Studies show that advanced economies today have more families with both parents working thanever before.  Dual-career parents make up a significant percentage of this demographic. This trend will probably continue if the number of female graduates continues to exceed male graduates. 

Both men and women want to combine fulfilling careers whilst getting involved with a significant part of their children’s upbringing. Research shows that having both parents share work and childcare gives children the best outcome. If you’re someone committed to bringing your children up in a gender-neutral world, then it’s good for them to see both parents as role models in both dimensions of life, i.e., in their careers and as hands-on parents.

Recent research by Jennifer Petriglieri in her book “Couples that Work” cites evidence that what she describes as ‘Double Primary Couples’, are happier. This approach is where they have decided to share childcare and working evenly. The reasons boil down to neither feeling resentful that they’ve missed out on either their career or being with their kids. Women feel good about having a fulfilling career and men thrive better at work when they can balance that with the chance to have quality family time.  

Many couples set out on their parenting journey with confidence that they will share responsibilities equally. If anything, men are more correct in assessing how they will divide time for career and family. They guess that their split of work and domestic/childcare will be 60/40, skewed more to their career than homelife. Women underestimate how much of the domestic load they will take on, often assuming that there will be a 50/50 split. All the evidence points to that being quite far from reality. Women in dual-career couples still take on up to 70% of all the domestic and childcare tasks, even when they earn more! 

So, What’s Going on Here? 

Often couples ‘sleepwalk’ into their new roles at home and work without giving it much thought in advance. It is so hard to imagine what it is going to be like that the default position often tends to be ‘wait and see’. Some countries trend towards longer parental leave and this means that women have more time in sole charge at home and then find it hard to share it with their partner when they go back to work. Habits form quickly and women become far more skilled at childcare than their partners. This pattern also applies to same-sex couples. The person taking off the lion’s share of parental leave becomes more expert more quickly and once they have set this configuration in motion, it is hard to change it.  

So, What Can You Do? 

More than anything else, it is imperative to have a conversation with your partner about co-parenting. Think of it as “conscious co-parenting” because if you do not, you might find yourself subconsciously reverting to stereotypes where the mother takes on both the childcare and a lot of the housework too. Eventually, this can give rise to significant resentment on the part of the partner who is bearing more of the load at home.  

Here are some of the issues you might want to cover with your partner: 

The Big Issues 

  • Discuss your goals as a couple.
  • Figure out what kind of career couple you are going to be – for example, traditional with a primary earner and primary caregiver? Or will it be taking turns, spending a few years where one of you really puts your foot on the gas at work and the other holds the fort at home and then you swap? Or the Double Primary where you are both going to share it out evenly? 
  • Look at the longer-term when your kids are more independent; how do you want your daily lives to look then?
  • Explore how your values will play out as parents; examine some of the assumptions that you bring from your parents. 
  • Agree with each other what conscious co-parenting looks like, find couples you know and appear to have the balance right and see if you agree.
  • Have a conversation about shared parental leave, investigate it, rather than assume it is not on the cards.

The Logistics 

  • Consider the support you need in the early days.
  • Finally, think about the coordination of making this work smoothly; how will you manage a less elastic day? Who is going to do the pickups and drop-offs? 

Focus on Shared Goals Rather Than Logistics  

In our experience, a child’s imminent arrival tends to prompt considerations of a more practical nature. Conversations tend to be on the planning and don’t always consider the “Big Issues”.  You can see why most couples focus on practical considerations because they can seem like the most pressing at the time. While it is essential to thrash out these questions, what is most likely to help your relationship over the long-term is understanding your shared goals for your life, family, and career. How you prioritise these as a couple and support one another helps make sure that they stay visible throughout your parental journey. Having these conversations in advance of your baby’s arrival means there is a clear understanding from both sides; it can be easy to lose sight of each other as individuals, especially when the whirlwind of becoming a parent first occurs. These conversations with perhaps regular ‘check ins’ will help you empathise with each other and ensure the natural parenting haze doesn’t become so thick that you can’t see through it anymore. Think of it as a ‘Relationship MOT’ and make an evening of it – without the kids of course.  

An equal split of work and childcare might seem best, but it can be hard to achieve. Jennifer Petriglieri suggests that, instead of trying to keep an even “score,” dual-career couples are better off being relentlessly curious, communicative and proactive in making choices about combining their lives. 

Jennifer has interviewed over 100 couples globally to form a picture of how dual-career couples manage home with work life.  In this podcast, ECC Chief Executive, Geraldine Gallacher talks to Jennifer about what her research and 25 years of ECC’s experience has taught them about the conversations dual-career couples need to have with one another. We strongly recommend grabbing yourself a cuppa and having a listen – it is invaluable advice to help you to avoid the potholes you might not even see coming. 

Thinking Ahead: Parents to be Quiz

At ECC we’re proud to have worked with thousands of expectant parents over the years. Embarking on starting a family is an exciting time, but we’ve also learned the importance of having good communication about your work & family goals with your partner or support at home. Hence we’ve designed this quick quiz to kickstart honest conversations, and make this a habit earlier in the parenting journey – a change for good.

The idea is you and your partner complete it (it’s only 10 questions) separately and then share your answers over a cup of tea so you can discuss and explore them. Some of the questions require a forced choice (we wanted to spark a conversation!) but if you can’t answer it you can just explain why you missed it out.

Complete the Quiz