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Dual Earner Parents Strategies for Reconciling Work and Care in Seven European countries

Pamela Abbott, Corinne Nativel et Claire Wallace
p. 73-97


Women with young children are increasingly employed full time across the whole EU, including those countries where it was not traditional. This makes the management of work and care a major concern for dual earner households throughout Europe.  In this paper we identify five main household work strategies: shift working, flexible working, informal care arrangements, formal care arrangements and self-sufficiency by examining the narrative accounts of parents in seven countries (Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal and the UK). These strategies are spread across most countries, irrespective of policies and cultures, but there are systematic variations within countries. Although fathers are more involved in childcare than in the past, the extent of fathers’ involvement in the domestic sphere was limited. In dual earner households, mothers take on full-time paid employment while remaining responsible for the bulk of child care and domestic duties.

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1First the Lisbon Agenda, now the EU 2020 Strategy and other European policy initiatives,  as well as the OECD, have encouraged the move to continuous employment for women (Council of the European Union 2002), leading to an  increase in the number of dual earner families with young children (Lewis 2002).  The erosion of  the previously dominant male breadwinner model has brought  potential  tensions between work and care  (Crompton; Lyonette, Crompton and Wall). Although the dual earner family with young children is a relatively recent arrival in some countries and is still more common in some parts of Europe than others, their spread means that the reconciliation of work and care has now become one of the main challenges confronting families across the whole of Europe. This paper examines how mothers and fathers in dual-earner households go about combining unpaid domestic work and child care obligations with paid employment. It draws on narratives from mothers and fathers in 28 dual-earner  families to identify  and analyse the strategies they use in seven EU countries, representing different Western European welfare and care regimes (Austria, Italy, Portugal, Denmark and UK) and two former communist countries (Hungary and Poland). These couples represent families with potentially the most pressures upon them in combining paid and unpaid work (Bittman and Wajcman 2004).  The paper seeks to understand how they combine resources through household strategies and whether institutional and cultural arrangements make any difference to these strategies, as has been claimed (Pfau-Effinger 2004), how this affects the role of fathers and whether there are significant variations between types of families.

2According to OECD studies the numbers of women in employment with children below the age of 16 has been rising (OECD). The proportions tend to vary between countries depending on the availability of support for working parents (Bielienski and Hartmann), however, there is evidence that more mothers would like to be in employment than actually manage it (Haas et al. 2008; O"Reilly et al. 2008). Table 1 shows that there are large numbers of mothers in employment, even those with children below the age of 6. Around two thirds of mothers with children below the age of 16 were working in Austria and Portugal in 2005 and 61.7 per cent in the UK.  In Italy, Hungary and Portugal, this drops to below half, whilst Denmark has the highest maternal employment rate at 76.5 per cent. This rises in most countries when the children reach school age, except in Italy where rates remain below 50 per cent. We should bear in mind that mothers in some countries are more likely to work part-time rather than full-time, but in this paper we concentrate upon full time working mothers who are living with full time working men (the definition of full-time work is more than 30 hours per week). Therefore, by dual earner we are referring to dual full-time earners.

Table 1. Maternal employment rates, women aged 15-64, per cent 2005.


With children aged 0-16

With children aged 6-16





















Source: OECD, 2007.

