Mothers and fathers adopt more sexist attitudes about who does what after a baby is born

Move towards traditional gender views is a response to work expectations, leave arrangements, public services for children, schools & social networks.

Used with permission of the Child and Family Blog.

When their first child is born, men and women grow more traditional in their gender attitudes towards mothering, as well as about who does housework and caregiving, according to our study of nearly 1,800 new parents in Australia in 2013.

But these changes in gender beliefs are significantly different for men and women.

Both sexes changed their previous views to support more strongly the ideas that a woman’s main role is being a mother, that mothers should work only if they need the money, and that young children should not stay in childcare for prolonged periods of time. However, despite the apparent contradiction, women also believed more strongly than they did before the birth that working women can be just as good caregivers as stay-at-home mums. We found that new mothers became less likely than before to say that working mothers care more about their careers than about their children.

New fathers became more traditional in their views on gender roles. They were less likely than before to agree that men and women in dual-earner couples should share housework and childcare equally. They were more likely to agree that a working mother is less able than a stay-at-home mother to establish a bond with her child.

New mothers, then, seem to hold onto a broadened personal identity, albeit with some internal contradictions, given the difficulties of combining paid work with their ideal of stay-at-home mothering. In contrast, new fathers appear to shrink women’s identities as workers, shifting to a more traditional view of women as caring mothers and housekeepers.

We studied Australian new parents, but data from other countries suggests that many Western societies – the US, UK, New Zealand and Canada – would see similar results.

Why does this sexist shift happen around the first birth when gender equality is a major theme of Western public life?

It seems likely that the way we organise work, parental leave arrangements, public services for children, schools and social networks create structural barriers to involved fatherhood and also encourage the traditional social construction of women’s mothering role. Whether you are male or female, you have to be very confident and persistent against overwhelming odds not to conform amid such powerful messaging.

An explanation rooted in social pressure also fits the apparently contradictory attitudes that many women express about work and motherhood. Welfare benefits introduced by most western governments prioritise the mother’s role around the birth. However, they also encourage women to go back to work, even when they are single parents and their children are quite young. This confusion in policy seems to mirror contradictions in women’s identity.

This shift towards supporting traditional gender roles around motherhood may have downsides for children. It leaves reluctant mothers with less opportunity to rethink intensive roles that may not fit them, their partners or their children. More traditional attitudes on gender may also make it more difficult for enthusiastic fathers to be as involved with their children to a degree that might be better for everyone. In short, our society is not providing a full range of opportunities and choices for either men or women in the field of parenting, to which we should be attracting the most able and willing talents.