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Family Matters No. 37 - April 1994

Sharing the pleasures and pains of family life

Graeme Russell


This article addresses a priority issue identified by the National Council for the International Year of the Family: 'the need to promote gender issues and explore ways in which men and women can share more equally in the various responsibilities and pleasures of family life'. There are still significant gaps between women and men in terms of their involvement in family life, the tasks they perform and the responsibilities they take. Yet, both women and men express a desire for greater equality in family life. It is evident that in terms of attitudes and beliefs, the problem cannot simply be conceptualised in terms of women wanting men to share more equally and men being reluctant to do so. The challenge now is to develop policies and practices based on a presumption of shared responsibility between men and women, and a presumption that there are potential benefits for men as well as women, and for families and the community if there is greater gender equality in the responsibilities and pleasures of family life. These are the issues that are explored in this paper. (Introduction, edited)

The International Year of the Family provides the opportunity to focus on the development of solutions to problems that have the potential to make significant improvements in family wellbeing. This is especially the case for the key priority issue of concern in this paper: 'To promote gender equality issues and explore ways in which men and women can share more equally in the various responsibilities and pleasures of family life.' This is widely recognised as a problem by researchers, policy makers, community workers and more importantly, by family members themselves.

There are still significant gaps between women and men in terms of their involvement in family life, the tasks they perform and the responsibilities they take. Yet, both women and men express a desire for greater equality in family life. It is evident that in terms of attitudes and beliefs, the problem cannot simply be conceptualised in terms of women wanting men to share more equally and men being reluctant to do so. The challenge now is to develop policies and practices based on a presumption of shared responsibility between men and women, and a presumption that there are potential benefits for men and well as women, and for families and the community if there is greater gender equality in the responsibilities and pleasures of family life. These are the issues that are explored in this paper.

The Need for Change

Despite the significant increase in the number of women with dependent children who are in the paid workforce, Australian research studies over the last 15 years are consistent in showing that divisions of labour for family work are very rigid indeed (Bittman 1991; Demo and Acock 1993; Mederer 1993; Russell 1983; Russell and Russell 1987; Wearing 1984; Weeks 1991).

In terms of time, women perform approximately 90 per cent of child care tasks and 70 per cent of all family work. Only 14 per cent of fathers are highly participant in terms of time spent on family work (Russell 1983). Demo and Acock (1993) in a recent US study also found that women continue to perform a constant and major proportion of household labour (68 per cent to 95 per cent) across all family types (first marriage, divorced, stepfamily or never married), regardless of whether they are employed or nonemployed in paid work.

Divisions of labour for family work are particularly problematic in dual worker families. Employed mothers adjust their jobs and personal lives to accommodate family commitments more than employed fathers do. Mothers are less likely to work overtime and are more likely to take time off work to attend to children's needs (VandenHeuvel 1993). Mothers spend less time on personal leisure activities than their partners, a factor that often leads to resentment (Demo and Acock 1993; Glezer 1991b; Russell 1983). The parental role is central to the stress and conflict reported by employed mothers, and a major contributor to such stress is their taking greater overall responsibility for children (Gilbert and Hansen 1983; Scott and Alwin 1989; Wolcott 1986). In one study of dual worker families, 82 per cent reported that mothers had the overall responsibility for children, whereas only 18 per cent reported that responsibilities were shared by mothers and fathers (Russell 1983). The picture is different though when child care is considered. Edgar and Glezer (1992) report that in the AIFS Family Formation Study, Glezer (1991a) found that close to 90 per cent of both husbands and wives agreed that the man should share equally in child care, and 55 per cent of husbands and wives claimed that the men actually did this.

Family therapists are increasingly defining family problems in terms of a lack of involvement and support from fathers, and are concerned with difficulties involved in having fathers take responsibility for the solution of family and child behaviour problems (Heubeck, Watson and Russell 1986). Yet, a father accepting responsibility for behaviour problems is linked with positive outcomes (Watson and Russell 1991).