3The diversity of welfare regimes across Europe is assumed to result in different patterns of combining work and childcare, some having more family-friendly policies than others (Fine-Davis et al). There are a number of ways in which work, care and welfare regimes can be framed for purposes of comparison (O"Reilly).  The countries selected for analysis exemplify a range of gender and welfare regimes (Daly and Rake; Esping-Andersen 1990; Haas 2003; Lewis 1992; Pfau-Effinger 2005)  In Denmark, as one of the Nordic countries, there has been a tradition of full employment for mothers and extensive state childcare provision to support this (Boje and Leira). Austria represent countries  where mothers are expected to be full-time carers and where this role is institutionalised through the welfare state.  Italy represents Southern European models where women traditionally gave up work to have children and where support came from the family rather than the state (Bonoli; Hank and Buber). Portugal is also a Southern European country with little state provision, but one where women mothers tend to work full time after having children.  In both post-communist countries (Hungary and Poland) there has been a tradition of women and men working full time, although institutional support has been eroded in the last twenty years, leading to the emergence of  more traditional female caring roles (Author A) and in  Hungary this was encouraged by benefits targeted at women to stay at home until the child is three (Kollo and Scharle). In the UK part time employment has been a common way for mothers to reconcile work and family in the context of a formerly strong male-breadwinner society (Haas et al. 2008).  In the UK, the traditional lack of child care facilities has recently been mitigated by policies since the end of the 1990s, but there is still a shortfall compared to other countries such as Denmark and UK childcare is some of the most expensive in Europe (Gstrein, Mateeva and Schuh).

4While EU  member states have sought to pursue a wide range of policies, they have all encouraged increased female participation in the labour market (Lewis, Campbell and Huerta). Dual labour market participation may be facilitated by the couple themselves (sharing of childcare and domestic work), firms (family friendly policies), by state policies and social services and by social resources (help from family, friends and neighbours) and the ability to purchase substitute care and domestic labour (Forsberg). Mothers" participation rates are influenced by a combination of material and cultural factors, employment opportunities and economic pressures. These structural and cultural factors are critical in enabling them not only to fulfil their multiple obligations but also to achieve what they perceive as an acceptable quality of life (Fine-Davis et al; Malinen et al). We would therefore expect to find different work and care strategies in different countries as couples combine the resources available within a prevailing value system in "adaptive" strategies  (Haddock et al.; Wallace 2002; Wierda-Boer et al. 2009; Wierda-Boer et al. 2008).  

Fathers in the Gendered Division of Labour

5The pressure for managing work and care in dual earner families throws a new light on fathers. If mothers are spending more time in the labour market, are fathers compensating by helping more with children and housework?   A number of studies argue that men are spending more time with children. For example, Bittman (2004) drawing upon time use surveys in Australia argues that the amount of time fathers of pre-school age children  spend with their families has doubled since 1974 and Gershuny (2000) has argued for the increasing participation of men in the household in a British context, also based upon time-use surveys.  However, he uses the argument of "lagged adaptation" to explain  the distance between changes in the labour market and changes in the domestic division of labour. Others have suggested that the new generation of fathers no longer see their roles in normative traditional terms and that they have more open attitudes to helping with childcare (Brannen, Moss and Mooney) or that the pedagogical demands of modern child rearing require more input from fathers (Trifiletti, Gusmano and Salmieri).  Fathers are increasingly likely to want to participate in the rearing of their children (Baldock and Hadlow) and there are paternal leave policies at EU level to encourage them to do so, although  few fathers take them up (Windebank).   This leads us to ask: what kinds of roles do fathers take on in dual earner families and how does it compare with the work done by women?

6There is a significant body of research on how European families combine paid work and care, much of it based on the analysis of large data sets and limited to Western Europe. It points to the underlying tensions, conflicts and anxiety experienced by parents leading to either lack of time for  family due to work obligations putting family life at risk, or more infrequently, family impinging upon work (Nazio and MacInnes).  These tensions may be becoming more intense as institutions become "greedy" for people’s time and commitments  (Brandth and Kvande) and this could well be further intensified in the context of a recession (Sweet, Moen and Meiksins). Studies have shown that family obligations diminish individual career prospects, level of income and pensions for women (Knijn and Smit). There is some evidence of a "care squeeze" as mothers work longer hours (Lewis et al 2008) although parents may draw upon a range of strategies to cope with this (Forsberg; Haddock et al. 2006).

7We now turn to identifying and comparing the strategies used by dual-earner parents as they combine their duties as full-time workers with their responsibilities for childcare and domestic work. We add new insights both in terms of focus and method, firstly by looking at dual-worker parents in seven countries representing different workcare regimes and secondly by looking at the accounts of both parents, since we need to see household strategies as part of a domestic unit and not just the province of one person, which is the unit of analysis in many studies.


