The Household Division of Domestic Labor as a Process. How does the division of housework change over the course of relationships?

Based on the analysis of qualitative longitudinal data, the aim of this project is to understand and explain how and why the division of household labor traditionalizes with the transition to parenthood, and how this change is interpreted by the spouses.

Research topic

The transition to parenthood is an important switching point of gender roles in (married) couples. In recent years, many quantitative studies have shown that the birth of a child and a shift to a traditionalized division of household labor often go hand in hand. Based on standardized data sets, however, it is nearly impossible to obtain the underlying processes of decision-making and individual interpretations of the spouses. Therefore the reasons for this traditionalization and the individual patterns of interpretation that motivate and rationalize this turnaround after a child is born, remain unclear. The decision if a partner and (when indicated) which one (husband, wife, or both) will reduce working time or take parental leave, as well as the decision how daily care can be shared, is theoretically difficult to approach. This is especially true if the couple has an egalitarian understanding of role models and a similar employment status.

With regard to the division of labor in a family, it is advisable to make use of qualitative interviews to understand the dynamics of decision-making processes which occur during the transition to parenthood.

The primary questions addressed here are:

  • How and why do the demands and division of household labor change after the birth of the first child?
  • What patterns of combining family with employment are anticipated before the birth, and are eventually implemented?
  • Which roles do gender-specific stereotypes and social background (parents, parents in law, colleagues, or friends) play?
  • Do biographic experiences regarding family background and socialization have an impact?
  • How do the couples differ regarding the histories of their relationships and their attitudes?
  • What is the impact of these variables on the dynamics of the division of household labor?
  • How do couples interprete the traditionalization and how do they come to terms with this shift?
  • How do the couples deal with the antagonism between their egalitarian perceptions and the increasingly traditionalized life?
  • Due to these changes in everyday life, are there conflicts among the spouses? If indicated, what are their strategies to solve these conflicts?

By answering these questions, the appropriate theories which explain the dynamics of the division of labor in the family (e. g. Family Economics, Bargaining Theory, or Doing Gender) will be compared and contrasted with the qualitative data. It is to be expected that the spouses’ individual arguments and justifications can be compared with the ideal type mechanisms in order to identify and understand the compliances as well as inconsistencies between theory and empirical research.

Sample, data, and methods

Our qualitative longitudinal data set consists of 14 couples near the transition to parenthood. The first interview took place in early summer of 2006 during the pregnancy. The couples were then asked about their current private and occupational situation, about previous developments since the formation of the couple and about plans and wishes with regard to the combination of professional life, housework and childcare. Six months after the birth, the couples were interviewed again, but with an additional topic regarding the actual development and implementation of their expectations concerning division of household labor and childcare, combination of family and employment, hindering and supporting impacts as well as individual perceptions of their current situation. The spouses were interviewed separately in both waves, using techniques of qualitative interviewing.

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Projekt information

Principal investigators: Prof. Dr. Hans-Peter Blossfeld, Dr. Marina Rupp.

Project staff: Dipl.-Soz. Anna Dechant, Dipl.-Soz. Annika Rinklake, Dipl.-Soz. Harald Rost, Dipl.-Soz. Florian Schulz.

Research period: 12/2008 - 11/2010.

Funding: German Research Foundation.

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