The need for a change in divisions of responsibilities for family work has also been raised by those concerned about the relationship between incest and domestic violence, and a lack of responsibility taken by men for family work and nurturance. The need to focus on shared responsibility rather than 'helping out' has been emphasised in this debate (Schecter 1983; Scutt 1983).

The Benefits of Change

Research studies lend strong support to the argument that there are benefits for families considering a change to a fairer or more equitable division of the pleasures and pains of family life.Greater equality in the performance of family work is associated with lower levels of family stress, and higher self-esteem, better health, and higher marital satisfaction for mothers. There is also higher marital satisfaction for fathers, especially when they take more responsibility for the needs of their children - fathers are happier when they are more involved (Bernard 1972; Grbich 1987; Patterson 1982; Russell 1983; Russell and Russell 1984).

Family stress and children's behaviour problems (for example, stealing, physical aggression) are related to poor marital relationships and rigid divisions of labour. Consider the following conclusions from the comprehensive United States study by Patterson (1982) comparing 'normal' families with those in which there was a child defined as being a social aggressor or thief.

'It is probably the case that even the most committed father actually handles only a small fraction of the daily round of child management problems. For example, the Fagot (1974) study of normal, middle-class toddlers showed that roughly 70 per cent of child care was carried out by mothers and only 30 per cent by fathers. It is my impression that in distressed families the fathers are even less involved than this.' (p. 285)

'The feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, confusion, and isolation that characterise caretakers in distressed families are not part of the self-perception of fathers. I think this is partially related to the fact that they do not see family management as being a significant feature of their responsibility.' (p. 289)

Children lower in competence (for example, reading, self- concept) but from families with high resources, as defined by income, parental education and housing, had fathers over-committed to their paid jobs and not very involved in family life (Ochiltree and Amato 1984). And dissatisfaction with family life is greater - especially for fathers themselves - when fathers have a very high commitment to their paid work or career (Russell, Savage and Durkin, 1992).

Do parents express a desire to change?

A mother's wanting her partner to do more housework and child care is a better predictor of poor family adjustment than is actual time spent by fathers in these tasks (Demo and Acock 1993; Pleck 1981; Russell 1989). The percentage of women (ranging from 60 per cent to 80 per cent in various studies) indicating they would like their partners to do more has increased consistently over the last 20 years (Pleck 1981; Thompson and Walker 1989; Wearing 1984).

Comparing responses from the 1981 and 1991 waves of the AIFS Family Formation Study, Glezer (1991a) found an interesting increase in agreement between men and women in value terms about equal parental responsibilities for such diverse areas as contributing to household income, staying home with sick children, and sharing equally in child care.

In a study which asked parents to indicate who currently performed family tasks and responsibilities, and how they would like it to be, Russell (1984) found that both women and men expressed a desire for a greater sharing of family work, and that the greater the difference between how things were at the time of interview and how people would like them to be, the higher were anxiety and depression for both mothers and fathers.

Balancing Work and Family

In a significant recent shift in thinking, there is a growing concern with the problems both women and men experience in balancing work and family, and with the impact these problems have on employee commitment and satisfaction. The need for employers to take more account of the family responsibilities of employees has been acknowledged as a key issue in maintaining and increasing productivity at work by many employers (Adie and Carmody 1991; Friedman 1991; Wolcott 1991; Wolcott 1992).

The following findings from a recent study of 599 employed parents with dependent children help illustrate the magnitude of these problems (Russell, Savage and Durkin 1992).

Daily impact of work and family demands

  • Twenty-five per cent of workers reported that family demands regularly affected their productivity through absenteeism, lateness and their ability to perform the job.
  • The impact of family responsibilities on work performance was greater for women than for men, and greater among parents of pre-school children.
  • Thirty-eight per cent reported frequent difficulties in arranging child care.
  • Women in part-time work reported more difficulty in arranging child care than men or women in full-time work.

