I am a quantitative sociologist with an interest in family and social inequality. Several of my research projects have addressed informal caregiving. One example of this research is an analysis of spouses’ division of eldercare in Britain. An interesting aspect of this topic is the intersection of gendered roles in the couple with filial obligations towards their respective parents. My analyses showed that more couples reported caring for the wife’s parents than for the husband’s parents. The most common arrangement was that the child-in-law was not involved in caregiving, but in 40 to 50 percent of couples children-in-law supported their spouses and both spouses provided care for the parent(-in-law). This was much more common in married couples than in unmarried couples. Even if spouses were involved, the child still tended to provide more hours or husbands and wives provided similar hours of care.
Couples’ parent care was predominantly structured along kin relationships but it also showed gendered patterns. A higher proportion of wives helped their husbands and they provided on average more hours of care for his parents than husbands did. Husbands were more likely to support their wives if these worked full time whereas wives provided care for their parents-in-law irrespective of their husbands’ employment situation. Therefore, women’s increasing involvement in the labour market should lead to an increase of care provided by sons-in-law but one can also expect that it will reduce the hours of eldercare provided by daughters-in-law.
My current project addresses a different kind of caregiving, namely fathers’ childcare involvement. After decades of strong increases in fathers’ childcare times, the UK Time-Use surveys from 2000 and 2015 show that this increase has come to a halt. I am only examining fathers who lived with a partner and at least one child aged 14 or younger. These fathers spent about the same time doing childcare in both years – on average about one hour on weekdays and 100 minutes on weekend days. It is important to point out that these figures comprise all times when fathers reported childcare as primary or secondary activity. There is no clear agreement among researchers about how secondary activities should be treated in time-use analyses. I argue that including secondary activities is particularly important in analyses of childcare since childcare is often part of multitasking. Ignoring reports of childcare as secondary activity would lead to considerably underreporting childcare activities and the resulting constraints on parents.
Past findings about increasing disparities between high and low-status fathers’ involvement have raised concerns about the consequences for children. These disparities arguably form part of a more general pattern of divergence between the living conditions of children born into high-status groups and low-status groups (Putnam 2015). As father involvement enhances children’s development, unequal levels of father involvement are seen as contributing to the disadvantages of children from low-status groups.
My analyses reveal a further divergence of father involvement in the new millennium between fathers from different status groups. On weekend days, the difference in childcare time between high- and low-status fathers increased from nearly half an hour in the year 2000 to 52 minutes in 2015. This difference results from two changes: a widening gap in the proportion of fathers who get involved in physical care and the opening of a gap in the minutes of interactive care among fathers who provided such care. In both cases, high-status fathers were more involved than low-status fathers.
Interactive care – reading, playing or talking to a child – is regarded as particularly important for children’s social and cognitive development. More time in interactive care by high-status fathers compared to other fathers fits into the broader narrative of widening disparities of children’s resources. Having said this, the finding is only weakly significant, so it warrants confirmation by further studies.
The increase in the proportion of fathers who get involved in physical care on weekend days can be interpreted in a different way. Father involvement in childcare is relevant for gender equality in the domestic sphere (Goldscheider et al. 2015). In this context, fathers’ involvement in physical care is important because it is regarded as more burdensome and less desirable than interactive care. The increasing participation of high-status fathers in physical care on weekend days could indicate a relief of mothers’ childcare duties in these couples. This would also be in line with established class differences in gender-role attitudes. Whether the change actually signifies a more equal distribution of childcare among high-status couples on weekend days depends on mothers’ hours of care. The next phase of the project will look more closely into this matter.
My analyses cannot explain why the trend of increasing father involvement has come to an end in the UK. The introduction of paternity leave in Britain in 2003 and several subsequent policy changes should have encouraged fathers’ involvement. Mothers’ increasing level of employment should also have led to increased levels of father involvement since mothers’ employment tends to draw fathers into caregiving. It is possible that the stagnation of father involvement in the new millennium is owed to labour-market pressures after the 2008 recession. Lower levels of job security might have reduced fathers’ willingness or scope for prioritizing involvement in childcare. Future research should examine whether changes in the labour market have put particular pressure on fathers, especially on those from lower status groups.
Goldscheider, F; Bernhardt, E & Lappegård, T (2015): The Gender Revolution: A Framework for Understanding Changing Family and Demographic Behavior, Population and Development Review41(2): 207-239.
Henz, U (2010): Parent Care as Unpaid Family Labor: How do Spouses Share?, Journal of Marriage and Family72(1): 148-164.
Henz, U (2009): Couples’ provision of informal care for parents and parents-in-law: far from sharing equally?,Ageing & Society29(3): 369-395.
Henz, U (2018): Recent Trends in Fathers’ Involvement with Their Children in the United Kingdom: Stagnation and Social Differences. Unpublished manuscript.
Putnam, RD (2015): Our Kids. The American Dream in Crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Ursula Henz is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics (LSE)