Striving for Work-Family Balance

In the youngest generation we know more about the wishes and expectations of future practice than about actual practices. The main bulk of the data stems from an age where none or only a minority had children of their own, and the analyses and conclusions about the practice of the youngest generation as adults will therefore be more preliminary than for the previous generations.[1] [2] Eight informants, however, were interviewed a third time in 2011, when they were approaching 40. These interviews indicate the changes in life from being 30 to being 40 and may also illuminate what life phases mean for attitudes to gender equality as a practical and political issue. These eight interviews at age 40 will be analysed separately in Chap. 8.

Among the young men there was a clear connection between the work division in the families they grew up in and what they anticipated for their own life when they were 18.11 The majority of them grew up with fathers who took part (to varying extents) in housework and childcare, and mothers who worked outside the family (part-time or full-time) from early on. At 18, these young men with participating fathers saw children and family as central and sometimes even the most important aspects of their imaginations about the future. They said they would like to stay at home themselves for a period of time with their future babies, and that the children later should attend full-time kindergarten.[3] They wanted to have enough time with their families. Vegard, who was cared for by his father when he was little, said:

I want a relaxed life where I can enjoy myself with my loved ones and understand, know them, the people around you. Both emotionally and things like that. I don’t want a family where everyone sort of runs in separate directions all the time ... Im not a male chauvinist or anything. I think it’s fine that the man cooks dinner at home and vacuums and so on. I don’t mind that. (Vegard, 18)

Trond, who had his father at home part-time, took into consideration that he needed some more skills in household work before he could move out from the parental home, and he saw these skills as essential for taking responsibility for himself:

I live at home now, so—I feel that I might get better at things like that once I move out and feel that I have to really do those things myself. Then you have to take responsibility for your own life, like, then you have to—then there’s nobody to bake bread for you, like, and you don’t get your meatballs automatically. (Trond, 18)

These young men also imagined their future spouses to be working and thought it would be unproblematic if she were more educated or made more money than them. When we met these men ten years later, they held the same views. Anders, the only father among them at that time, had taken the father’s quota of the parental leave; he had wanted to take more than the four weeks, but for economic reasons had to go back to work. The couple later divorced and now had shared custody. If he has another child, he wants a 50/50 share of the parental leave and the care— and not to get divorced. Henrik is at 30 a bit worried about the prospect of children because his wife comes from a country where it is unusual for fathers to stay at home and take care of housework and childcare. He says it will be him who will have to insist on sharing.

In contrast to the family-oriented men, the majority of the young men who had grown up in families with more traditional gender roles, where the father did not take much part in the housework and the mother stayed at home before the children attended school, did not include family and children as central in their plans for the future at 18 (Anders was an exception here—the fact that both of his parents were very old seems to have facilitated his recognition of their outdated gender arrangement, something that was less evident to men with younger gender traditional parents). In their visions of the future, the emphasis was on travelling, education, self-development and careers. They were either sceptical towards or had not yet seriously considered whether they wanted children or not. Rune said he would leave it to his future wife to decide. When asked directly, they had some reservations against the gender-equal vision of future family life. Paul admitted that even though both men and women lose out in traditional gender roles, it has also been a ‘very, very, very long tradition that women have stayed home and men have been out hunting’ and, thus, difficult to change overnight. They were not negative to the idea of sharing the work at home as long as their future wife was not a nag:

I mean, if I lived with someone, then it’s, one thing is that I did the dishes every other day, and changed diapers and stuff, but if she was to go around and, like, all the time say things like ‘Yes, now you’re doing the dishes because you’re a man, you’re supposed to do it too’, then I’d be annoyed, because then, then they make us feel guilty all the time. (Rune, 18)

