Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1998-1999 index

Distributed March 15, 1999
Contact: Kristen Lans

Men have work to do

Unequal share of housework causes depression in women, study says

Working women and homemakers alike are depressed when their husbands don't share the housework, says a study of 1,256 adults in the March Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- If only husbands vowed "to have, to hold and to share the housework" in marriage, their wives would be less depressed, according to a new study by a Brown University sociologist.

Working women say their ideal share of housework is 46 percent with their husbands doing an equal share; for homemakers, that figure is 80 percent with their husbands doing the rest, says Chloe E. Bird, assistant professor of community health and sociology, in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Performing housework beyond those levels leads to anxiety, demoralization, depression and worry.

"Everybody benefits from sharing the housework," said Bird. "Even for women keeping house, a shared division of labor is important. If you decide to stay at home to raise the children, you don't want to become the scullery maid."

In her study of 1,256 people between the ages of 18 and 65, men pitched in about the same amount regardless of whether wives worked outside the home or were full-time homemakers. Married men reported performing 37 percent of the household labor, and women almost twice as much - more than 70 percent. There has been little or no increase in men's contribution to housework during the last two decades despite substantially increased participation of women in the labor force.

Instead of having someone to share the work with, marriage causes housework to increase significantly for women, according to the study. Married women performed 14 hours more housework each week than their single counterparts. By comparison, married men performed only 90 minutes more. Because the amount of time men spent on housework did not increase as substantially as the amount of time for women, men performed a much smaller share of the work for a married couple.

Housework can cause distress because it offers less recognition, less likelihood of being thanked and lower levels of work fulfillment than paid work, said Bird. In this study, housework was defined as cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry, washing dishes, doing repairs, paying bills, making arrangements and caring for children.

Additionally, distress over household labor for working women may stem from feeling overloaded between work and home. Distress for homemakers may stem from the reality that they are frequently staying home only on a temporary basis nowadays - while raising children - and want to maintain a team approach to the marriage, Bird said.

Men could perform an equal share of the housework without becoming depressed because the least distressed people overall are those performing an equitable share, Bird said. Although it is uncommon for men to do the vast majority of household labor, she found men are as depressed as women by performing an inequitably large share of household labor.

The share of housework performed by each spouse was much more important to a couple's psychological well-being than the actual number of hours each contributed. The study did not find a specific number of hours of housework that led to depression, reflecting the fact that households vary in the amount of work that is required. For example, a house with a dog, a big yard and three children requires more time to maintain than a city apartment inhabited by a couple without children or pets.

The study excluded men and women who were unemployed because of a disability or unemployed but looking for work, because depression about housework might be elevated by those factors. The study used information provided by only one member of the couple. Ideally, a future study would include reports from both spouses, said Bird.

Bird used data collected in 1990 and 1994 by the National Opinion Research Council. Her study was funded by a grant from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health.