8The seven countries selected were those that represented contrasting cultures of work and care as well as work and care policies (Wallace 2009).   In these countries, interviews with a purposive sample were carried out – 15  households in each country with children of whom at least one should be below the age of 12, equally divided according to the three household types (male breadwinner, dual earner and single parent). A coding frame was agreed for this sample representing the various categories that the research aimed to target and then it was left to the interviewers to find the most appropriate match.  In fact, many more were interviewed than were found in the final sample because only the best examples were translated into English for further analysis. Both partners in the household were interviewed in depth separately and they were selected by household composition in terms of patterns of gender, household type and educational level (divided roughly according to higher (with Higher Education), medium and low educated (basic level of education for the country). The interviewers aimed to find a sample of male breadwinner households (where the household were dependent upon a male full time breadwinner with the female partner not working or working only part time), dual earner households (where both partners were working full time) and single parent families, where only one partner was present (in most cases this was the mother).  These combinations were not necessarily typical for all countries - for example, in Austria it was difficult to find dual earner families with small children and in Denmark it was difficult to find male breadwinner households, but the purpose was to contrast different family types in different European regions.  The aim of the purposive sample was not to find a representative sample (since a small sample cannot be representative anyway) but rather to find examples of the analytical categories that we were targeting.

9The family types were chosen because of the elaboration of these types in the sociological literature (see Lewis 1992; 2002). Hence, single parents could be compared across the different countries, dual earner households and so on.  Interviews were conducted by the research partners in the respective countries and compared and discussed within the entire research team. All interviews were fully transcribed, but the interviews from 9 households in each country were also translated in full into English to enable comparative analysis (partners were asked to select the best interviews,  given the costs of translating all interviews fully). These interviews were coded using the NVivo coding frame. A fuller report of the results and methodology can be found under  (reference withheld). Interviews were based on an agenda agreed by the project partners and carried out in the language of the informants by trained interviewers. Each partner was interviewed separately, which enables us to be able to compare their responses (except in Hungary). The agenda covered current and past paid employment and childcare arrangements, responsibility for domestic work, their perceptions of individual, family and state responsibilities as well as satisfaction with their workcare arrangements. The transcripts were anonymised, fully transcribed and translated into English. All names are fictitious.

10The case studies selected for this paper were the dual earner families where both partners were working full-time, counted as at least 30 hours per week because of variations in what counts as "part time" across Europe. Respondents were aged between 30 and 50, 17 couples had two children, seven had one child, three had three children and one four.  Children were aged between six months and 12 years but only nine families (2 in Denmark, Italy and Poland and the UK and 1 in Portugal had a child less than 3 years) with two of these (both Danish) having only children less than three. The socio-occupational status of respondents, ranged from manual and sales to top level management and professional occupations. Some had secure employment others were self-employed or on temporary contracts. Half (28 informants) were graduates; in 10 couples both had degrees and in eight graduate mothers were married to non-graduates. In 21 of the families both parents were employed in jobs in the same occupational class (5 professional and managerial, 10 intermediate and 6 working -class).  Five wives in intermediate jobs were married to working class men and one professional to an intermediate man, with one intermediate man having a working class wife.

11The analysis proceeded by creating charts through which interview data was classified, following the “framework” approach  (Ritchie and Spencer).  In particular, we focused upon the use of formal day care, paid care (for example a nanny), paid occasional care (for example a babysitter), informal occasional care (for example relatives and friends) and emergency care in case of a crisis. Based upon these classifications we went on to identify five main strategies by which parents combined these resources.   In this paper we look at the care policies entirely from the point of view of these actors and the extent to which they used different sources of care.  For each strategy a case study family was identified to illustrate the strategy.  

Strategies for Combining Work and Care

12We identify five main strategies used by parents.  They include strategies identified among middle class households elsewhere, but we have classified them into a typology according to which strategy was predominant (Haddock et al. 2006). These were: shift working, flexible working, reliance mainly on formal care, reliance mainly on informal care and self-sufficiency.