Working wives and kindergarten for children were OK, but they had more reservations: it might be better for children to be taken care of at home during the first years—maybe they could do it themselves, but they had not really thought about it. They would not insist on taking a part of the parental leave if their wives wanted to have it all. They were prepared to share the housework—but if the wife were at home, it would be quite natural that she would take care of it, Morten said at 18 as well as at 30. It was also OK to a certain degree that the wife would earn more than them—as long as it did not make her aloof and they themselves were not expected to stay at home. Rune admitted, however, that ‘at the bottom of his soul he probably would feel like that would be a ‘small defeat. At 30 these men still retain much of the same attitude. Morten, who is expecting his first child at this point, plans to take the father’s quota, but otherwise he thinks his wife will take the role as the main caretaker. His wife has her own business and earns almost as much as he does. He himself now works as much as his father did, even though he was critical of this at 18. He does not want any conflicts regarding housework. Should any problems arise, he will take a practical approach, hiring someone to do the cleaning, for instance. In this case the division of work resembles the previous generation, but with some adaptation to the fact that the partner works and to the dominant discourse of work-life balance. In other cases there is more reverence of the discourse of gender equality in the family, but without the subjective conviction and desire of the men who themselves had fathers who had participated more in childcare and housework. At 30 Rune thinks that he had actually been doing most of the housework in his previous relationship, but he also adds ‘but I wasn’t pussy whipped! Paul also had a relationship that included cohabitation behind him when he was interviewed at 30. He had appreciated that his girlfriend had clear ideas about what constituted men’s work and what constituted women’s work because this meant that both could do what they liked the best. But in the long run he felt suffocated by her nesting. He anticipates problems with combining work and children: if he has a child in a new relationship, he imagines that he cannot continue in such a creative job as he has now. He says he feels split between not wanting to have a family and not wanting to be socially isolated.

The connection between attitudes to gender equality and the division of work in the families in which they grew up is less clear-cut for the women. A traditional division of work may rather boost the young women’s critique of their parents, and spur them on to wanting something different for themselves.[4] Anja made it clear that she did not want to marry someone like her own father, who is always busy at work: ‘if I ever get a husband and have children, I certainly hope that he too will take care of those children . Tonje also expected her future husband to be participating more because ‘times change’. Thus, it seems that the general discourse about gender equality has had a more independent impact on the girls, while the boys to a greater degree need a model in their own family of upbringing to get the point. All the young women wanted to combine family and job or career—only a few were unsure about whether they wanted children, and no one wanted to become a stay-at-home mum for an extended period of time. Whereas the middle generation chose education and jobs from the perspective of their future family lives, the youngest generation instead juggled how to fit a future family into the career they wanted. At 18 they struggled with getting these things to fit together in a much more specific way than the young men. Hilde described children as a kind of reward that comes after education, as something she ‘just has to treat herself to’. She said about the future: ‘I think my most concrete imaginings are on the family side, but it’s kind of on the career side I want the most.’ The working-class girl Line made detailed calculations:

Let’s say that I start my studies when Im 21 ... well, that’ll take three years, so then I’ll be 24 ... so then I’ll work for a year, then I’ll be 25, and then I can, then I can get a leave of absence ... and then ... and then I can have a kid. If we say one kid... well, I’ll be at home for a year, then I’ll be 26, then work for another year, or two years, say 28, then I can have another ... so I’ll be at home with them for about a year, then send them to kindergarten, then work. (Line,


Some of them simply concluded that the father would have to step in, but few wanted him to go so far as being a stay-at-home dad for an extended period of time. Also in this generation, social class appeared to influence the women’s wishes for their family life more than those of the men. At 18 some of the working-class girls felt attracted to the idea of staying at home for some years while their children are small, but said that it would depend on economy. They reacted positively to the idea of the father staying at home for a period of time, but had not really thought about it, and wondered whether he would be willing to do so. They thought housework ‘ought to’ be shared equally, but were not sure if it would happen. The working-class girl Kine said that the most important is that someone is at home when the child is young and that she ‘probably would demand that everything is to be shared equally . However, she might like herself to be the one to stay at home, at least for some years. The value of sharing housework and childcare was much more prominent among the middle-class girls; for them it was a requirement, not an ‘ought’ or a wish.

