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Family Matters No. 28 - April 1991

Juggling work and family commitments

Helen Glezer


The author presents information about how mothers and fathers in the workforce balance their family commitments and work obligations, data being based on Stage 2 of the Institute's national longitudinal survey, the Australian Family Formation Project. Responses from a sub-sample of 949 men and women aged 27-44 years living in two-parent families with dependent children provide data on preferred work arrangements; the sharing of economic responsibilities and of parenting responsibilities; arrangements made when children are sick or on holiday; the role of grandmothers in child care; how work affects family life; division of labour in household tasks.

From the Institute's Australian Family Formation Project, Helen Glezer, AIFS Fellow, presents some findings about how mothers and fathers in the workforce balance their family commitments and work obligations

One of the emerging issues of the 1990s is how people are balancing their working lives and their family lives. The Industrial Relations Commission's 1990 decision concerning parental leave, which grants paternity leave to fathers and parental leave up until the child's second birthday, and the ratification by the Federal government last year of ILO Convention 156 concerning workers with family responsibilities, have put the work-family issue on the agenda.

Around four in ten women in the workforce have dependent children, and four in ten men in the workforce have dependent children (ABS 1988). In the past this fact has often been ignored, and the issue of workers with family responsibilities has been seen primarily as a women's issue. The parental leave decision and the ratification of ILO Convention 156 recognise that both parents have family responsibilities, and the Convention goes beyond that in recognising that family responsibilities are not just limited to dependent children.

Data used here are based on a sub-sample of 949 respondents living in two-parent families with dependent children, taken from the Institute's national longitudinal survey, the Australian Family Formation Project (Stage Two). When interviewed in 1990, respondents were aged 27-44 years.

Nearly all employed men with dependent children (97 per cent) were in full-time employment compared with just over 40 per cent of employed women with dependent children; mothers of pre-school children were least likely to be in the workforce (only 19 per cent were employed full-time - 30 hours or more). During their children's primary school years, just over a third of women were not employed, 37 per cent had returned to part-time work, and 29 per cent worked full-time. By the time the youngest child reached 13 years, over half (54 per cent) the women had returned to full-time employment and 25 per cent were not in employment.

So one of the main ways in which two-parent families juggle work and family life is by the woman dropping her working hours to part-time after the first birth (Glezer 1988), enabling her to retain skills, contribute economically to the household, and at the same time raise their child.

Preferred Work Arrangements

When parents were asked whether they would prefer to work full-time, part- time or not at all, 80 per cent of men preferred full-time work, 15 per cent part-time and 5 per cent said they would prefer not to work. However, 18 per cent of women wanted full-time work, 58 per cent preferred part-time work and 24 per cent said they would prefer not to be in employment. It would appear that men were doing what they preferred to do, that is, working full-time, and the majority of women were expressing a preference for part- time work.

The motivations of women concerning work and child rearing vary. Women with career opportunities and higher education were highly motivated to return to employment (Glezer 1988); other women enjoyed work and valued a sense of economic independence; some worked because of economic necessity. Some women were ambivalent about leaving young children, and had considerable difficulty adjusting to work and child rearing:

'The main pressure on me is the question about work. I feel I should go out to work full-time to help my husband financially, but feel I should be at home until the children are older. Middle-income families are being hit from all sides - financial, tax-wise and general cost of living.'

'I'm on maternity leave at the moment looking after a newborn baby. I'm finding this hard as I have no in-laws and only my father alive for support. Also money is tight at the moment, and the pressure of having to go back to work and put the baby in child care and finding suitable care is very worrying.'

'I would prefer to work part-time, but as we are putting two children through private school I have had to return to work full-time and I get tired with the demands. But this is what we want for our children.'

'We understand that times are bad and that there are other people on this earth who could never dream of having what we have. However, sometimes things do get hard financially. As a woman I don't mind working full-time, but if we were lucky enough to have another child I would have to take the least time off work as possible, maybe go back part-time. Financially, I would not be able to give up work for a while, and in this way we feel cheated.'

In some instances career choices were made taking into consideration the difficulties of balancing work and family. As one woman stated: 'I am a teacher - it helps considerably when you have children. My mother's advice was to be a teacher for this very reason.'

Sharing Economic Responsibilities

The notion of traditional roles with the man being the 'breadwinner' and the wife staying at home to look after the house and children has been changing for several decades. In the early 1970s, Australia moved away from the breadwinner concept in wage-fixing, and as women increasingly shared economic responsibility, so the notion of the male breadwinner began to become obsolete. However, respondents were undecided about the notion of sharing economic responsibility. When asked whether they agreed that 'both the husband and wife should contribute to the household income', 37 per cent of men living in a relationship and 44 per cent of women in a relationship agreed that both partners should be sharing the breadwinning role, and just over a third could not agree or disagree.

Sharing Parenting Responsibilities

As women take on part of the breadwinning role, are men assuming more responsibility involved with parenting? It has often been demonstrated that while in principle there is little difference in sex role attitudes between men and women, often there is discrepancy between attitudes and behaviour (Glezer 1982). However, in the area of sharing the care of children when both partners are in the workforce, the Institute survey indicates that while women are taking most responsibility, men are contributing substantially to caring for children.