It is therefore likely that workplace policies and practices which make it easier for parents to combine their work and family responsibilities will result in higher productivity.

Satisfaction with life and work

  • Only 56 per cent of women and 46 per cent of men were highly satisfied with the time their jobs left for family life. Time left for family life was also a strong predictor of job satisfaction for both men and women.
  • For men, the best predictor of satisfaction with life generally was the satisfaction they experienced in their relationships with their children, followed by their ratings of satisfaction with their job.

Conflicts between work and family

  • Forty per cent of working women and 20 per cent of working men with children felt they had compromised their job/career for their family.
  • Men with working partners were twice as likely as men whose wives did not work to say that they had compromised their family life.
  • Seventy-four per cent of workers with children would consider refusing a job, promotion or transfer if it meant spending less time with the family. Ten per cent of men and 17 per cent of women had already done this.


The study showed that ILO Convention 156, which aims to ensure that workers with family responsibilities can work without discrimination and without conflict between their employment and their family responsibilities, was supported by the values and beliefs of working parents, especially mothers.

There was strong support for specific policies like special family leave for mothers and fathers, and for unpaid maternity leave, as well as for equity issues such as men's right to paternity leave and the rights of men and women each to have opportunities to work or care for the family.

While there was considerable support for mothers remaining in the workforce, there was less confidence that men would share more responsibility for household tasks if they had paternity leave. The concept of women as breadwinners was not well supported by men. The strongest support came from those women who were best able to function as breadwinners - that is, female managers. Work for women tended to be seen as an 'optional extra' rather than as an obligation. While there was a strong, across- the-board belief in women's right to work, there was little recognition that institutional supports were required if this demand was to be a reasonable one. Support for day care centres provided by employers ranged from 14 per cent to 50 per cent.

Dimensions of Family Responsibilities

Who performs a task - who actually does the work or spends the time on it - is the usual way that we think about family work. This is also the approach traditionally taken in research studies. However, more recent research (Demo and Acock 1993; Glezer 1991b; Russell, James and Watson 1988; Russell 1989) has considered a broader range of issues to be addressed when considering equity in family life. The following are four of the most important.

Responsibilities as well as tasks

There is more to family work than performing tasks - a whole range of responsibilities is involved. There are decisions to be made and standards to be set (for example, setting standards for child behaviour). Monitoring processes occur (for example, monitoring the child's moods and needs for support, monitoring the child's standards in school work). Parents have to initiate change and discuss family problems. They have to plan and anticipate (for example, thinking ahead to avoid problems). Solutions to problems have to be found.

'Helping out' versus taking responsibility

It is usual in families to think of some tasks as being someone else's domain or territory: 'That task is more their responsibility than my own, and therefore, when I do this task, I am helping out.' In many families problems frequently arise because of a perceived lack of shared responsibility for an aspect of family work. Russell (1989) has found, for example, that parental anxiety and hostility are higher when there is a lack of equality in decision- making about financial matters and a lack of shared responsibility for initiating discussions about problems of child control and discipline. In contrast, wellbeing is not strongly related to a lack of equality in the day-to-day management of family finances, nor to who actually disciplines the child.

Attitudes, beliefs and commitment to parenting

People's attitudes to and beliefs about parenting, and appropriate divisions of responsibilities in this regard, are associated with patterns of family interaction. Here, issues central to difficulties experienced by couples include beliefs about who should have the responsibility for various tasks, who has the right to intervene when something goes wrong, who should take the blame if something goes wrong and be rewarded when things go right, and who should have control over particular areas, such as decisions about discipline or sporting activities (Russell 1989).

Feelings of commitment to parenting have also been found to predict equality in divisions of labour. Indicators of commitment include strong feelings towards children and their welfare, the relative time and psychological investment in paid work versus family life, and the extent to which a person adjusts his/her life and routines to take account offamily needs (for example, taking time off work when a child is sick). For a more detailed examination of the conflict between going to work and having to care for sick children, see VandenHeuvel (1993).

