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  • Do children present a challenge to egalitarianism? Tweet This
  • In Norway, cohabiters were three times as likely to split as those who married without first cohabiting, per a new study. Tweet This

I got angry with my husband one recent morning when he wasn’t home when I returned from taking our school-aged daughters to the bus. Our preschooler likes to come with me on these bus drops, but my husband is the one who does our little girl’s hair and gets her off to preschool afterwards. His unexpected absence actually didn’t inconvenience me much: I needed to go swimming before work as part of rehabilitating a hamstring injury, and I had planned on dropping our daughter off for him on my way to the pool. But it nonetheless triggered my anger because if I’m going to absent from a responsibility, I typically ask for help. When my husband didn’t ask for my help, I felt like he was treating his contributions as optional, as if I was the default childcare provider.

Leave aside how we got past that because my point is not about conflict resolution, but rather that couples with children are negotiating their relationships on different terrain today than they were in the past. In an era when childcare was considered the mother’s responsibility, a husband could run an errand before work without asking—and without leaving a mother feeling presumed upon. The current issue of European Sociological Review has a study about children and parents’ union stability that speaks to big issues like living out gender role ideals, plus the similarities between marriage and cohabitation. Let’s talk about children and gender roles first.

Children present a challenge to egalitarianism. It is easier to fairly divide paid work by assigning equal hours to each partner than it is to figure out just what constitutes a fair division of childcare. Living out a fair bargain is also complicated because we don’t have scripts to guide us in how it is to be done right. The authors of this new study, Rannveig Kaldager Hart, Torkild Hovde Lyngstad and Elina Vinberg, contend that their evidence indicates that even in Norway—a country that scores very favorably on international indicators of gender equality like the United Nation’s Gender Inequality Index—patterns over time are indicative of an incomplete gender revolution.

Their study checked for differences over time (four decades) in how having a child together affected Norwegian couples’ chances of staying together. Couples with children have always been more stable than childless couples for a number of reasons, including both partners having more to lose by splitting up if there are children, a greater likelihood of childbearing in stronger relationships, and “stark (and likely internalized) norms against dissolving a two-parent family.” Nonetheless, the authors argued that the stability premium associated with shared children could wane with the progress of the gender revolution because children can increase the mismatch between ideals and lived experience, therefore destabilizing relationships. In other words, in a country like Norway, children present a greater challenge to egalitarian norms than in countries where gender roles are less equal even without children.

But what happens when the gender revolution progresses still further, and men move into the domestic sphere to the same extent that women have moved into paid work? Frances Goldscheider and her colleagues have theorized about two halves to the gender revolution in these terms, with the first half being an increase in women’s paid work that creates stress on families, but the second half being an increase in men’s involvement at home that relieves stress on families (particularly those with children). Hart et al. argue that if the second half of the gender revolution were stabilizing Norwegian families, we should see the stability premium associated with having a child increase over time. Instead, the stability gap that favors couples with children over childless couples was largely unchanged across four decades.

I’m unimpressed with their interpretation. First, even though I’m clearly sympathetic to the idea that children can heighten tensions around gender role expectations, I don’t think anyone is arguing that Norway should be past all that by now. Those who believe that the genders are essentially different don’t expect us to ever get past it, and those who believe that gender differences arise from socialization don’t expect us to jettison past (socialized) expectations overnight. Second, Hart and her colleagues give us a number of reasons to think that the stability premium associated with having a child should shrink over time, including mothers being more able to financially support children alone now than in the past. In other words, even if men’s participation at home were strengthening families with children, we might not see the stability gap between parents and childless couples grow because other social forces might offset that change.

Yet Hart et al., conclude that their results “do not underpin…optimism” about men’s participation strengthening families with children. Fair enough: The unchanging stability premium associated with children does not support the idea that men’s participation is strengthening families with children—but neither does it provide any evidence against that claim.

My critique of their claim about a growing similarity between cohabitation and marriage has much the same flavor: It is possible, but not supported, given their evidence. First, they document what they call “a persistent super risk for co-habitants.” I like this term, “super risk.” They introduce it to differentiate between the stability advantage children have if their biological parents are married rather than cohabiting, and change over time in the effect of children on the stability of cohabiting unions. That means that the super risk associated with having cohabiting parents can obtain in all time periods, even while shared children begins to strengthen cohabiting unions. From 1970-85, cohabiting couples with children were no more stable than those without children, and in the later time periods having a young child significantly increased the stability of cohabiting unions.

But I have trouble interpreting the emergence of a stability premium associated with children within cohabitation as supporting statements in their conclusions like “Childbearing in cohabitation seems to have lost much of its strength as a signal of social and demographic difference.” The “persistent super risk for co-habitants” is evidence against this: over all time periods, cohabiters were three times as likely to split as those who married without first cohabiting.

Moreover, Hart et al., do not provide any evidence that the advantage to marriage for children has declined over time. Their discussion also indicates that they think children stabilize cohabitations now when they did not do so in the 1970s because cohabitating childbearing is no longer a rare phenomenon characteristic of a select group of people. In fairness to the authors, the conclusion I am quibbling with could be properly interpreted as cohabiters simply becoming less select over time, but I am concerned it might be interpreted as marriage and cohabitation becoming indistinguishable over time, even though the research provides no evidence of that.

Laurie F. DeRose, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Research Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Director of Research for the World Family Map Project.