When my husband and I were first married, we promised we’d be equal partners and divided the labor in our lives pretty fairly. We spent about the same amount of hours working. We grocery shopped and cooked and did the laundry together, and even cleaned our apartment in one big burst, rock music blasting, before heading out to do something fun.
Then we had a baby.
And, like the frog in a pot that has the sense to jump out when the water’s boiling, but never notices the water gradually heating until it’s cooked, this is what our division of labor looked like: I did everything. My husband was a great Dad and did far more with our kids than his own father. But when it came to the drudge work, the chores, and all the mental labor of finding child care, planning activities and summer camps and organizing carpools, I was responsible. He "helped out." Which kept my time frantic and fragmented, my mind cluttered, and a smoldering fire of resentment burning.
So I was never surprised, and to be honest, felt kind of hopeless, when I would see statistics showing how women still tend to do about twice the housework and child care as men, even when they’re working full-time, or how the pay gap or the share of women rising into positions of leadership haven’t budged in decades.
But now, a hopeful movement is afoot. A handful of countries, recognizing you can’t help women lean in to the workplace, nor can you have a fair workplace culture, until you help men lean out. And the best way to shift cultures, mindsets and behaviors is right at the start, with shared parental leave.
When the baby comes home, and family patterns get set.
Right now, few countries or companies have policies to promote paid or unpaid paternity leave. Some countries have tried to encourage Dads to take parental leave, by offering more money, or more time. But nothing worked.
Then policymakers decided to take a page from behavioral science. We humans hate to lose a sure thing. So countries like Iceland and the Canadian Province of Quebec turned to a "use it or lose it" policy: Moms get a portion of paid leave, Dads get a portion, and the family gets a portion to share. And if Dads don’t use their share, the family loses the leave time altogether.
A recently released study of the "Daddy quota" in Quebec found that not only did more fathers begin taking leave—a 250% increase—and take longer leaves, but, three years later, they were also spending more time in household work, and mothers were working a bit more—a true step toward a fairer division of labor for both.
In Iceland, social scientists found that, before the quota, moms were doing the majority of child care at birth, and also several years later. But after the quota, after three years, 70% of the couples who were living together, married or cohabitating, were fully sharing child care equally.
The policy change in Quebec was "small and relatively cheap," said report author Ankita Patnaik, a PhD student in economics at Cornell. But the long-term shift in the gendered division of labor is nothing short of astonishing.
"A policy like the ‘papa quota’ sends the message that this is what we, as a society, think dads should be doing," Ankita Patnaik, a PhD student in economics at Cornell who studied the policy change in Quebec told me. "And if you intervene at this critical time, when parents are trying to assign household roles for the first time, you establish more gender-neutral habits. And they stick."
When my husband and I began working in earnest to more fairly share the load at work and home, we took long walks to figure out where we’d gone off the rails. We realized it was right when our son came home from the hospital. I took a long maternity leave and had the time to get to know the baby. And, since I was at home already, figured I’d just do all the stuff around the house, too. Then the pattern stuck when I went back to work.
My husband never took paternity leave. His company had a policy on the books. But, he explained, no man took it, for fear of being seen as a lesser worker.
I asked him if he regretted that choice. He looked away. "You never get that time back," he said finally. And there will always be more work to do. At least, we’re now finding, by starting early and sharing the load from the start, men and women have that time to more fairly share the work, and in so doing, more equally shape their lives.
Brigid Schulte is the author of the New York Times bestselling book on time pressure, Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play when No One has the Time. She is an award-winning journalist for The Washington Post and The Washington Post Magazine. She was part of the team that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. She is also a fellow at the New America Foundation. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband, Tom Bowman, a reporter for National Public Radio, and their two children. She grew up in Portland, Oregon and spent her summers with family in Wyoming, where she did not feel overwhelmed.
We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.