By many measures, sociologists agree, progress toward gender equality in America has stalled. The male-female wage gap hasn't moved much in years, and women still do the bulk of housework. The big exception is in the domain of child care.
In the 1960s, mothers were spending four times as many hours on child care as fathers. That gap has narrowed gradually over the years, with mothers now spending less than twice as much time on child care as their partners — and that's made for happier relationships. What if men did even more? Would having a country full of stay-at-home dads make things even better for couples?
Not necessarily, researchers say.
In a study of 487 heterosexual couples, Daniel L. Carlson, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University, and two graduate students found that the closer couples got to a 50-50 split on child care the higher their satisfaction with their relationship and the better their sex lives, as measured in terms of frequency per month and the reported quality of the sex.
The study is interesting because research in the past has shown that splitting child care in this way was linked to more tension in relationships. This suggests, the researchers wrote, "a reversal in the consequences of egalitarianism over time from negative to positive."
"This is a major finding, which we think speaks to the state of hegemonic masculinity and the patriarchal dividend in the United States," they said.
The study, based on data from the 2006 Marital and Relationship Survey (MARS), was presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.
"One of the most important findings is that the only childcare arrangement that appears really problematic for the quality of both a couple's relationship and sex life is when the woman does most or all of the childcare," Carlson said in a statement.
On the other hand, when men provided most or all of the care, men's and women's perspectives were split. Men reported the lowest quality of sex lives in the study, while the women who were their partners reported the highest-quality sex lives. Why? The researchers weren't sure.
"[W]hile the benefits of men's childcare performance increase arithmetically for women, full responsibility for childcare has at least some negative consequences for men's sexual satisfaction," Carlson and his colleagues wrote.