Their career orientation was also stronger. They did not want to have children until they had finished their travels and their education, and were established in a good job. Oda said that she ‘wouldn’t be happy without a job and Jenny plainly stated that she ‘wouldgo crazy by staying at home’. However, this was not without ambivalence, since they did want to have a family and believed one should spend time with one’s children, both because this was good for the children and because they would like to for their own sake (here we see some critique of the too-busy mothers of their own). Charlotte and Tonje, who grew up in families with a more traditional work division, were explicit about sharing the housework, but were still attracted to the idea of staying at home for some years when they have children. Tonje became a bit defensive about this when the interviewer followed this up with specific questions about how long she would be at home for if she had the three children she said she wanted: ‘it’s not like I’ll be a stay-at-home housewife, we’re talking the two first years, right, but after that I’ll be working full-time from eight till four, and then spend time with my children and family afterwards’. For most of the middle-class women at 18, the idea of staying at home for a period boiled down to wanting to take their share of the parental leave. They were more positive than the men towards the idea of being the main provider while the husband is taking care of the child. In contrast with their mothers, their career plans were not subordinated to their family plans—quite the opposite, in fact. But they were, to varying degrees, aware that problems might lie ahead.

At 30 all the women, apart from those who are on maternity leave or sick leave, are in full-time jobs. They are now all in favour of kindergartens and a very few of those who have children stayed at home beyond the maternity leave. Half of those who are married or cohabiting have a partner who has a lower level of education than their own, and only one has a partner with more education than herself (whereas the men’s partners are generally on the same educational level as themselves). Some of the women have experienced problems in being or earning more than their partner. Guro has a fiance who says that it does not matter to him that she makes more money than him—but he still has to bring it up all the time, which irritates her. Tonje also talks about a previous boyfriend who always needed to assert himself because she was a medical doctor. She found this difficult—‘it would’ve been easier had I been a nurse’. When we meet them at 30, three of them are on sick leave because of stress or being burnt out, a thing we do not find among the men interviewed at 30.[5] Those who do not have children mention that it is difficult to fit a potential parental leave into their career schedules. However, the most frequent reason for postponing having children is the fear of what they, consistent with modern feminist lingua, name ‘the gender trap, referring to experiences as well as research that indicate that gender equality in the family only lasts until the arrival of children (Kjeldstad and Lappegard 2009; Kitterod and Ronsen 2012). They discuss it with their partners, many of whom think it is time for children; they set terms and conditions, but still feel troubled by the prospect of losing freedom and control of their lives. Pia, who at 18 was one of the few who said that she would like to marry a stay-at-home dad, is now very aware of how income inequality plays its part in reproducing a traditional gender division in the family:

Im very happy that he and I earn the same amount, oh god! I’m happy about that! And I don’t want him to race ahead of me in salary. And had I known ten years ago what I know today, I might have thought more about money than I did when I chose my education. (Pia, 30)

Hilde, who like Henrik has a partner from another country, is also aware that she is the one who has to be careful not to jeopardise gender equality. They are discussing children now, and she will be very aware not to stay at home too long with the children in order not to form an eternal gender pattern . Tonje, who at 18 thought about staying at home for a couple of years with each child, does not think this will happen anymore because she has career ambitions. She is single now, but thinks that household tasks should be shared when people move in together. Considering ‘that’s what men are like today, she does not expect this to become a big issue.

Judged both by research (Holter and Aarseth 1993; Kjeldstad and Lappegard 2009; Hansen and Slagsvold 2012; Skrede and Wiik 2012) and by the eight young women[6] who already had children at 30, there are reasons to be troubled. Whereas most of the couples without children at 30 seem to share the housework rather equally, the general experience of those who had children is that gender equality at home was not so easy to put into practice as they had assumed. The middle-class girls Eva and Mari describe it as a major problem of male irresponsibility that has already led to divorces for both of them. They say that becoming mothers made them grow up and become responsible, but the same thing unfortunately did not happen to their partners. Those who are not divorced talk about their partners’ passivity or laziness as a bit annoying. It is especially the housework that falls too much on them. Stine, who did not care about gender equality much at 18, changed her mind after she got higher education and says that: ‘I cant wait for the day when he’ll be competent enough to actually get the vacuum cleaner when he sees those breadcrumbs and I don’t have to say anything. ’ However, some also admit that they find some aspects of the gendered work division nice, for instance, women who say that they appreciate having the partner take care of repairs and technical tasks.[7] Maybe the point is not so much doing exactly the same, but doing what one is best at, some of them wonder at 30.

