How Same-Sex Couples Divide Chores, and What It Reveals About Modern Parenting

Jared Hunt and Dorian Kendal at home with their son, Jackson, 2, and dog, Parker. The two have been married four years, and they say they divide household chores based on their personal preferences.
Credit...Jason Henry for The New York Times

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When straight couples divide up the chores of daily life — who cooks dinner and who mows the lawn, who schedules the children’s activities and who takes out the trash — the duties are often determined by gender.

Same-sex couples, research has consistently found, divide up chores more equally.

But recent research has uncovered a twist. When gay and lesbian couples have children, they often begin to divide things as heterosexual couples do, according to new data for larger, more representative samples of the gay population. Though the couples are still more equitable, one partner often has higher earnings, and one a greater share of household chores and child care. It shows these roles are not just about gender: Work and much of society are still built for single-earner families.

“Once you have children, it starts to almost pressure the couple into this kind of division of labor, and we’re seeing this now even in same-sex couples,” said Robert-Jay Green, professor emeritus at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Francisco. “Circumstances conspire on every level to get you to fall back in this traditional role.”

Such circumstances include employers who expect round-the-clock availability, and the absence of paid parental leave and public preschool. It’s also smaller things, like pediatricians, teachers or grandparents who assume that one parent is the primary one.

“For, me, the choice to stay home seems easier than us both working and both stressing about who’s going to do what,” said Sarah Pruis, who is raising five children with her wife, who works full time, in Cheyenne, Wyo. “That just seems impossible.”

Gary Becker, the Nobel-winning economist, proposed a theory that marriage was about efficiency: Husbands specialized in earning and wives in homemaking and child rearing. But in recent decades, as women have gained reproductive rights and a foothold in the labor force, marriage has become more about companionship.

Yet women married to men — even when they work and earn as much as or more than their husbands — still do more domestic work, and social scientists have found that the duties are gendered. Feminine chores are mainly indoor and done frequently: cooking, cleaning, laundry and child care. Masculine chores are mostly outdoor and less frequent: taking out the trash, mowing the lawn or washing the car.

Dozens of studies of gay and lesbian couples have found that they divide unpaid labor in a more egalitarian way. They don’t have traditional gender roles to fall back on, and they tend to be more committed to equality.

They don’t automatically have different earning potential because they don’t face the gender pay gap, and they’re both likely to work. Before same-sex marriage was legalized, it was financially riskier for one partner to stop working because that person would have few rights to the couple’s joint property in the case of a breakup or death.

But in recent years, more government data has given researchers a more detailed look at how same-sex couples divide their time.

Dorian Kendal and Jared Hunt, who live in San Francisco and have been married four years, said they had divided household chores based on their personal preferences.

“I hate to cook, so Dorian always does the cooking,” said Mr. Hunt, 38.

“Jared should not ever cook,” confirmed Mr. Kendal, 43. “And I hate laundry — laundry is the worst thing, and Jared gets mad at me when I do my own laundry. This is how I knew I was in love, when I found someone who got mad at me for doing something I hated most.”

But when they adopted a baby, they decided Mr. Hunt would stop working and stay home for a year. His career was in transition, from ballet to interior design, and Mr. Kendal, a tech executive, earned significantly more.

“It’s not a masculine or a feminine thing; it is just what we do to function as a couple and have our family work,” Mr. Hunt said.

One study comparing two large surveys of couples at two points in time found heterosexual couples reported increased equality in the division of chores in 2000 compared with 1975, but same-sex couples reported less. Mr. Green, one of the co-authors of the study, said the change was probably because more same-sex couples in 2000 had married and become parents.

Many factors seem to push same-sex couples toward specializing in different tasks after parenthood — especially long work hours, found Abbie Goldberg, a psychology professor at Clark University. People were more likely to share domestic labor when both had flexible work schedules, she found, or when they earned enough to hire help.

“The egalitarian utopia is overly simplified, because that is not people’s reality,” she said. “The truth is, same-sex couples wrestle with the same dynamics as heterosexuals. Things are humming along and then you have a baby or adopt a child, and all of a sudden there’s an uncountable amount of work.”

There have been no major studies of the division of labor in families in which one or both partners do not identify with a single gender, though research has found that transgender people tend to divide chores along masculine and feminine lines.

Even when gay and lesbian parents took on different roles, they still generally felt it was equitable — which is not true as often in heterosexual relationships, and suggests a different model for achieving equality.

Couples said it was because they communicated; because the parent not doing the bulk of the child care took on other chores; or because the division of labor didn’t carry the baggage of gender.

Ms. Pruis, 41, and Jacque Stonum, 34, had each been married to men and had five children between them when they married two years ago. Ms. Stonum works full time as a captain in the Wyoming Air National Guard.

They decided that Ms. Pruis, who had stayed home in her first marriage, would continue to do so. Ms. Pruis said that even though they were dividing responsibilities as she and her husband had, it felt more fair with her wife.

“It had felt like this was my assumed role, and even though we live in a culture now that is supposed to be more equal, it’s not, so we end up resenting the guy,” she said. “Now I feel a lot more like it’s my conscious choice.”

Ms. Stonum said: “There’s more conversation and less assumption about who will do what. I feel lucky pretty much every single day because she just lets me worry about focusing on my career, and it doesn’t require the juggling it would if we both worked.”

Their experience seems to be common among same-sex couples. In the group of lesbian mothers that Ms. Goldberg researched, most of the nonbiological mothers, because they could not do things like breast-feed, said they deliberately took on other responsibilities, like bath time or housework.

A study in Sweden found that for lesbian couples in which one mother gave birth, she took a pay cut similar to heterosexual mothers. However, five years later, birth mothers’ earnings had recovered. Heterosexual women’s earnings never did.

When it comes to the division of labor, happiness and marital satisfaction depend not on whether chores are split 50/50, studies show, but on how close the actual division of labor is to each partner’s ideal one.

Gay and lesbian couples, even when they don’t divide labor equally, are more likely to feel the division is fair, research finds. The least likely to be satisfied in this way? Heterosexual women.

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