Work involved in running a family

There is a range of tasks and responsibilities involved in running a family. Financial support and management means paying the bills and organising the day-to-day family financial matters. Household work includes fixing things around the house, car maintenance and mowing the lawn, shopping and preparing meals, cleaning, washing, ironing, and organising the household and planning family outings.

Child care and supervision involves time at home caring for and being available to children at various times on weekdays and weekends. Child management and socialisation includes looking after child needs (for example, bathing, dressing), child health (for example, taking child to doctor), emotional needs (for example, comforting child when upset), praise and discipline, school needs (for example, supervising homework, attending school functions), general cognitive development (for example, answering a child's 'why?' questions), and looking after sport and other activities (for example, taking child to lessons).

In all of this, there is the importance of maintaining relationships between the caregivers themselves. This involves good communication, cooperation and teamwork, and resolving conflicts in a constructive way.

What Factors Promote Change?

Given the diverse definitions of equality and of possible antecedents, it is difficult to provide a clear account of the processes of change towards a more equal sharing of family life. And in the current context of social, economic, relationship and individual change, there are many paths to equality. However, research into the antecedents of the involvement of fathers in caregiving provides some insights.

Pregnancy and pre-birth factors

Longitudinal studies conducted in the United States (Berman and Pedersen 1987) report that the following factors, assessed during pregnancy, predict father involvement (usually assessed within the first two years): participation in household tasks; satisfaction with couple's decision making; child-centred attitudes about parenting; father being employed for fewer hours; child-oriented marital communication; and high levels of commitment to baby. Findings are less consistent for links with personal characteristics of fathers (for example, masculinity) and quality of marital relationships.

In a longitudinal study conducted in Australia (Aitchison 1985), psychological commitment to the baby prior to birth was strongly related to involvement in baby care and sensitivity to the baby. A weaker pattern was found with a pre-birth measure of expectations of involvement. Links were not found with pre-birth measures of perceptions of the father role and marital quality.

An obvious place to look for antecedents of paternal participation is at a father's own family experiences. Two hypotheses have been put forward and both have received support from studies: fathers become highly participant as a reaction to their own father's lack of involvement: and, conversely, fathers who are highly involved had fathers who were also highly involved (Bronstein and Cowan 1988; Cowan and Cowan 1987).

Potential for and type of employment

Several studies show that equality in the home is associated with mothers having high status and potentially rewarding jobs (Kimball 1984; Radin 1982; Russell 1983). Associations with fathers' employment characteristics have not been consistently reported, except that there is a trend towards these fathers being less career orientated. Equality has also been linked with flexibility in or reduced hours of employment and a lower commitment to paid work by fathers. Demo and Acock (1993) found that the mother's sense of equity in the home was lower, the more hours per week she worked for pay, the more hours she spent on household chores and above all the fewer the number of hours the husband spent on household chores.

Skills and knowledge

Although the research evidence is convincing in showing that fathers can be just as competent as mothers at child care, preparation for parenthood is still directed primarily at mothers, with fathers being given only limited opportunities to learn basic child care skills. It is therefore possible that it is only fathers who have the necessary skills who become involved. In support of this, high father involvement has been associated with attendance at childbirth classes and the actual birth, reading books on child rearing, information about child development being provided to fathers in hospital, and fathers' perceived skill at child care tasks prior to their child's birth (Grbich 1987; McHale and Huston 1984; Russell 1983).

These factors, of course, may not be causally linked with father participation, as it might only be the committed and competent fathers who seek out information to begin with. Nevertheless, a consistent pattern is emerging in the research literature.

Personal characteristics

Given that there is an absence of role models for caregiving fathers, it may be that only those men who are high on self- esteem and independence will either contemplate, adopt, or feel comfortable about going against the tide in this way. Little research has been conducted to investigate this hypothesis.