The women with children are more content with their partners’ role as fathers than as housekeepers. Most of the men who were entitled to it took out their earmarked weeks of parental leave. Nobody has taken more than that, which the women wish they had done in order to bond earlier with the baby, but they still give their partners credit for being close and involved fathers. This also goes for those who were later divorced. The fathers have adhered to the agreed-upon system of visits and one has moved from another Nordic country in order to be closer to his child. Ida, who switched to working part-time after having two children, says that her husband is actually ‘a gentle man’ who leaves his job early and very punctually every day in order to be together with the children. However, there are also other reasons for her reduced hours. One is that she experienced that her ‘psychic landscape’ was totally changed when she became a mother; another was a new pregnancy that came quickly after the first child was born. Finally, she could not cope with the male culture in the profession she had chosen and became ill from stress:

I’m not tough enough to work in that business, Im not masculine enough, I’m not aggressive enough. You have to like your job more than you like your personal life. If I hadn’t had children I’d have happily jumped aboard. Very stupid—because where is the gender equality? (Ida, 30)

The general picture at 30 is that also in this generation it is the women who are in charge of both planning and performing a larger bulk of work and care in the home (see also Holter and Aarseth 1993; Holter et al. 2009). This presents a different picture from the one we saw for the family-oriented men in this generation, who see themselves as participating equally in housework and care. There may be different reasons for this discrepancy (apart from the obvious one that the stories we have from both parties are one-sided, as we do not have their partners’ views). One is that the men may be less aware of the housework done by their partners or that they disagree on its importance. The other is that the general level of expectation of equal sharing has probably increased compared with the previous generation. In this case it is possible that men actually do more, while women are still disappointed by their contribution.

  • [1] At 30, all informants had completed their secondary education, except for two of the working-class informants, Anders and Beate, who had made their way into the job market without formalqualifications. One man and eight women had children; two of the men were going to be fathersin the near future. Since we re-interviewed 19 of the 22 women and only six of the 12 men, thedifference in who had become parents may, in fact, be smaller. However, it may also reflect the agedifference between women and men in when they become parents for the first time. In 2000 inOslo it was at age 30—31 for women and age 33—34 for men (Statistics Norway, Statbank,Table 05530). At 40 we interviewed three men and five women and at this point in time all of themhad children.
  • [2] In a study of Nordic youth, 0ia (2011) found that boys with working mothers have a more positive attitude towards gender equality than other groups. Bjornholt (2015) found that caring fathersdo not automatically become models for their adult sons; it depends on the mother’s role in thefamily. In our sample, caring fathers seem to produce sons for whom caring relationships areimportant, but these men also have a positive relationship with their mothers, who they see ascompetent and with a life of her own outside the family.
  • [3] The father’s quota was not yet introduced when we interviewed them in 1991 (see Chap. 4).
  • [4] 0ia (2011) found that wheras a positive attitude to gender equality was part of a more generalradical political attitude for boys, girls were to a higher degree positive to gender equality independently on their political stand. It may be some of the same phenomena we see surface in oursample.
  • [5] Sick leave has been stable or decreasing for men since the 1970s, whereas it has been rising forwomen. In 2009 employed women’s sick leave was 60 per cent higher than men’s (NOU 15/2012).
  • [6] Four middle-class girls had their children before they had finished their studies, whereas three ofthe four working-class/lower middle-class girls who had children had waited until they had finishedtheir education and were working.
  • [7] Kjeldstad and Lappegard (2009) find that women are keener on sharing the ‘feminine’ or ‘neutral’parts of the housework than doing or sharing the ‘masculine’ housework. Men seem to be equallyhappy regardless of whether they share or do not share!
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