Shift working

13In this strategy, parents work different shifts so that one is generally available to look after the children (used by four couples). This strategy involved the de-synchronisation of care. Couples using this strategy were found in Austria, Poland, Italy and the UK, but it was not a dominant strategy in any particular country. All of the countries, however, are ones with insufficient formal child care provision for children under three and in the case of Austria school finishes at midday meaning that it is difficult for both parents to work full time.

 I work in the mornings, and my wife works in the afternoons and evenings. We take care of the children by taking over from each other and we can both build our careers (Father, Denmark). 

My partner works days so I look after them during the day and then I work nights (Mother, UK).

14Shift work enables the parents to care for children as a couple without having to resort to outside help. Although allegedly more common in the UK due to the prevalence of women working and the lack of childcare facilities (Letablier),  this strategy was also found in other countries. Whilst it was an economical method of managing work and care, the implications for the quality of family life are not good – parents might hardly see each other and this can cause other strains family relationships.

We have tried to work by turns so that our daughter was not in the kindergarten for so long but that resulted in us not seeing each other very much, which in  the end has made us argue about  family obligations (Mother, Denmark).

15Also it may limit one or both parents" opportunities for promotion or a change of employer. One UK respondent, for example, told us that he had turned down promotion because he would not reliably be available to look after the children in the evenings while his partner worked if he accepted the promoted post.

Case Study: Shift working

 Nunzia and Massimo from Italy provide an example of a couple who combine work and care by working different shifts. They are both police officers which means that they can organise their shifts with the same employer. They have two children now ages 7 and 10 years but both worked full-time when the children were younger. Massimo has had promotion but Nunzia, who is a university graduate, has put her  career ambitions on hold while the children are young. They have very occasional help from grandparents with childcare but generally manage to cover themselves for both routine and emergency childcare. Massimo helps with childcare and the shopping but not with housework or cooking.

Flexible working

16In this strategy,  the jobs that one or both parents have enables them to ensure adequate child care cover because either they are able to work flexibly or because they are self-employed (used by nine couples).  In some cases mothers or fathers sought flexible employment in order to manage work and care and in some cases one or both of them became self-employed for the same reason. However, as Perrons (2006) has pointed out, this can have deleterious consequences for careers and earnings in the long term (especially since it is usually women who take the precarious employment).

17A male Hungarian doctor explains how his wife who is a self-employed IT consultant can work at home:

She works as a consultant on the computers. She has an intellectual occupation and has arranged motherhood and career very well. This is a lucky situation and a lucky job selection. (Father, Hungary)

18While a female engineer from the UK explains how flexibility hours can enable work and care to be scheduled:

We are quite lucky actually because we are both engineers and our times are quite flexible. It’s not like if we were working in a shop …the shop opens at nine you have to be there. If I am in at half past nine doesn’t matter, I will just work my lunch break or I will work a little bit late. (Mother, UK)

19In Poland, this kind of flexibility was managed by the mother working in the public sector, where hours were shorter and more predictable (although pay was lower) and the father working in the private sector which was more precarious but better rewarded.

20This strategy was found in all countries and was the most common strategy across our sample, involving the adaptation of working life to family life.

Case Study: Flexible working

Natalia and Carlos from Portugal exemplify parents who are able to work flexibly. Carlos is a self-employed draftsperson and can work at home. Natalia works in adult education and can also be somewhat flexible.  They have two children aged 4 and 7 years. They have occasional help from relatives but generally the father is responsible for routine and emergency childcare. Carlos also shares responsibility for housework and cooking, one of the few fathers to do so.

Reliance on formal care  

21In this strategy the hours that formal care institutions are open meets the needs of  the working parents and/or carers are employed to work in the family home (used by seven couples). It was most commonly found in countries where extensive care policies were available to parents (Denmark) or amongst families who could afford to pay for day care. Formal care could also take the form of a nanny or childminder – more accessible to wealthier families.

