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Nearly half of parents both work, and most find work-life balance difficult, survey shows
Both parents work full-time in nearly half of U.S. families, giving those households income advantages. But a new Pew Research Center survey finds work-life balance is often tricky, from shared workload to getting ahead. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Both parents work in nearly half of American families, providing those families with more financial resources. But a new Pew Research Center survey finds those working parents may struggle to balance their careers and their home lives and there are real differences between men and women in how they see the division of household labor.

"Where both work full-time, there is a lot of sharing going on, even though with some activities especially scheduling children's activities mom is still doing more. But there's a lot of task sharing going on in these families," said Juliana Menasce Horowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center and one of the report's co-authors.

In 46 percent of U.S. families, both parents are fully employed, up from 31 percent back in 1970. But the phone survey with a parent from each of 1,807 households with children under 18 found 56 percent call juggling careers and home life "difficult."

Moms working full time were more likely to say it is hard to balance family and work responsibilities. They were also more apt to say they always feel rushed. And women who work, whether full or part time, say it is harder to move ahead in their careers, Horowitz said.

Twice as many women as men said parenthood makes it hard to get ahead in a career, 40 percent versus 20 percent.

The survey also highlighted different perceptions between the genders when it comes to who is doing what around the house. Regardless of whether moms work full time or part time, they were more likely to say that they do more household-related work than their partners, while dads were more likely to say they share tasks evenly.

"The truth is probably somewhere in the middle," Horowitz said.

"But even in households where both parents work full time, many say a large share of the day-to-day parenting responsibilities falls to mothers," the report said. It noted that 54 percent said the mother more often manages schedules and activities. Parents divide tasks more equitably when it comes to household chores and responsibilities (59 percent), disciplining (61 percent) and activities with the children (64 percent).

Other studies have found diverse benefits to how parents cooperate on tasks, according to Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. She was not involved in the Pew survey.

"For the majority of contemporary American couples, sharing housework and childcare, unlike in the past, is associated with higher marital quality, higher sexual satisfaction, and even more frequent sex," she said. "So it's good for their relationship. It's also good for each of them as individuals, as well as for their children."

In the work realm

The Pew survey marks the first time the researchers have asked those in two-parent households, whether married or cohabitating, whether mom or dad is more focused on career. Horowitz said that men and women both said they were equally focused, although 50 percent who said that also noted that the father earns more than the mother. When both parents work full time, the woman is the top earner 22 percent of the time. Twenty-six percent said the two parents earn about the same amount.

Fifty-nine percent said being a parent does not necessarily interfere with getting ahead at work. Another 30 percent said parenthood has made career advancement tougher, while 10 percent credit parenthood with helping career advancement.

The researchers note that "mothers are twice as likely as fathers to say being a working parent has made it harder for them to advance in their job and career," 41 percent to about 20 percent. That finding was true for moms who work part time, as well as those who work full time.

What happens at home impacts work and vice versa, said Coontz. "When men are involved at home, women feel less pressure to back away from work they enjoy," she said. "And men gain the confidence and pleasures of learning to be hands-on parents, instead of being seen as less-involved backups. Such men report themselves happier over time than men who rely solely on their role as breadwinners for meaning. So sharing at home helps end women's second-class status at work and men's second-class status at home."

Many recent studies have focused on the importance of dad's involvement at home to improving kids' lives. Last year, for example, a study by psychologists from the University of British Columbia published in Psychological Science found that how parents divide tasks like doing dishes and laundry affects their children's perceptions of gender and also what aspirations their children have a finding that especially was true for daughters.

Different perspectives

The Pew researchers found a "significant education gap" when it comes to balancing work and family. College-educated parents were more likely than those with less education to say it is difficult to balance the responsibility of employment and family life. That response came from 70 percent for women with degrees compared to 52 percent without and 61 percent of college-grad men verses 47 percent with less education.

"These differences hold even when controlling for the fact that college-educated parents are more likely to work full time," the report said.

The Pew survey didn't address why that difference existed, but Horowitz said there were several possibilities, including differences in the types of jobs that people with degrees are more likely to have compared to those without degrees.

Other factors could be work schedules or "something in the responsibility they have at work, the level of stress at work," she said. It's also possible that kids of college-educated parents might be involved in more activities because the family has more resources.

Pew asked whether being a parent is enjoyable, rewarding, tiring and/or stressful. Those who said it was hard to balance work and family were more likely to call parenting stressful and tiring, Horowitz said. They were less likely to describe parenting as enjoyable or rewarding.

"It affects the way they experience parenting," Horowitz noted.

Roughly 40 percent of mothers working full time said they don't spend enough time with their kids, while 58 percent said they do and 3 percent said they spend too much time. The vast majority of part-time and not-employed mothers said they spend the right amount of time with the kids, while 18 percent and 11 percent respectively said they spend too little time.

Half of full-time working dads and 41 percent of dads who either work part time or don't work said they spend too little time with their children.