Balancing family tasks and work have been a harder adjustment for dads than for moms during the COVID-19 pandemic, which sent children and often parents home to quarantine. But the guys have stepped up the work they do around the house, including helping with the kids.

They may not be helping quite as much as they think, though.

Assessment of how equitably chores are divided or how well they’re accomplished is a “he said/she said” tale, according to findings of the latest American Family Survey, released Tuesday in Washington, D.C., by the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

While parents agree their children do just under 20% of household tasks, on average, men say they share the rest of the tasks about 50-50 with their wives. The wives say men are helping more than they were, but it’s more like a 65-35 split and the women are still doing the lion(ess)’s share of housework.

Nor are they equally satisfied with the quality of their partner’s efforts. Men say the wife and kids do well, but women believe husbands and children could try harder.

The American Family Survey, now in its sixth year, is an annual nationally representative study that looks at how families live, love and prosper or flail amid current events. This year, YouGov fielded the survey of 3,000 adults July 3-14, partway between the pandemic’s start and the presidential election. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.9%.

Forced home schooling and household chores have taken a toll on the men. Like their wives, they said they felt better about children’s well-being because schools closed and sent kids home, but 40% of husbands struggled to balance home and work life, versus 31% of women. A comparable 4 in 10 men said they struggled being home with the children, compared to one-quarter of women.

Fathers also were more apt to say they felt like they were failing as parents, compared to mothers (32% to 22%) and that their children have become more difficult (31% to 19%).

Thayne and Brooke Martin prepare dinner for their family in Draper on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Sharing the load

That women believe they’re doing a greater share of the work is nothing new, experts told the Deseret News. Other surveys find the same. But since parents in this survey agree how much the kids do, disagreement is within the relationship, “not a feature of women simply systematically giving less credit to the work of others, or of men systematically underestimating the work of others,” write Christopher F. Karpowitz and Jeremy C. Pope, co-directors of the center at BYU and co-authors of the survey report.

Thayne and Brooke Martin of Draper, Utah, have been sharing chores in a way that makes sense for their family since they married 15 years ago. Thayne, who works in human resources for a technology company, usually cooks. He likes it. But it also makes sense because Brooke, a client services executive, has traveled a lot for work. 

He calls theirs a “second try” marriage for both. Her two oldest children are grown, but she and Thayne have two kids at home, ages 12 and 14. The children do the dishes, their Saturday chores and their own laundry. 

Before they married, Thayne lived alone and was used to cooking for himself and cleaning, so it wasn’t a big adjustment. But the pandemic has created more housework for everyone.

Heather Waite Grover said she and her husband Tony started splitting weekday chores more evenly than before when they both worked from home during quarantine. Attorneys, they have four daughters, ages 5, 7, 10 and 12. He’s at a private law firm full time and she recently joined one, after working part time for the government during quarantine.

“My husband had been good about cleaning, cooking and yard work, etc., on the weekends,” she said. “But the pandemic was the first time he cooked dinner on a week night since we had kids. It was also the first time I could do my part-time job without getting interrupted by kids’ phone calls, babysitter texts, friends asking for play dates with my kids — all because my husband volunteered to be the go-to parent on those two days. Getting back commuting time, plus all the time driving kids to and from activities (which is our choice but still take time) eased so many things.”

She said the couple took walks together almost every night. And now that quarantine is over, he has volunteered to work from home one day a week and do dinner and kid chauffeuring.

Brooke Martin wipes down a mirrored tray at her home in Draper on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Somewhere in-between

Richard Petts, a Ball State University sociologist, has learned from his own research how differently men and women view men’s household contributions.

“Everybody overthinks what they do — not just housework. Reality is somewhere in the middle,” he said.

He wonders if those perceptions in the pandemic, though, are also influenced by things that don’t show up in surveys.

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“I’m thinking about the additional stress and worry that has come with managing kids and balancing family and work during the pandemic. Worrying. Are my kids OK? Is their education OK? Are they falling behind? Are they getting enough social interaction? Are they getting any social interaction? This is the kind of stuff women disproportionately do,” he said. 

“Men are doing more than usual of the tangible everyday stuff we can see and visualize. But there’s so much more emotional work going on, too.”

Though it’s certainly not true in all families, women have generally taken care of sick kids, scheduled their appointments and filled in when daycare falls through, often while juggling work.

With the pandemic, Petts said, more men are home, working with interruptions, noise and “all these sorts of things that men by and large aren’t used to. My sense is that work-family balance has gotten worse for everybody, but it’s more new to men than women.” 

Men are realizing that taking care of kids and home while working is really hard, he said.

And doing it well may be harder. Pope said the disagreement about the quality of the work men and children do may stem from women having higher standards for household chores, as other research suggests.

Shifts in cultural expectations and paternal desire already had men on the path of doing more with the kids and at home. Most dads don’t go to work, come home, play with the kids for 20 minutes and call it good. They’re more involved, he said.

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But the pandemic brought it to a new level with so many men working from home. Adding to the stress are work expectations, created by new technology, that employees respond to email or do tasks that weren’t previously possible if one had left the office.

“It makes it real hard to balance things,” said Petts.

Maureen Perry-Jenkins believes men have been able to silo their jobs from their home life better than women. When men are home, women probably expect them to do more, said Perry-Jenkins, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Research on Families at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

“I do think men are absolutely doing more,” she said, expressing wonder about stress levels the pandemic has caused couples.

Balancing act

That more men say they’re struggling doesn’t mean women don’t have a difficult time with work-life balance, too, said Karpowitz. “I think it means men are more willing to tell us they are. There could be 100 reasons.”

He said it’s possible social norms affect women’s willingness to disclose their feelings, since women have long been expected to manage the house. Karpowitz refers to a “double bind” women often feel: “They don’t feel that the division of labor is optimal, but they also may not feel that they are able to fully disclose how hard it is on them since women have been expected to manage the house.”

There’s a lot to learn about work on the home front and how families cope. “My guess is the next time we do this survey, we’ll still be very much dealing with the effects of COVID-19 in one way or another,” said Karpowitz. “It will be interesting to ask parents again to assess how they’re doing.” 

What this and other surveys with similar findings can’t say, according to Pope and Petts, is whose assessment is closest to the truth.

The complete American Family Survey and that from former years are online at deseret.com/american-family-survey.