Despite being locked down during the pandemic, child care responsibilities often fell on women’s shoulders, a new study shows.

“Most people have never undergone anything like this before, where all of a sudden they can’t rely on their normal child care, and most people’s work situation has changed, too,” said researcher Kristen Shockley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. “We thought this would be a chance for men to step in and partake equally in child care, but for many couples we didn’t see that happen.”

In mid-March, as schools and day care centers shut down, Shockley’s team surveyed couples, both of whom worked and had at least one child under the age of 6. The team researchers first surveyed 274 couples and followed up with 133 of the same couples in May.

“When the wife does it all, not surprisingly, the outcomes are bad for the couple,” Shockley said in a university news release. “It’s not just bad for the wife, it’s also bad for the husband, including in terms of job performance although his work role presumably hasn’t changed. When one person’s doing it all, there’s a lot of tension in the relationship, and it’s probably spilling over into the husband’s ability to focus at work.”

Although about 37% of couples relied on the wife to provide most or all child care, 44.5% used more egalitarian strategies and nearly 19% used strategies that were not gendered or egalitarian.

Co-parenting strategies included alternating workdays, planning daily shifts that included both work and child care for husband and wife and alternating schedules that changed based on the couple’s work needs. These strategies actually increased the productivity of both parents.

“When you look at the more egalitarian strategies, we found the best outcomes for people who were able to alternate working days,” Shockley said. “The boundaries are clear. When you’re working, you can really focus on work, and when you’re taking care of the kids, you can really focus on the kids. But not everybody has jobs amenable to that.”

The paper doesn’t include qualitative quotes, but Shockley clearly remembers the participants’ comments.

“People were saying, ‘I’m at my breaking point,’ and this was just two weeks in. A lot of people said, ‘I’m just not sleeping.’ You could feel people’s struggle, and there was a lot of resentment, particularly when the wife was doing it all,” she said.

“This really highlights some infrastructure issues we have with the way we think about child care in this country,” Shockley said. “The default becomes, ‘Oh well, the wife is going to pick up the slack.’ It’s not a long-term solution.”

Shockley noted that the couples surveyed had relatively high incomes.

The report was published in the January issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

More information

For more on coping during the pandemic, see the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCE: University of Georgia, news release, Jan. 13, 2021