Case Study: Formal Care

Pat and Doug from the UK exemplify parents who rely on formal care – in this case a nursery. They have two children ages two and three years and are both employed as engineers.  Doug usually takes the children to and collects them from the nursery and Pat is able to take parental leave in an emergency. Doug helps with the hovering.

Informal care networks

22In this strategy,  parents are able to draw on a network of informal carers, generally grandparents with whom they share a family home or who live in close proximity (used by six couples).  This arrangement was found only in Southern and Eastern European countries in our sample, where cohabitation is more common and family help a more established tradition. The availability of grandparents was an important part of this strategy.

Case Study: informal care networks

Beta and Grzegorz from Poland exemplify parents who use an informal network of relatives and friends. Beta is employed as a dressmaker and Grzegorz as a baker and they have two children aged five and nine years.  They live in an extended family and routine support with childcare is provided by Beta"s mother and sister. Neighbours are also called on regularly. In an emergency Beta"s mother generally looks after the children but Beta has taken parental leave occasionally. Grzegorz occasionally helps with childcare and regularly helps with cooking, dishwashing and cleaning.

23However, reliance on kin could also have drawbacks in terms of obligations and moral debt as this UK mother explains:

I know through experience of friends who are putting their kids with grandparents and aunties and things like that...they get resented for being there because the parents are always out having fun and they are having to look after their children sort of we don’t want to put our family in a situation where they feel they have to look after them while we are away having some fun (Mother UK).


24In this strategy parents generally considered the  children old enough to go home from school on their own and look after themselves until they returned from work without any need to resort to additional help (two couples). This was only possible where children were old enough.

Case Study: self reliance

Gabriele and Felix from Austria exemplify parents who are self-reliant. They have one child aged 12 years. Felix takes the child to school in the morning but after school the child goes home and waits for the parents to return. They have very occasional help from a grandmother and say that there is no one to help in an emergency. They are uncertain what they would do if the child was sick and could not go to school. Felix helps with the shopping and hoovering.

25Most parents used a combination of strategies including flexible working, parental leave (most frequently taken by the mother) and calling on relatives. A small number of parents appeared to have no contingency plans in place for emergencies and just hoped they would not happen. Employers" attitudes and understanding towards parental responsibilities allowing them to take parental leave, giving discretionary time off in emergency situations, or allowing a margin of time for late arrival and early departure were major enabling factors. Having relatives, especially grandparents who were healthy and live close by was also important. Parents rarely used substitute care to enable them to pursue leisure activities without their children, but when they did they generally called on relatives, infrequently on friends/neighbours and occasionally on paid babysitters. Clearly, parents used a variety of strategies that might involve mixtures of formal or informal care, and these strategies would change if there was a change of job, if children grew older, if they moved away from relatives and so on.

Contextual Differences

26There is no doubt that the above strategies are informed by a set of institutional and policy measures available through the state, the firm and the family as well as by a set of values and beliefs which may be culturally-driven and thus country-specific (Pfau-Effinger, 2005)  In particular, the Nordic welfare states not only provide extensive child care facilities enabling women to work full-time, but also seem to foster a spirit of egalitarianism (Brandth and Kvande; Crompton and Birkelund).   In such a small purposive sample it would be dangerous to generalise to countries but rather we see the strategies as ideal-types of the ways in which it is possible for dual-earner parents to combine paid employment with responsibilities in the domestic sphere. These types were found across a range of different countries, which implies that dual earner families with children need to confront the same problems across Europe with a limited range of strategies for them to use.   Nevertheless, it is evident that predominantly informal care strategies were found mainly in Italy, Poland and Hungary where extended families are more common. Shift work was found in  a variety of gender and welfare regimes - Austria, Italy, Poland and the UK- but flexible working was the most common strategy across European countries. Formal care provision  was found most often in Denmark with the most extensive child care policy, but also in Hungary, Austria, Portugal and the UK.