It might also be expected that involved fathers will be more likely to be androgynous - that is, they will endorse the traditional masculine characteristics of, for example, independence, self- confidence and assertiveness, as well as the traditional feminine characteristics of, for example, interpersonal sensitivity and expressiveness. Findings do not give consistent support to this hypothesis: some provided positive support (Kimball 1984; Russell 1983) whereas others reported contrary evidence (McHale and Huston 1984). Grbich (1987) found that a large majority of the primary caregiver fathers in her study came from homes where the mother did not work in paid employment; and a majority referred to a distant relationship with their fathers and a close relationship with their mothers as they were growing up.

Arguments about relationships between personality variables and sex-role orientation and family lifestyles also present problems with regard to conclusions about cause and effect. We cannot be certain about what is causing what - whether the lifestyle is a consequence of personality factors, or whether the personality factors are a consequence of the lifestyle. Further, it may yet be that while personality factors are not critical for a change to a lifestyle of equality, they may be more critical for the process of adjustment, especially if men perceive themselves to have been forced to change.

Beliefs about parenting

A common objection to proposals that fathers could share more in the responsibility for child care and family work is that men are not competent. In a survey of families in which fathers were in paid employment and mothers were the primary caregivers (here termed traditional caregiving) (Russell 1983), 78 per cent of fathers and 66 per cent of mothers agreed that there was a maternal instinct which enabled mothers to be more competent caregivers, and 51 per cent of fathers and 35 per cent of mothers thought that fathers did not have the ability to care for children. In contrast, while nearly 50 per cent of parents in families in which mothers and fathers shared the day-to-day caregiving (here termed non-traditional caregiving) agreed that mothers had a head start because of biology, 88 per cent thought that fathers could be competent caregivers.

Beliefs about the breadwinner's role and commitments to work and career have also been found to be important contributors to a move to equality in the household. There is a cultural expectation that fathers should be the primary breadwinners, and research studies show that fathers commonly define their family responsibilities in terms of the breadwinner's role. Fathers in non-traditional caregiving families are less career and work orientated, and therefore are less likely to be constrained by cultural views about breadwinning responsibilities (Grbich 1987; Russell 1983).

Couple support

A final antecedent of high paternal participation is the degree of support given by parents to each other. Mothers have been found to be more influential in the decision to shift divisions of labour in the home (Glezer, 1991a). In studies of both dual-earner and single-earner families, the mother's attitude to the male role has been found to be critical, and fathers are more involved when mothers have more egalitarian attitudes towards parenting. Additionally, father involvement is correlated with their spouse's ratings of his competence in child care (Cowan and Cowan 1987; McHale and Huston 1987).

Working Towards Equality in the Home

There are difficulties involved in working towards equality in the home. A common stereotype of current problems experienced in male/female relationships is this: all women want to change to greater equality in the home, all men do not want to change and resist and feel threatened. Research studies, however, provide a more complex picture. It is common for both women and men to have difficulty in adjusting to change, even if they both agree in principle that they want to change. Findings from these studies (Kimball 1984; Radin 1982; Russell 1983) are summarised below.

Couples often experience difficulties in adjusting to equal parenting and this is reflected in poorer marital relationships during the early period of change from traditional family lifestyles.

Marital tension has also been found to be generated by parents being dissatisfied with the degree of responsibility accepted by their spouse. In some families fathers were dissatisfied because mothers were unwilling to allow them to take over more responsibilities for child care and housework (for example, to make decisions and change routines). In others it was mothers who felt their husbands were reluctant to take on more responsibilities. In yet others, parents reported problems in dividing up responsibilities when they were both at home.

Fathers especially reported difficulty in adjusting to the demands of child care and domestic life, and can experience initial strain in their relationships with their children.

Mothers reported feeling guilty about leaving their children, and had trouble in adjusting to the reduced contact and reduced influence over their children (with some worrying that the children would not love them any more). They also complained of the general high level of tension in their lives associated with carrying dual roles. Increased satisfaction from having a paid job (mothers), or decreased status from either a reduction in commitment to a job or not having one at all (fathers) were also found to be critical factors in parents' adjustment.

