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How do Australian parents make work decisions after having a child, and what does it mean for policy?

20 March 2016

News and media


Academics studying household decisions over domestic labour have traditionally focused on two sets of factors: economic resources as well as gender roles. Do heterosexual couples make decisions about housework and childcare based on earnings, or are they primarily influenced by underlying beliefs about who should be doing each? In their new journal article, George Argyrous, Lyn Craig and Sara Rahman investigated the impact of earnings and gender role attitudes (as well as a range of other factors) on employment and childcare using Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) data.

The study is limited in many ways and the findings therefore need to be understood with these in mind. The data are from 2004, and the patterns of selection into work and childcare may have changed since then. But they are still worth analysing because we so rarely have a glimpse of key variables such as pay and work hours before and after the birth of the first child for such a large, nationally representative sample. And changes in gender roles in relation to work and childcare change only slowly so that the conclusions are likely to be still relevant today. What the study reveals about policies and tools that help mothers’ return to work and result in more egalitarian distributions of childcare are still relevant to the policy discussions around policies such as workplace flexibility, parental leave and childcare benefits.

The most significant finding is that the birth of the first child had a large impact on mothers’ paid work, but almost no impact on that of the fathers. Out of 752 mothers who were working before birth, 212 (23%) were not working at the time of the survey, compared to 19 out of 804 (2.3%) for fathers who were working before the birth of the child. A reason often given for this effect is that the mother earns less than the father and therefore it is economically ‘rational’ for the mother to drop out of the labour market, or at least reduce her work hours.

However (and contrary to this view) there was little change in work hours before and after the birth of the first child for all fathers. Regardless of their pre-birth education level, income level or income ratio relative to their female partner, new fathers of all stripes either did not change work hours at all, or else increased them slightly by 1-2 hours per week.

On the other hand, almost all mothers reduced their work hours, regardless of their relative financial position with respect to the father. Even women who were earning considerably more than their male partners reduced their work hours by an average of 17 hours per week. Their lower-earning partners, however, increased work hours by about 2 hours per week. This was actually a bigger fall in work hours than for women who were earning less than their partner before the birth of their first child.

Given that the work obligations of new fathers (at least as regards number of work hours) is fixed, the onus is on new mothers to either drop out of the workforce, or if they remain in the workforce, to cut back their hours. But new mothers did this to varying degrees. We therefore also looked at the factors that affected whether mothers remain in the workforce or not, and then for those that did, the factors that governed their fall in work hours.

To return to work, or to stay home?

Absolute pre-birth earnings of both partners, but not relative income, affect mothers’ decisions to return to work. The more a father earns, the less likely the mother will return to work, and when mothers earn more, they are more likely to go back to work after their first child. Mothers are also more likely to return to work if fathers have some degree of workplace flexibility and childcare is available to them.

Absolute earnings may be more important than relative earnings because the decision whether to work or not depends on the level of economic resources – whether the couple can afford external childcare (and if so, how much) or whether the family can survive on a single income – rather than a straightforward choice between one parent working and the other one taking care of children.

How many hours to work?

The decision to return to work is followed by a decision over how many hours to work. There were several intuitive results that we obtained from modelling this: mothers who worked more before having their first child also worked more hours after birth. Earning more after the child was born (post-birth earnings) also positively impacted work hours of new mothers. Additionally, external childcare enableed mothers to work more, with an extra hour of weekly childcare associated with an average of 15 minutes more work.

We found that mothers who changed employers after having their first child worked fewer hours. This might mean that women look for new workplaces if they are unable to obtain their desired level of flexibility at their current jobs – an important implication for businesses who intend to retain talented women who are also looking to have families.

A complementary finding is that mothers who had access to paid parental leave were found to work more hours after birth, suggesting that for some women being offered the chance to remain at their workplaces is a valuable one – not only do they continue with their employers, but they work more hours.

How much childcare?

New parents not only need to decide how the birth of their first child will impact their working life – they also have to decide who will change the nappies and feed the child! This decision is obviously affected by work-time decisions, but even so, there is also a degree to which childcare decisions are independent of work time.

We therefore also investigated the share of childcare undertaken by each partner, using very detailed time diary data from the survey. As with the amount of time each partner spent at work, pre-birth income did not impact on the childcare time undertaken by each parent, with the mother consistently doing much more than the father. Paid external childcare, however, reduces childcare for both mothers and fathers (more so for the mothers), suggesting that paid childcare is an important tool used by families to coordinate work and childcare time.

We also found that fathers’ employment status had a significant impact on the time they spend with their child, rather than their work hours as such. This might suggest that offering part-time work options to fathers can help increase the amount of childcare they do, and reduce the amount mothers do by more than only offering flexible hours.

Even so, we found that gender attitudes were important determinants of childcare – women with non-traditional gender attitudes performed less childcare and fathers with non-traditional gender attitudes performed more childcare.

Fathers who have workplace flexibility do more childcare, and their partners do less childcare. This coupled with the impact of gender role attitudes on childcare indicate that fathers too must be part of the policy discussion of work-life balance. Fathers’ perceptions of their roles, and the opportunities their workplaces make available to them are important in helping both parents achieve their desired work-life balance.

What does it all mean?

The inflexibility of new fathers’ work obligations seems to set the limits for mothers’ choices about work and childcare. Given that fathers do not reduce their work hours after the birth of the first child, the burden falls on the mother to balance her work and childcare obligations, either by exiting the labor force all together, or reducing work hours and combining other childcare options with her own childcare time. Changing the inflexibility of fathers’ work time would provide one more ‘degree of freedom’ for families to help adjust to the birth of their first child.

Factors that might increase the scope for fathers to reduce their work obligations include more than just parental leave or some degree of workplace flexibility. Norms around the acceptability of part-time work for new fathers also need to change.

We need more detailed information about why parents make their choices of work and childcare time. Were there mothers who were looking to work, but could not find employment with their desired number of hours, or work-life balance? Do fathers face discrimination and therefore are not able to adjust their working hours as flexibly as mothers can? These are questions worthy of further research and may have important implications for policy. Perhaps it is time for a Longitudinal Study of Australian Parents!

Based on Argyrous, G., Craig, L., & Rahman, S. (2016) The effect of a first born child on work and childcare time allocation: Pre-post analysis of Australian couplesSocial Indicators Research, doi 10.1007/s11205-016-1278-5.