We asked these questions for a number of reasons, but one thing we were interested in was whether or not the ‘biological’ parent (particularly the biological mother in lesbian partnerships) was more likely to be the full time carer of the house and children than her partner.
This question is of interest partly because it is just interesting, but also because our data is set up in a way that allows us to look at the findings with reference to other large studies of heterosexual couples, where the mother usually (although certainly not always these days) takes primary responsibility for the kids and the vacuuming. Asking people to give us some details about why their family organises household and work responsibilities in the way that they do provides insight into the reasons why there are differences between opposite-sex and same-sex couples (if indeed there are differences, which it seems that there are but I will talk more about that another day).
What was really evident in people’s ‘why we do it this way’ responses was that couples made decisions about their work/family balance (including the desire expressed by almost everyone to maximise time with their children) based on pragmatism, personal preference or circumstance rather than biology.* In some cases, couples arrange their working and family lives around the fact that one partner enjoys work more or is more career driven than the other. In other cases, one partner earns more so it makes more sense for that person to work full time. In many cases, both parents work part time so they can both spend as much time with the kids as possible. As couples’ circumstances change over time (as income levels change, someone gets a great job opportunity, children grow older and so forth) so do their working and family arrangements. Some couples take it in turns to be the full time ‘paid’ worker and full time home worker. The following quotes from two lesbian mothers describe well how it all works in a number of families (and once again I will issue an apology to gay dads for focusing mainly on lesbians; we plan to write something just on dads in 2010 so please stay tuned):
My partner returned to work this year because of a great job opening and because more that five years out of a profession severely hinders a return. I took the year off to be with our kids and because we could afford it. Both our children were breast fed and my partner certainly wanted to be at home with them whereas I was content to continue with full time work. We've simply swapped places this year and are both happy in this new arrangement (Lesbian mother).
[Our arrangement] has varied over the seven years that we have been parents, no year being the same. We made a commitment that from the birth of the first child we would not ever both work full-time, and that the children would not attend child-care until they were at least 18 months old, and that two days child-care per week would be the most they would ever have. We also made a commitment that it made no difference who the biological or non-biological parent was...so we have varied who has been home and who has been at work. Sometimes both of us have been at home. Currently my partner works full-time and I work part-time and care for the children, last year it was the opposite (Lesbian mother).
A number of lesbian couples who have younger children mentioned that they arrange their household to accommodate breastfeeding. However, this does not necessarily mean that these couples fall neatly into ‘housewife’ and ‘breadwinner’ roles based on biological imperatives. Breastfeeding becomes part of the myriad of tasks and responsibilities these families coordinate everyday and everything is negotiated.
I am on two years maternity leave and take care of our son while my partner works full time. This will change shortly when she has our second son and I return to work full time and she takes over child care duties. I am still breastfeeding our 19 month old and will continue to do so as long as possible. Once my partner has the next child she plans to breastfeed for as long as possible so I will return to full time work. We hope not to have to put our children into organised child care - if we can survive on the one wage (Lesbian mother).
I work flexible hours, part time, up to 23 hours a week. My partner is on maternity leave. Our oldest two children go to childcare while I work. My partner stays home with our youngest. We are both breastfeeding! I like working and enjoy my work. I returned to some minimal work when our son was 11 months. My partner will probably start some part-time work in January when our daughter is 16 months or so. I will probably always work a bit more than her because I like working more, am more career driven and earn more than she does (Lesbian mother)Writing this now, it seems so obvious that people organise their households in this way. Of course you would make these decisions on the basis of what you both enjoy and what you can afford! But we know from decades of research on heterosexual couples that this is not how most families do it. As I have written before, gender is usually the main factor that determines who in the family wins the bread and who wins the house and kids. The expectations society places on us as women and men – particularly when we are women and men in a relationship and with children – mean not everyone has the freedom to negotiate who does what. It might seem like an oxymoron to speak about freedom and housework in one sentence, but for same-sex couples it seems there is some freedom in not being mainstream.
Seasons greetings to you all!
*These are preliminary findings only, please contact the author before quoting or referencing these findings