Family Flexibility in Response to Economic Conditions: Fathers' Involvement in Child-Care Tasks

By Knop, Brian; Brewster, Karin L. | Journal of Marriage and Family, April 2016 | Go to article overview

Family Flexibility in Response to Economic Conditions: Fathers' Involvement in Child-Care Tasks


Knop, Brian, Brewster, Karin L., Journal of Marriage and Family


In 1993, Martin O'Connell reported that the share of preschool children cared for by their fathers while their mothers engaged in paid work had increased from approximately 15% of preschoolers between 1965 and 1988 to 20% of preschoolers in 1991. With this increase, fathers became the most frequent form of care for the preschool children of employed mothers. In a comprehensive descriptive report, O'Connell argued that fathers' increased participation in their preschoolers' care reflected multiple factors, including the rising costs of care, the difficulty of finding reliable care during mothers' work hours, and the economic recession of 1990-1991. O'Connell reasoned that recession-related layoffs meant that more men were available to provide care and increased the salience for parents of the cost of paid care.

In a subsequent multivariate analysis, Casper and O'Connell (1998) tested these explanations, using data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation for 1988, 1991, and 1993. Their analyses provided substantial support for O'Connell's availability hypothesis: Greater availability was associated with greater participation in all three years. Further, men's behavior was associated with their wives' share of the family income in the recession year but not in the two non-recession years. The latter finding led the authors to suggest that the recession effect reflected not only an increase in the share of men who were available to provide child care but also an increase in wives' bargaining power when their husband' contributions to the family economy decreased.

In the 16 years between the 1990-1991 recession and Great Recession of 2007-2009, what families looked like and how they formed continued to change, following trends set in motion decades earlier by equal opportunity legislation and the expansion of women's employment, the implementation of no-fault divorce laws, increasing control over fertility and greater sexual freedom, and increased longevity (Casper & Bianchi, 2001; Goldscheider & Waite, 1991). The prevalence of cohabitation increased, as did its social acceptance; a decreasing share of women and men married; and the relationship between marriage and childbearing weakened (Cherlin, 2010). Men's and women's behaviors within families changed as well. Women became the primary wage earners in an increasing share of families, and as their time spent in paid labor increased, the time they allocated to domestic labor decreased (Bianchi, Milkie, Sayer, & Robinson, 2000; Bianchi, Robinson, & Milkie, 2006). In contrast, the time men spent in domestic labor increased, a change due almost entirely to their greater participation in parenting tasks (Bianchi et al., 2000, 2006). These changes in family relationships and family-related responsibilities are part of a still-incomplete transition to a more balanced division of responsibility for both income and domestic duties. As this transition proceeded and men's time in domestic duties increased, the likelihood of observing a recession-related increase in men's involvement in child-care tasks may have decreased.

Structural shifts in the U.S. economy also may have undermined the potential for recession-related changes in fathers' child-care behaviors. The increasingly service-based and globalized economy has encouraged greater reliance on contingent workers and on employment arrangements that privilege employer flexibility and profits over employees' ability to predict work schedules or income (Fligstein & Shin, 2004). Unpredictable work schedules necessitate worker flexibility in life outside of work, which leads an increasing proportion of parents to accommodate nonstandard and irregular work schedules by trading off responsibility for their children's care (Presser, 2003). Macroeconomic changes also have severed the once-tight connection between business cycles and employment levels (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012); conditions may improve for businesses without improving for families. …

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