Does One Parent Really Pull More Weight Than the Other?

A new Pew Research study suggests that among straight couples, the mom still seems to be the default caregiver—and the one who takes on the majority of chores. Do we really still live in the 1950s?

Busy Family at home - father working on laptop and mother doing housework
filadendron / Getty.

Does it always seem like there's one person in a relationship doing more than the other, or is it just my marriage? It's not just our mental loads talking, either. In a new Pew Research study based on the American Trends Panel, it seems like the phenomena might still be as widespread as it was in times gone by. You would think in 2023, with spouses that generally earn similar amounts of income, neither one would work harder than the other at home. Unfortunately, that might not be true.

First, a word about pay inequality. Looking only at heteronormative couples, the Pew study suggests that in 29% of marriages, both spouses earn about the same amount of money. That's trending up from only 11% in 1972. This rise in egalitarian pay was no easy feat: women have been at the forefront of legislation concerning equal pay. Still, women have a long way to go before America truly has gender equality. Husbands still make up the lion's share of breadwinners at 55% (compared to 85% in 1972), whereas wives make up only 16% (compared to 5% in 1972).

Nevertheless, this rebalancing of wages has not seemed to have any correlation with household chores. The study suggests that while marriages are becoming more equal, the majority of housework still falls disproportionately on wives. Even in egalitarian marriages, where husbands and wives earn similar amounts of money, husbands on average only spend 1.9 hours on housework a week, compared to wives' 4.6 hours. And your husband running off to play golf every time you scrub the toilet may not be only in your imagination: husbands spend an average of 25.2 hours at leisure, while wives spend considerably less at 21.6 hours.

If you add kids to the mix, the numbers stratify even further. Among parents, husbands spend only 2.2 hours during the week on housework whereas wives spend 5.1 hours. They only spend 9 hours a week on caregiving to wives' 12.2, and 23.9 hours at leisure to wives' 19.6.

If this makes you as upset as it made me, you're not alone. Respondents to the survey overwhelmingly —77% of them—believed children are better off when their mother and father focus equally on both their jobs and taking care of the children while at home.

Is the Division of Household Labor Similar for Same-sex or Nonbinary Couples?

Notably, the study didn't focus on whether that imbalance exists for same-sex or nonbinary couples. As one nonbinary half of a heterosexual-passing couple, I often find that the majority of the house chores are expected by others (though not my partner) to be my responsibility. I’ve often found the expectation chafing. Cis-passing non-binary folks are still expected to fall in line with social norms that often dead-gender them. These norms are antiquated—and offensive. 

For example, my partner often cooks for us and does his fair share of the cleaning. But when well-meaning relatives come over, they are often confused, and, at worst, are outwardly offended that he is picking up and caring for the children as much as I do. So it must be said: our distribution of unpaid home labor works for us. I do take care of the majority of child-related unpaid labor, but then, my partner works demanding hours. In everything, there's a balance—scuffles over how to load the dishwasher and who feeds the pets aside.

Our egalitarian, gender-neutral reality isn't unique. Dozens of studies have been done on queer couples, suggesting their relationships tend to be even more egalitarian than their straight counterparts. For example, a 2004 study demonstrated that, compared to heterosexual couples, lesbian couples who were also parenting 4- to 6-year-old children divided paid and unpaid family work more evenly. A more recent 2015 study showed gay couples also divide unpaid family labor in a more egalitarian manner.

So what gives? Why do heterosexual couples fall into old patterns? The Pew study may offer a little bit of context. Even though we live in the 21st century, many household chores are still divided along traditionally gendered lines. For example, child-rearing and unpaid home labor of all stripes were traditionally seen as within the realm of the wife. The gendering of tasks dominates our roles even today, as women surpass men in degrees and educational attainment, and more women with children are working than ever before.

With the landscape of marriage changing and inequality slowly becoming a thing of the past, it's not all doom and gloom: younger respondents with college degrees, as well as Black respondents, tended to be more egalitarian in their relationships. While gender disparities remain central in household chores and income equality still exists, couples are heading in the right direction.

They just have to decide who's going to load the dishwasher this time first.

Was this page helpful?
Parents uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Aragão, Carolina, Fry, Richard, Hurst, Kiley, Parker, Kim. In a growing share of U.S. Marriages, husbands and wives earn about the same. Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project.

  2. Patterson, C.J., Sutfin, E.L. & Fulcher, M. Division of Labor Among Lesbian and Heterosexual Parenting Couples: Correlates of Specialized Versus Shared PatternsJournal of Adult Development 11, 179–189 (2004).

  3. Tornello, S. L., Sonnenberg, B. N., & Patterson, C. J. (2015). Division of labor among gay fathers: Associations with parent, couple, and child adjustmentPsychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity.

Related Articles