The majority of men and women agreed that 'if a child gets sick and both parents are working then the man should be just as willing as his wife to stay home from work and take care of the child' (81 per cent men 75 per cent women). There was also strong support for the notion that 'if his wife works, a man should share equally in the responsibilities of children', with 87 per cent of men and 91 per cent of women agreeing. However, are their beliefs about shared parenting reflected in their behaviour?

When Children are Sick or on Holiday

For parents in the workforce, child care is a particular concern when their children are sick and when school holidays come around. Elsewhere in this issue Gay Ochiltree discusses how working mothers cope when their pre-school children are sick.

However, the problems of child care for sick children are not limited to the very young, and respondents in two- parent families with dependent children in the Institute's Australian Family Formation Project were asked how many days off work they had taken, and how many their partners had taken, to care for sick children over the previous 12 months. Twenty-six per cent of fathers and 39 per cent of mothers had taken some time off for this purpose. Women were more likely to take time off and to take more time than men to look after sick children, although as Table 1 shows, very few days were taken by the majority of parents.

Table 1: Days taken off work to mind sick children in previous 12 months
No days 74 61
1-2 days 16 20
3-5 days  7 12
6-10 days  3  5
11+ days  -  3

Dealing with school holidays presents problems for sole parents or parents where both partners are employed. If two parents are working full- time they are likely to get eight weeks annual leave between them; school holidays extend over three months, a considerable shortfall which parents somehow have to cover. This can be managed in various ways: one parent working part-time; both parents using their acquired recreation leave; using holiday programs if they are available; turning to family or friends for help; or leaving children to their own devices.

In just over half the families, the mother cared for children during school holidays. However, it was often the case that other people helped out. Many mothers adjusted their working schedules to accommodate the needs of their children by taking holidays, working hours 'that suit' (such as working weekends to create free week days), and accruing days off. One mother spoke of doing shift work, which meant her children stayed in the house while she slept during the day. Some parents spoke of 'farming the kids out to relatives'. Women opted out of permanent employment into the casual labour market so they could refuse work out of regular school hours and during school holidays.

In around 20 per cent of families, fathers also assisted with child care during the school holidays, juggling working hours and holidays with their wives and other relatives:

'I split my annual leave and take them on days my wife works and try to arrange to have the girls with my sister- in-law or mother-in-law.'

'My ex-husband and I share the children - that is, we work our holidays to suit, plus they are now old enough to stay home alone.'

'I look after the children after work. My wife looks after them during the day, because she works afternoon shift.'

A third of the respondents mentioned other relatives, particularly grandparents, who looked after the children during school holidays. Friends and neighbours were also frequently mentioned. The notion of children being able to look after themselves was often stated. The large majority of parents believed that once the youngest child turned 13 years no supervision was needed, particularly if there were other siblings at home. Some children were left to their own devices: as one mother said, 'the children look after themselves, and I phone every couple of hours to check on them'.

Around one in ten respondents mentioned vacation programs used in conjunction with taking time off and using grandparents, friends and neighbours. Holiday programs were regarded positively, although hours were found to be too short, and problems arose when children decided they no longer wished to attend. School holiday arrangements were usually a patchwork of various types of care stitched together by parents involving both partners, kin and neighbours.

Role of Grandmothers in Child Care

Apart from sharing the load with partners, it is grandparents who are the main backstop for families juggling work and child rearing. In 85 per cent of families, grandparents (mainly grandmothers) helped with childminding. This includes caring for children while the parents were at work, as well as babysitting for parents' social occasions. In 28 per cent of families, the care of children whose parents were at work was done by relatives - usually grandmothers.

Grandparents are responsible for more than minding grandchildren; they are also likely to be turned to in other emergencies, be they financial, emotional or practical. They are the ones most likely to care for their adult children if they are ill, just as adult children take care of parents when they are ill - the transactions go both ways.

In 1970, 40 per cent of women aged 45-54 years were in the workforce; in 1990, around 60 per cent were in the workforce. In the early 1970s the median age at first birth was 23.7 years (ABS 1986); by 1988 the median age of mothers at first birth was 25.8 years (McDonald 1990). These figures suggest that a large proportion of women become grandmothers around the age of 50 years. Women's workforce participation drops sharply after age 55 years, perhaps in part related to family life cycle stage, when women take on the new role of assisting with the upbringing of the next generation. If there is an increase in the retention rate of older women in the workforce beyond the age of 50-55 years, this could affect the patterns of child care of the next generation.

How Work Affects Family Life

Table 2 shows that 40 per cent of men and 35 per cent of women with dependent children found they were unable to get much done at home because of the amount of time they spent working. Mothers were more likely than fathers to agree that pressure from their jobs meant they had less energy to do housework (44 per cent of mothers compared to 38 per cent of fathers). The majority of fathers (58 per cent) found their working hours interfered with the amount of time they could spend with children, compared with 42 per cent of mothers. This significant difference is due in part to the fact that mothers were more likely than fathers to be employed part-time. Around three out of ten parents, both mothers and fathers, found they often did not have the energy to be good parents when they returned home after work:

'Shift work creates some problems with time spent with family. I believe within the present economic climate the majority of Australians are paying for political and big business mistakes.'