27Table 2 illustrates the different work-care strategies carried out by different households in the target countries. It can be seen that whilst Danes relied more on formal care services (because there was more of it) and Poles and Italians relied more on informal services (countries where extended families are strong), examples of strategies were found across a range of different contexts, more evenly than we would have supposed.

Table 2. Work-care strategies by country








Shift work





Flexible working







Formal childcare






Informal childcare







28Country does matter but there are commonalities across countries with occupation, access to formal care and the ability to draw on informal carers being the major determinants of the strategies adopted.  This conclusion is supported by other studies, using larger data sets, which conclude that although societal context has an influence, it is weak one (Crompton, Brockman and Lyonette; Steiber). Even in Nordic countries, it is difficult for couples to genuinely combine two careers (Crompton and Birkelund).

Social Class Differences

29Social class affected the kinds of strategies that households were able to use. Middle class, especially professional and managerial  families, were more easily able to negotiate flexible employment strategies with their employers and indeed worked in the kinds of jobs  were it was possible to work flexibly. Clearly, it is easier to work flexibly or from home if one is a university lecturer than if one is working in a supermarket.  However, other studies have found that flexible working schedules produced more stress for parents than regular ones (Strazdins et al. ). The important factor here is the extent to which parents are able to control the flexibility of their working lives and therefore mould them around childcare needs and this was more common in middle class jobs.

30In addition, middle class families were more easily able to buy formal care where they needed it, either by using nurseries, or hiring an au pair or childminder. In this respect the extensive child care facilities available to Danish families helped to smooth out differences of social class because they did not need additional resources to manage formal child care.

31Beyond class, the type of occupation also made a difference. Shift parenting is only an option for those in employment which enables the parents to work different shifts. Also one parent  being able to move into self employment was a way of parents ensuring continuity of childcare, an option available to both working class and middle class parents.  Other studies also found differences between occupations even within social classes, with doctors  and bankers being able to pursue different work-care strategies (Crompton and Harris).

32Social class can have variable effects according to social context, with middle class families in the UK being strapped by a long-hours culture which impinge on caring responsibilities and the same being the case for manual working parents in Portugal with little institutional childcare support (Lyonette, Crompton and Wall).   A study carried out in 1995 by Rubery at al. showed that the likelihood of women working longer hours rose with levels of education and this was the case in all European countries (Rubery, Smith and Fagan) as well as one study in the USA, although work-care strategies may also reflect other factors such as material assets and orientations (Duncan; Hakim).

33Therefore social class captures a range of possibilities for parents. The higher income of middle class parents gives them more opportunities to access paid childcare and their greater autonomy at work enables them to be able to negotiate flexibility in such a way as to suit their needs.

Gender Differences: the role of fathers

34There is evidence of fathers being involved in child rearing than in the past. When asked to reflect on the contrasts between their experiences and those of their parents, most respondents felt that there had been a substantial change in the involvement of fathers in bringing up children. This was even the case in Southern European countries where gender roles were very traditional until recently and in Eastern Europe, where attitudes to gender roles are more conservative (Inglehart and Norris).  

I think that Dads take more responsibility now, or take more of a role in the upbringing of the child and I don’t think they see this as a surprising thing. I am sure there are a lot of Dads that still do, but I don’t think it’s such a big deal to be asked to take some of the responsibility as it used to be. Everything used to be mum’s job (UK mother)

35However, it is noticeable that fathers do little of the day-to-day routine work of caring for children and this is generally seen as appropriate by mothers and employers as well as fathers themselves.  Mothers do the bulk of child supervision and caring for the family, ensuring that children and fathers are fed, have clean clothes to wear and live in hygienic conditions. Fathers were generally said to "help" and more often undertook household maintenance and gardening, which they regarded this as a fair division of labour. The main childcare task routinely undertaken by fathers is taking children to and/or collecting them from care providers, generally on their way to and from work. Even in households with shift parenting fathers" role was generally, limited to child supervision. As a Danish father with two children aged 10 and 5 years told us:

I like collecting them on Fridays when Else is working late Then I get time with them. I just like to sit and relax with them with a cup of coffee. (Danish father)

36By contrast, the combination of work with family and household duties was usually stressful and exhausting for many of mothers.  As Dora, a Hungarian clerical worker, put it: My whole day is a rush. Shopping, cooking, washing, cleaning and going to the bed. There’s never enough time.  Marta, a Polish shop assistant, expressed the views of many of the wives when she said: I’d like him to start cleaning more, so that I have to do less. When I get home I do not know where to start.

