The Effects of Transitions in Marital Status on Men's Performance of Housework

By Gupta, Sanjiv | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Effects of Transitions in Marital Status on Men's Performance of Housework


Gupta, Sanjiv, Journal of Marriage and Family


Using data from the two waves of the National Survey of Families and Households, I analyze the impact of transitions in marital status on changes in men's time spent in housework. The transitions occur among five marital statuses: never married, cohabiting, married, separated, and widowed. I find that men reduce the time they spend in routine housework when they form couple households and increase it when they leave couple households. In contrast, women increase the time they spend doing housework when they enter coresidential unions and reduce it when they exit. This finding suggests that, with respect to housework time at least, the formation of households with adult partners of the opposite gender remains more to men's advantage than to women's.

Key Words: cohabitation, divorce, gender, housework, marriage.

"Suddenly men are a hot topic." So begins Gerson's recent study (1993) of changes in men's commitments to their families and work. There is growing scholarly interest in the erosion of men's roles as primary breadwinners and their undertaking a more complex and differentiated set of familial responsibilities, including those of household labor (e.g., Coltrane, 1996). Despite this increasing interest in men's family roles, however, our knowledge of the dynamics of men's housework behavior remains meager. Although we know that there have been substantial changes at the aggregate level-men's housework hours per week increased from an average of 4.6 in 1965 to almost 10 in 1985 (Robinson, 1988)-the existing empirical literature is practically silent on the possible causes of changes in individual men's housework behavior.

Specifically, previous research has ignored the effects of transitions in household and marital status on individuals' performance of housework. With the exception of South and Spitze (1994), the quantitative literature has examined only the division of housework in existing couple households (Berk, 1985; Blair & Lichter, 1991; Coverman, 1985; England & Farkas, 1986; Huber & Spitze, 1983; Shelton & John, 1993). Hence, although we know something about the hours that men and women in couple households spend doing housework, we do not understand how those hours are affected by household formation or dissolution.

I report the first multivariate longitudinal analysis to date of the impact of transitions in marital status on men's time spent doing housework. I use data from both waves of the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) to answer the questions: How do men change their housework time when they move in and out of marital or cohabiting unions with women, and how do those changes compare with changes made by women who experience transitions in marital status?

My longitudinal analysis provides a better understanding of the causal link between marital status and housework time than does existing cross-sectional research. The temporal ordering of transitions in marital status and changes in housework time is relatively unambiguous. Although it is possible that men and women change their housework hours in anticipation of such transitions, it is more likely that the transitions precede changes in housework time. Hence, I provide a clearer specification of the causal relationship between marital status and housework time than has been available to date.

BACKGROUND

I draw on the ideas of doing gender, a perspective that views domestic labor as a process by which individuals define their gender identities. In their seminal article on this concept, West and Zimmerman (1987) argue that gender should be understood as "a routine accomplishment embedded in everyday interaction" (p. 125). That is, gender is enacted and affirmed continuously by individuals through their interactions with other individuals. Coresidential heterosexual unions are the smallest interactional units in which individuals establish their gender identities through daily activities, for example, their performance of housework.

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