The other day, after I picked the kids up from school, my husband texted me saying that he thought we should move bedtime earlier during the school year. Then just after 7 p.m. he texted me again saying that he had gotten caught up in research, but that he was on his way home. When he arrived home about 8:15 p.m., the kids who were not used to an 8 p.m. bedtime were still awake: our three-year-old threw her arms around my husband’s neck and called him her wonderful Daddy. He called her his wonderful daughter, and they played a little tickling game. I smiled at the joy their reunion brought.
I could spin this story to emphasize gender inequality. My husband and I both work 30 hours a week, but he goes in about 11 a.m. That means he has two hours at home while the kids are at school, and I am the one who picks them up in the afternoon. He texted me because he was concerned they needed more sleep, but then he stayed late at work, leaving me to execute the new rule after hours of solo childcare.
According to a paper recently presented at the American Sociological Association that has received much media attention, egalitarian childcare like we practiced the other day contributes to a great sex life. Wait: did we practice egalitarian childcare? The study assigns couples into one of three categories for childcare patterns—the woman does the majority of childcare, the childcare is shared equally, and the man does the majority of childcare—based not on the time they spent caring for children, but rather on who was responsible for 1) rule-making, 2) praising the child, 3) playing with the child, and 4) rule enforcement. My husband took responsibility in everything besides rule enforcement through a few texts and a brief joyful reunion with his three-year-old. Then later when he was sharing his ice cream with that still-awake girl, he told her that in our family we don’t put our hands in each other’s food (she should eat off the spoon). Chalk up some credit for rule enforcement.
My point is simply that shared responsibility in these four domains does not mean egalitarian childcare. CNN covered this research with the headline: “Couples who share the burdens of childcare are happier together.” How many of us actually find praising our children burdensome? And when we assume responsibility for it, does it actually cost us much time? Other parenting responsibilities are time-consuming, like packing lunches and supervising homework, but rule-making, praising, and playing can be light burdens. The authors of the study are quick to acknowledge that they have not measured everything about childcare: the lead author, Daniel Carlson, told CNN that it was not clear whether men were doing their share of cooking or cleaning for the children, and the paper itself also emphasizes that they haven’t measured other childcare tasks like cuddling, transportation, and communication with teachers.
Nonetheless, Carlson and his colleagues claim to have shown that couples who share the responsibility for childcare have better sex lives. Previous peer-reviewed research had shown that couples who divided household tasks along fairly traditional gender lines had more and better sex, but that data reflected married couples’ experiences from the last quarter of the twentieth century. The new study used more recent data and avoided a bias toward conservatism among couples by including cohabiters. In the conclusion, the researchers state, “Unlike the past, egalitarianism today is associated with better, more intimate relationships than gender traditional arrangements.”
I remain unconvinced that they have supported the idea that egalitarianism is a greater turn-on than behavior that emphasizes gender differences. I have already started to explain the first reason I’m unconvinced: they didn’t measure egalitarianism in childcare. I’m not just pouting about having to put the kids to bed alone last night and still qualifying as egalitarian according to their measure. I’d also invite you to consider how even a patriarchal husband would score as egalitarian: if he did all the rule-making unilaterally and shared equally in the rule enforcement (she stopped bad behavior during the day and he doled out punishment spankings at night), he and his wife are only one point shy of egalitarian according to the scale Carlson and his colleagues used. All the patriarch has to do to pick up that one point is praise his kids a bit (but less then his wife; equal responsibility for praising would get him two points).
Take a far less extreme example. Previous research has shown that men interact with children through play even more than women do. That means a guy that plays with his kids—particularly roughhousing—is following a traditionally male script. The same holds true for setting rules, which is a traditionally male domain. If a man takes more responsibility than his partner in these two domains, less responsibility in praising, and none in rule enforcement, he is egalitarian.
Finally, please also consider what kind of guy doesn’t make the all-too-low egalitarian threshold. How uninvolved do you have to be to not take responsibility for setting rules for your kids? How cold do you have to be to not take responsibility for praising them? I’m married to a guy who loves our kids. He loves being with them; he cares what time they go to bed. If instead he were uninterested in the children we brought into the world together, I wouldn’t care what time he came to bed.
Given that “egalitarian” men in this widely publicized study might not be, and that couples characterized as having traditional gender roles might be better characterized as having uninvolved fathers, I don’t think this study tells us anything about egalitarianism and fun in bed.