'The reasons we don't spend time as a family is our working situations - I work night shift and my husband is an interstate truck driver.'

'Being constantly employed, I am constantly tired and unable to contribute enough and enjoy my family life.'

Table 2: How jobs affect family life
  Couples with children
I spend so much time working that I am unable to get much done at home 40 35
When I get home from my job I do not have the energy to do work around the house 38 44
My working hours interfere with the amount of time I spend with my children 58 42
When I get home from work I often do not have the energy to be a good parent 31 30

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

With increasing numbers of women remaining in or returning to the workforce when they have children, what is happening on the domestic front? Increasingly, men and women are sharing the 'breadwinning' role, but who is 'baking' the bread - to what extent are men sharing household chores?

As Table 3 shows, in the area of housework it is still the woman's role to do the laundry, clean the bathroom and do the vacuuming; even when both partners are in full-time employment the burden of housework still falls mainly on women.

Table 3: Division of labour in household tasks, by workforce status (married couples only n=1057)
Doing the laundry
Husband more  1  2  7  3
Both equally  5  5 16  9
Wife more 94 93 77 88
Cleaning the bathroom  
Husband more  3  3  9  5
Both equally  7  7 11  9
Wife more 90 90 80 86
Vacuuming the carpets  
Husband more  5  5 12  7
Both equally 12 11 21 15
Wife more 83 84 67 78
Cooking the evening meal
Husband more  3  4 10  6
Both equally  8 12 19 13
Wife more 89 84 71 81
Doing the grocery shopping  
Husband more  3  5  8  5
Both equally 21 15 27 22
Wife more 76 80 65 73
Doing the dishes  
Husband more  6  8 12  9
Both equally 23 30 32 28
Wife more 71 62 56 63
Taking out rubbish
Husband more 51 54 60 55
Both equally 24 28 24 25
Wife more 25 18 16 20
Taking care of the lawn  
Husband more 69 74 80 74
Both equally 21 15 14 17
Wife more 10 11  6  9
Repairing things around the house  
Husband more 83 78 81 81
Both equally 12 13 13 12
Wife more  5  9  6  7
Taking children to activities and appointments
Husband more  5  4  7  5
Both equally 30 31 47 35
Wife more 65 65 46 60
Playing with the children  
Husband more  6 10  9  8
Both equally 71 68 71 70
Wife more 23 22 20 22
Punishing the children  
Husband more  7 10 12  9
Both equally 68 65 72 68
Wife more 25 25 16 23
Source: Australian Family Formation Project (Stage Two) 1990-1991, Australian Institute of Family Studies

When it comes to roles associated with mealtimes and grocery shopping, in 81 per cent of cases it is the woman who cooks the evening meal, although when both partners are employed full-time men are slightly more involved in cooking dinner. Where both partners are employed, men pitch in and help with washing the dishes in just under half the couples, and around a third of men help with grocery shopping.

General household maintenance is the male domain; men are more likely than women to mow the lawns and do repairs around the house. In just over half the couples it is the husband who takes out the rubbish.

While men are leaving the domestic household tasks and preparing meals to women, they are actively involved with their children. Parents share playing with the children, and both take responsibility when it comes to punishing children for misdemeanors. However, mothers are more likely than fathers to be responsible for taking children to activities or appointments. When both parents are working full-time, in 46 per cent of cases it is mother who is likely to be the one to take time off work to take the child to the dentist or to keep the appointment with the doctor, although in 47 per cent of these families parents share this kind of responsibility.

So when women are in full-time or part-time employment there is slightly more sharing of household chores, but it is predominantly women who bear the double workload - who keep the homefires burning.


The Institute study shows that work has a major impact on family life and parenting for employed fathers and mothers with dependent children. Mothers are more likely than fathers to adjust their working patterns to accommodate family commitments, and it is likely that older women also arrange or rearrange their working hours to assist with grandchildren or the needs of ageing parents. Take, for example, the older woman who drops to four days a week in the office - what happens to the extra day? Chances are that it is spent caring for the first grandchild, or taking invalid parents to medical appointments. The child care responsibilities of families where both parents are employed are met not only by parents but also by a network of informal supports.

Although fathers assist with child care needs, the main responsibility is still taken by mothers. This means that women are more likely to remain marginally attached to the workforce while children require care, because they are the ones who adapt their work schedules to meet family requirements. Increased flexibility in the workplace will greatly assist their participation, but will be detrimental to women if it leads to an increase in the casualisation of the workplace.


  • ABS (1988), Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force Status and Other Characteristics of Families, Australia, Catalogue No.6224.0, Table 36.
  • Glezer, H. (1988), Maternity Leave in Australia: Employee and Employer Experiences, Mongraph No.7, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Glezer, H. (1982), 'Changes in marriage and sex-role attitudes among young married women: 1971-82', Proceedings, Volume 1, Australian Family Research Conference, November 1983, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • McDonald, P.(1990), 'The 1980s: social and economic change affecting families', Family Matters, No.26, April, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.