Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Gender and Family Work in One-Parent Households

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Gender and Family Work in One-Parent Households

Article excerpt

One-parent families, headed by an unmarried residential mother or father who lives with one or more children under the age of 18, are increasingly common (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993). Much as been written about these families, but there has been little empirical attention to how they handle household work. Single parenting might be particularly difficult for fathers who are unaccustomed to the full burden of family labor (Passinger, 1989). In married-couple families, mothers do the bulk of family work, in terms of both care of children and household tasks (Acock & Demo, 1994). Who does that work when the father is the only adult in the household? Do single fathers assume all responsibility for children themselves? Do single fathers do the same household tasks that single mothers do?


No matter what the family structure, there are socially constructed expectations for each family member. Gender theory suggests that gender is the primary predictor of individual behavior in families, because families and other social structures transmit advantages according to gender (Ferree, 1990). As women and men are categorized and stratified, and their similarities downplayed, roles and behaviors are given "gendered meanings" (Ferree, 1990, p. 105). The power that men have over women in society is reflected at home, which is why women do more family work than men, and why women do more menial tasks and men do more interesting ones. Family work is also seen as a way for women, but not men, to express love. In part, women and men "do gender" through the way they conceptualize family work, responding to their own and societal expectations (West Zimmerman, 1987).

Societal expectations are relevant in one-parent households, too. We may expect single mothers to keep a cleaner house than single fathers, and single fathers who keep a clean house may be applauded for it in a way that single mothers are not. Gender theory, however, does not suggest that single fathers will be unable to meet their children's needs. Instead, it argues that they will parent in a gendered way; that is, single fathers will meet their children's needs, but they will do so differently than single mothers. Because of the low status of family work and its identification with women, fathers will probably do less than mothers, and fathers will do different kinds of family work than mothers do. Additionally, following gender theory, fathers will emphasize play over caregiving activities when interacting with children, but mothers will do the reverse (Fassinger, 1993; Lamb, 1986). 1

A variation on gender theory is microstructuralism (Risman, 1997). Although many individualist theories attribute gendered parenting behavior to personality differences between mothers and fathers, microstructural theory suggests variations in parenting may be explained by other variables such as social class. Risman (1987) noted that "microstructural theory in its most extreme manifestation would suggest that identical behavioral expectations and identical socially structured opportunities would produce identical behaviors in men and, women" (pp. 8-92. Therefore, microstructuralism would predict that single mothers and single fathers would not differ in meeting the demands of caring for children, if they were similar in other ways.


What is known about family work in one-parent families comes primarily from studies of small, voluntary samples, with most information based on data from single mothers. A review of studies on single fathers with custody found that fathers had warm relationships with their children and had some knowledge of their development (Guttman, 1989). Risman and Park (1988) found that single fathers centered their home lives around their children. On average, fathers did household tasks with them, were involved with them in leisure and pay, took them on outings, and played sports with them. …

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