Another interesting finding is that despite the fact that mothers and fathers are both employed, there was little indication of a fundamental shift in notions about responsibilities for breadwinning having occurred - this was still seen as being the primary responsibility of fathers.

Long-term follow-ups of these families revealed that for many, such tensions had become more problematic and they had reverted to a traditional caregiving pattern with the mother as the primary caregiver.Of those who continued in a con-traditional caregiving pattern, satisfaction with this lifestyle was associated with reports of more equitable sharing of child care and housework responsibilities (as opposed to performance of tasks). This last finding was also supported by Grbich (1987).

Many of the issues noted above also surface when parenting is shared with caregivers from outside the immediate family (Finch 1984). Problems include conflicts of values and approaches to child rearing, and parents feeling guilty or threatened by the caregivers and concerned that their children would develop stronger relationships with the caregiver. From the caregiver's perspective, there were concerns about the lack of communication from parents and a reluctance to acknowledge the responsibility that the caregivers had.

Practices and Policies

Even though there are doubts about the degree to which families are moving towards greater gender equality, and hence greater involvement by men in family life, the demand for information and skills to support this change has increased substantially in the past ten years. This new emphasis has been most pronounced in parent support programs (for example, for families in which there is a child with a disability, fathers in gaol, fathers with disabilities), and parent (or childbirth) preparation classes (even though it is still not easy to argue for an emphasis on fathers as equal partners).

There is a need to develop a set of working principles concerning shared responsibility for parenting, principles that are not always easily substantiated in theories or empirical findings. The basic premise is that the wellbeing of fathers, mothers, children, employers, and society would be enhanced if there was a better balance between paid work and family life for women and for men, and if more emphasis was placed on the quality of the 'people environment'. Placing greater emphasis on fathers and improving their opportunities to be involved in parenting is an important part of this process.

There are still quite substantial barriers to gender equality and to fathers becoming more involved and in having the realistic option to be highly participant or share equally in the responsibilities for family life. At one level there are the barriers presented by organisational cultures and management attitudes, making it difficult for fathers to take the necessary leave to become involved at critical times. At another level, there are the doubts that many people still express about fathers having the necessary sensitivity and skills to care for children. At this level are included the barriers presented by mothers themselves, many of whom struggle with the ambivalence of overtly seeking paternal involvement but covertly experiencing an 'encroachment' on their domain of perceived power and expertise (Entwistle and Doering 1983). There are also the deep-seated fears that some have (although they are not always expressed) that if fathers become more involved then this will result in an increase in the physical and sexual abuse of children. Fathers who are the full-time caregivers frequently report such reactions from the community. Yet the meagre research in this area suggests the reverse to be the case (Parker and Parker 1986).

Barriers to the equal sharing of responsibilities are also presented by the failure of practitioners and policy makers to emphasise genuine shared responsibility for children. Although recent parent education material and policies place more emphasis on fathers, it is invariably based on the assumption that the mother is the parent who has the primary responsibility for children. Fathers are frequently assumed to be less interested and less competent.

It is further assumed that a good father is one who is a 'good helper' or a 'sensitive support person' to the mother, especially during critical times. Regarding this assumption, Dickie (1987) writes that 'a problem with this perspective is that the father's need for his wife's support is ignored' (p.119). Additionally it can be argued that this approach helps to reduce the possibility of fathers sharing the responsibilities for parenting. It also ignores the fact that there is a small group of fathers who are currently highly involved and sharing in all aspects of child care, and the possibility that some fathers might want to become more involved, and many more would if they had the realistic option to do so.

If parenting and employment options are to increase then a major shift will be needed towards presuming that mothers and fathers have equal responsibility, from conception onwards (and earlier too, for example, in responsibility for sexuality, reproduction and relationships). The following outlines the main implications of such a shift for practices and policies.

