Over the past four decades, family makeup and dynamics have shifted in the United States. Many of the time-honored assumptions about parenting have been challenged, as women redefine their roles both in the home and workplace.
The realities of parenting have also been shaped by increasing social and economic inequality. In the midst of all the flux, however, the caretaking of children and the earning of income to support the family still go on. How do today’s parents manage those responsibilities?
“When we look at couples and how they manage the transition to parenthood, we see that mothers are remaining more attached to market work than in the past,” says Kelly Musick, Policy Analysis and Management. “They earn more of the total household earnings. But this increase is a result of their own behavior and not their partners’. You might think that as women remain more attached to work, men might pull back a little from their jobs to take on more at home, but we don’t see it in the data.”
Musick is in the midst of a project, looking at couple dynamics and work attachment immediately before the birth of a child and several years afterward. In one study, she is comparing data on couples in the United States with those in the United Kingdom and Germany. Musick analyzes the work and earnings of husbands and wives a couple of years prior to the birth of their first child and the years following that birth. She found that in all three countries, mothers reduced their labor market hours after the birth of a child, while their partners’ hours changed little.
“Women’s time is responsive to a birth,” she says. “Their housework hours increase substantially, and their work hours and income drop. Their partners’ earnings, labor hours, and housework remain quite flat in contrast.”
To assess the earnings of women relative to their partners, Musick looked at their earnings share. “Using a relative measure underscores how parenthood shapes inequality in the home,” she says. “In an era of high divorce rates, it underscores mothers’ vulnerability to economic risk, particularly in the U.S. where there is very little public support for families.”
In Germany and the United Kingdom, public support such as paid family leave—provisions for women to drop down in work hours—and childcare subsidies take some of the economic pressure off families, making up for lost earnings after the birth of a child. “There’s a little less vulnerability in Germany and the U.K.,” Musick explains. “But women in those contexts are also pulling back a bit more from work. We followed mothers in all three countries for eight years and found that the broad picture is very similar across countries. U.S. mothers detach less from work so their earnings share is a bit higher following birth, but in all three countries women’s earnings share drops and doesn’t recover to pre-birth levels.”
In another study, Musick is looking over time at parents in the United States, trying to understand how the impact of a mother’s education on her share of a couple’s earnings and job attachment have changed. Going into the study, Musick expected that women with more education would be gaining ground relative to their less-educated counterparts. “You can make a case that more-educated mothers in the U.S. would be increasingly better off,” she says. “They have better jobs and are more likely to receive some support from their employers at the time of parenthood than women with less education in lower-skilled jobs.”
“These families have fewer resources to manage work and family and also have a harder time making ends meet on one income. They have fewer options following childbirth.”
This isn’t what the data showed. Couple dynamics also play into the mix. Women with higher education and higher income typically also have high-earning spouses. This means that the family can rely on one income, while the mother takes time out to care for young children. This is not so for less-educated women. “Women with less education tend to be married to men with less education who earn less,” Musick says. “These families have fewer resources to manage work and family and also have a harder time making ends meet on one income. They have fewer options following childbirth.”
This finding hinges on the growth in inequality in the United States, Musick explains. “For example, employer-provided benefits have grown for women in high-skill occupations but not at all for women in low-skill jobs,” she says. “Earnings have also grown much more for the college-educated than those with less education, meaning more to spend on child care and other investments in children.”
Musick also investigates changes in family formation and parental separation—and implications for the well-being of family members. Her research is driven by a desire to understand how the broad rise in social inequality in many areas of modern life affect the substantial changes in family patterns.
“The traditional two-parent family has become increasingly associated with the college-educated,” Musick says. “Divorce has increased over the last few decades but much more among less-educated women and the same with childbearing outside of marriage and cohabitation. Families with more highly educated mothers more often have two incomes to draw on and tend to be more stable, both of which are associated with better child outcomes.”
“There’s a cluster of social advantages that are attached to family life among the more educated,” Musick continues. “These family patterns are just another fault line for inequality, and a central question is, how do they shape the opportunities available to the next generation?”
Musick’s research underscores how differences in policy, normative, and economic context can shape family patterns and well-being. She also sees it as helping parents to understand that there are larger forces influencing them in their daily parenting experiences and interactions with their partners.
“When you’re working with your partner and your kids, trying to figure out parenting schedules, or you’re thinking about how to manage childcare, it’s helpful to step back and understand the bigger forces that play into those decisions,” she says. “Gendered expectations and economic position matter in ways that we may not realize and may be hard for an individual to change.”