Breadwinners or carers - the roles of fathers and mothers

Breadwinners or carers - the roles of fathers and mothers

Media release — 1 March 2007

Australian parents seem comfortable in traditional gender roles - mother as the primary caring role and the father the breadwinning role - at least while their children are of preschool age.

New research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies published in Family Matters no.75 shows that in most families there is no conscious process of decision-making or negotiation about the degree to which each parent would engage in paid work and care for children.

The Family and Work Decisions Project surveyed mothers about their work history, and the decisions they took about paid work while their children were growing up. The data presented in this paper are drawn from in-depth interviews in 2003 and 2004 with 32 partnered mothers who were sampled to provide a diverse range of circumstances and experiences.

Almost all the mothers reported that when they first had children, they arranged to stay home with the children as primary carer, perhaps returning to work on a part-time basis when the children were old enough to be left in the care of others.

Further, in families where the possibility of mothers working was considered, this was usually seen as the mother's choice, even when having only one income was seen as a source of financial hardship or strain.

In a few families there had been discussion about partners staying home while mothers took on the breadwinning role, but this option was usually ruled out based on who was capable of earning the most money.

Eventually though, many mothers reported that there is a point where their partners begin to talk to them about returning to work and the advantages of additional income for the family budget. This shift most often took place in the lead up to the youngest child starting school.

A focus on breadwinning rather than childrearing by fathers was not seen by mothers as a lack of participation in fatherhood, but reflected their role as a good father.

In the eyes of mothers who strongly believed that small children needed their mothers to be at home with them all of the time, a partner who 'worked hard' and was a 'good provider' enabled them to stay at home and fulfill this crucial mothering role - and in their eyes fulfill a crucial aspect of fatherhood.

Hand, K.. (2006). Mothers' accounts of work and family decision-making in couple families: an analysis of the Family and Work Decisions Study. Family Matters 75, 70-76.

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