Recognise diversity among women and men

The development of strategies that respond to both actual change and demands for change, requires a conceptual framework that takes account of the diversity of experiences and contexts. Despite the shift in emphasis to evaluate critically stereotypes about women, and accept that there is a range of women's needs and attitudes, these arguments are usually not extended to men. It is not helpful to continue to base theories and policies on the assumption that all men sexually assault children, are violent and suppress women, that no men are interested in change, and that no men currently share in the responsibilities for relationships or make positive contributions to the wellbeing of others. This approach serves to increase hostility rather than harmony in interpersonal relationships, reinforce current patterns, and encourage an emphasis on a band- aid approach to social problems.

Give more attention to fathers' feelings

There is a general need for a greater recognition that men sometimes need support and opportunities to share their feelings and concerns. Programs and services could be developed to expand men's options to participate more in family life and help them cope with the difficulties of balancing work and family commitments. Parenting groups often become women's groups. Groups conducted specifically for men have an entirely different nature and present different problems. They provide the opportunity for men to develop strategies and skills to facilitate the negotiation of change both in relationships within their family and in a better balancing of work and family commitments. Our experience in conducting fathers' groups is that when men are provided with the opportunity to share their feelings about fatherhood with other men, they do this with considerable enthusiasm - even though some take a little time to warm up (see also Pruett 1987).

Evaluate arguments about the nature of time spent with children

The argument that quality is more important than quantity was critical to help change ideas about the amount of time mothers need to spend with their children. However when applied to some fathers, this argument has the potential to support the current over- emphasis by some men on their commitment to paid work. A common barrier to men's involvement in the family is a compulsive concentration upon achievement in paid work and the relegating of family activities and responsibilities and time with children to secondary concern.

Develop family enhancing employment policies

It is important that family enhancing employment policies be developed that enable both male and female workers to achieve a satisfactory balance between work and family - policies that include flexible work hours, job sharing, paid extended and short- term family leave (to cover family sicknesses and other emergencies as well as attending school functions), and work-based child care. Many private companies are developing policies and practices to facilitate a better balance between paid work and family for women and men. There are a number of studies that show that family enhancing policies can have a positive impact on productivity, staff morale and commitment, recruitment and retention for both women and men. 'Affirmative Action' policies may be required, however, to encourage men to avail themselves of these opportunities for alternative work/family patterns. However, female attitudes also need to be addressed. One primary caretaking father commented on the level of 'suspicion' he encountered from mothers when he took his daughter to playgroup: 'It took a year for them to have coffee at my house.'

Develop parent education programs

Parenting courses for both mothers and fathers could be implemented, especially at places of employment, to give parents, particularly fathers, more opportunities to learn parenting skills. In Sweden, for example, workers are allowed ten hours off before the birth and ten hours after the birth to attend voluntary parent education courses. Companies in the United States now offering such courses and support programs at the workplace as extra benefits are finding that they are being well attended by both men and women.

Give more attention to couple relationships

Attention should be given to the difficulties couples experience in adjusting to changing patterns of commitment, responsibilities, nurturance and involvement in day-to-day caregiving. It is not always easy for women to adjust to a highly nurturant and sensitive partner who has a high quality relationship with children. This has been well illustrated by research into couples who have adopted a shared caregiving family pattern (Russell 1983; 1989). Both men and women can have difficulty in giving up their identities with traditional patterns. Many of the men at home are keen for interviewers to know that they are not just staying at home, that they are 'landscaping the garden' or 'renovating the house'. Women, including the highly educated with high status jobs, often experience difficulties in sharing power and status within the domestic domain, and are not always accepting and supportive of fathers as caregivers. Some mothers resented the increased status given to fathers both by the children (going to him for comfort) and by other women ('Oh, isn't he marvellous!'). Some also had difficulty in adjusting their ideas about masculinity and in accepting their partners being more sensitive and nurturant.

