Role reversal - How do couples make the decision?
Families and households have changed massively over the past decades. Alongside these changes, some couples are arranging work and family roles non-normatively, with the father assuming primary responsibility for childcare and the mother bearing primary responsibility for breadwinning. Because these family arrangements are so recent and rare, little is known about the circumstances and considerations that lead to the allocation of family roles
Following on from our previous research – who does what when couples swap roles? – we wondered how couples come to the decision to reverse their roles. Do they consciously choose their division of roles, or does it happen out of necessity?
My co-authors (Dr Ruth Gaunt and Prof Harriet Gross) decided to compare 'non-traditional' couples with traditional couples (a primary caregiving mother and a breadwinning father) in order to better understand role reversed couples’ decision process.
We found that main caregivers – mothers and fathers alike – were more satisfied with their division of roles than breadwinning mothers and fathers, and were less likely to feel pressured into entering the caregiving role. This tells us that the majority of caregiving fathers intentionally choose their non-normative family role rather than being forced into it.
How do parents describe the reasons that led them to their division of roles?
Our results showed that families’ transition to role-reversed arrangements appears to be based mostly on work circumstances and external factors, whilst down-playing gender-based considerations and traditional normative portrayal of motherhood and fatherhood. This is in contrast with traditional parents – especially caregiving mothers – who make their decision based on the belief that women are fitter for caregiving, and possess a superior ability to respond appropriately to the child’s needs. Traditional parents appear to assume that men and women are born with different predispositions for different roles, and this belief seems to guide their division of roles and influence their involvement in childcare.
To what extent are role-reversed parents satisfied with their division of roles?
Preferences for the future were similar across both family arrangements: breadwinners (mothers and fathers) wished to work less, and caregivers (mothers and fathers) expressed the same wish for their partners. That is, regardless of gender, both main caregivers and breadwinners desired to reduce breadwinners’ work hours.
Dr Mariana Pinho, Research Fellow
Eleanor Glanville Centre
 Pinho, M., Gaunt, R. & Gross, H. (2021). Caregiving Dads, Breadwinning Mums: Pathways to the Division of Family Roles Among Role-Reversed and Traditional Parents. Marriage and Family Review, 57(4), 346-374.
Mariana Pinho is a Research Fellow at the Eleanor Glanville Centre (EGC). She holds a PhD in Psychology and her research interests include social psychology of gender, work and family and equality, diversity and inclusion.
Ruth Gaunt is an Associate Professor in Social Psychology at the University of Lincoln, UK. She received her PhD in Psychology at Tel-Aviv University, and has held post-doctoral fellowships at both University of Louvain and Harvard University, and the Marie Curie Fellowship at University of Cambridge. Her research applies a social psychological approach to the study of gender, families and employment.
Harriet Gross is a Professor of Psychology (retired). Her research has focused on examining the lived experience of men and women across the lifespan using mixed-method approaches.