenting load as unfair and as a consequence are more dissatisfied with their marriages. Swedish women take gender inequality even more seriously, separating from their partners if the domestic load remains unequal.
In an age where children are expected to be carted from ballet to cello to soccer practice, having multiple children requires superhuman strength. It is no wonder, then, that the pressure from taking care of children and inequalities in home lives can damage mothers’ mental health, well-being and marriages.
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The school's out factor
For many Australian parents, the incompatibility of work and family schedules comes into sharp relief during the dreaded school holidays. School holidays require parents to dig deep into their powers of persuasion – either taking time off to care for children or working up magical solutions to keep children entertained and safe for ten hours a day.
School is most beneficial to parents when school days are long and after school care is widely available. But the gaps in school schedules – whether through short school days, limited after school care or long breaks – highlight that work and school need to be better synchronised.
It’s in all our interests to ensure school and work schedules are consistent, that parents aren’t penalised for leaving work to pick up children and that children can be cared for during school holidays in ways that are innovative and inexpensive.
As more families are balancing competing work and family demands, innovative policy solutions must be found. Otherwise, the consequences for failing our families are great.
This post originally appeared on The Conversation and is republished here with permission.
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