The birth of a child magnifies dual-earning parents' overestimations of their workload and also unbalances household chore assignments without the couple realizing it, scientists established in a recent study.

The research by Dr. Sarah J. Schoppe-Sullivan, Claire Kamp Dush and Jill Yavorsky of Ohio State University, distributed online in the Journal of Marriage and Family, monitored 182 dual-income, highly educated couples who had initially allocated the housework evenly, and who both retained their paid jobs after the baby was born. Couples were observed in the final 12 weeks of the pregnancy, and then surveyed again when the infant reached 9 months.

In the later months of the pregnancy, the couples were assigned equal times of work, with both accounting for an average 15 hours of housekeeping every week. As soon as the baby was born, scientists observed that the men reduced their time doing chores by an average of five hours every week, at the same time they participated in caring for the child.

Based on the answered surveys and diary entries, although the couples assumed their workload had been multiplied significantly when the baby came into the family, it was the mother who was more inclined to be left with the major portion of the housework. Complete time entries on each diary displayed that while the husband's chore time improved by an average 40 minutes a day, the mother's workload increased by two hours each day.

The researchers explained that the wife's increased housework time did not necessarily mean that she reduced her paid work time compared with her husband.

The causes of the variation in responsibility are not simple, and one possibility could be what is known as "gatekeeping," where mothers basically control how much fathers contribute to childcare and what they can do for the baby.

This is particularly interesting, given that this is a socio-economic cohort - wealthy and educated - that generally says equality of household labor is important in a relationship. Schoppe-Sullivan believes that fathers subconsciously think that being inexperienced makes them less ready for taking care of the baby and so there is a tendency to let the mother do more post-baby work.

In the long run, the study notes it is necessary to change the social perception that women should always initiate steps in parenting when couples could share child-care work in equal terms.

At present, Schoppe-Sullivan says parents should communicate with each other about how to deal with family life workload not just during the pregnancy, but afterward, too. That would stop couples from thinking they're assigning the work evenly while the mothers do more than their share.

Photo: Aurimas Mikalauskas | Flickr

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