Evaluate approaches to services

Specific services could be developed for men, for example, in the areas of domestic violence and child sexual assault. There is some evidence (Parker and Parker 1986) that fathers who are more involved in providing care for their children in the first three years of life are less likely than those who are not, to commit sexual offences against them. This observation is entirely congruent with an attachment perspective. From a public health and welfare perspective, an urgent need exists to replicate and extend this research. More generally, there is a need to establish men's and fathers' resources and information centres and counselling services for men (for example, for men with work/family problems, for divorced men). In terms of professional practice, fathers could be involved routinely when family services are provided, and practices adopted to ensure that fathers are encouraged to participate (for example, by giving more recognition to the positive contributions they currently make). Initiatives could be taken to change institutional assumptions about men.

Undertake more research

Research is especially needed on the subject of men - their health, feelings, experiences, hopes and expectations, in a range of social, life and relationship contexts. High priority could be given to the study of men who become primary caregivers and relationships based on equality so that we can understand better the antecedents, consequences and processes of change.


At the heart of this analysis are two arguments.

  • Under most circumstances the wellbeing of individuals, families and the community would be enhanced if there was a greater sharing of household work and if parents were able to achieve a satisfactory balance between their family and paid work commitments.
  • Policies and practices need to be developed to ensure that men and women have equal opportunities to participate in both paid work and family life. Implicit in this argument is an assumption that women and men have equal rights and responsibilities in work and family life.

An important feature of this approach is the emphasis on shared responsibility for the roles of breadwinner and household work and child care, and on developing policies and practices that presume shared responsibility for family life. Presumed in the same way that equal employment opportunities are. The argument with employment is that policies and practices should be adopted which facilitate equality of opportunities and choices. Here, the emphasis is on equality of opportunity in family life, and on strategies that can be adopted to facilitate the development of an equal opportunity household.

Debates and policy innovations and approaches to policies and services still appear to be based primarily on the assumption that only mothers currently have and will continue to have the major responsibility for children, and that such a pattern is necessary to ensure the welfare of children. Indeed, there has been little community discussion at all of the notion of shared responsibility for family work, nor has there been much discussion of the need for policies aimed at increasing the choices for both parents. The real problems, ideological, psychological and practical, involved in sharing the care and responsibilities for children have largely been ignored. Yet, as is indicated by this review, there is an abundance of research findings that could be used to help develop appropriate strategies and to provide a basis for addressing these issues.

Traditionally, these problems have been seen as more of a concern for women than men. This is especially so for the increasing numbers of women with young children who are in the paid workforce. Research has consistently shown that these women experience a heavy workload because of their dual roles. Conflicts in family relationships often result, too, when stress is experienced from this double-shift in paid and unpaid work. It is common for families to have continuing disagreements about who should do what around the house, exactly how jobs should be done (who sets the standards), and about whether things are fair.

What is obvious from the research is that both women and men express a concern for greater equality and balance in their lives, and that there are many factors which have been isolated as being associated with a shift towards equality in the home. It is not possible to list these at this time, and indeed, this is unlikely to be possible in the future either. No simple explanation has emerged as yet, and perhaps a simple explanation is not possible given the diversity of families. It may be that in some families financial factors override all others; for others financial considerations might represent necessary preconditions for change, but the change might be mediated by sex-role self-concepts and beliefs; and for still other families, beliefs about parental roles or sex- role ideology might provide the necessary and sufficient conditions for change (even to the extent of being critical in the decision to have only one or two children).

In the words of Kimball (1984), a highly regarded researcher in this field: 'My sense is that the most crucial factor in sustaining role sharing outside of the father's loss of a job or inability to earn as much as his wife, is his belief in fairness and that men can nurture as well as women and that women can earn money as well as men.'


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Dr Graeme Russell is an Associate Professor in Psychology at Macquarie University. He has an in-depth knowledge of family patterns and processes of change in relationships in the family and in paid work, both in Australia and other countries. He has written extensively on gender and family issues, including shared parenting, work and family issues and patterns of child rearing. He is well acquainted with current family and gender politics.

An earlier version of this paper was published by the Office of Status of Women as 'A Case for Change: Sharing the Load' in 1992.