37Even for those couples where both agreed that they shared the planning and carrying out of domestic work, women did most of the essential day-to-day work. Six of the fathers provided no help with domestic work at all and only one, Carlos, a self-employed Portuguese technical draftsman, said that he shared childcare and domestic work equally. Husbands were relatively honest about not being very engaged in domestic work and argued that the main reason was that housecleaning, laundry, cooking and similar tasks were areas in which their partners wanted to remain "in control" and they themselves did not feel confident. Martin a UK train guard, for example argued:

I’m surely not going to agree to wash the windows and clean up, because I know nothing about it and it makes me nervous. I’m not going to force my wife to go to the garage and fix her car, because she knows nothing about it. Or clean up in the garage, it’s not her duty. (Father, UK)

38Household tasks were also regarded as menial by some men. Marcin, a Polish financial controller married to an accountant argued quite cynically that:

I like to load the dishwasher. But unloading is something I find dull, because it doesn’t require thinking and arranging the dishes so that they are fitted in the best way.

39Mothers frequently did the domestic work because it was easier than trying to get their husbands to do it or because even if the husbands did help, they did not make a good job of it.  As Marlene, a Danish schoolteacher put it:

He’s just like the typical man [---] If he does something, I always have the feeling I have to go cleaning up after him. So I prefer to do it myself in the first place.  

40In sum, the gender role division remains very traditional: full-time working women bear the brunt of the household duties while men perform maintenance and repair work around the house and occasionally help with dishwashing, and with cooking, a task that some of them enjoy. In fact, it is more often women who overstate their husband’s participation, which is based more on a what he might be prepared to do rather than on actual tasks carried out.  This is confirmed in other studies, although they also find some country differences in the extent to which father’s help out (Windebank). In some countries, social policies have encouraged men to become more involved, although these need to be seen in terms of policy bundles that have different effects across time (Sullivan et al). The authors conclude that without policies that require men to take paternity leave, they are unlikely to do so (Brandth and Kvande).

41It was also notable that it was generally mothers who took advantage of being able to work flexibly especially when there was a need to look after a sick child or other necessary child care work. However, it was generally only mothers in professional and managerial occupations who could take advantage of flexible working arrangements. Fathers were reluctant to take up paternity leave options or to take time off work because employers and fellow workers discouraged them.

42Therefore although fathers did want to become more involved in childrearing and this is seen as a feature of modern parenting in all countries (even those where men were the division of labour has hitherto been very traditional, like Italy), they mainly undertook only limited tasks.


43Dual (full time) earner families with young children are at the crux of changing national and European labour market and social policies. The pressure for both parents to work full time means that they have to find ways to manage work and care. The various gender and family regimes as well as the different policies for work and care in European regions might lead us to suppose that strategies would be very different depending upon the availability of extended family, extensive childcare provisions, length of maternal leave and so on. In fact we found not as much difference between countries as we expected – families with young children were under pressure everywhere and came up with similar kinds of strategies.

44Bearing in mind the fact that households have to find caring solutions on a household rather than an individual basis, the interviews with both partners revealed five strategies: Shift parenting (taking it in turns to be at home or at work); flexible working (adjusting the hours of work of one or both partners); formal care provision (relying on nurseries, au pairs etc.); informal care networks (relying on mainly kin but also neighbours and friends); self-reliance (where children were old enough to take care of themselves or of each other).  These reflected the predominant strategy in the household, although in practice, parents could draw upon a variety of sources to manage work and care.  

45The analysis suggests differences according to social class, with middle class households better able to buy in formal care and to negotiate flexible working with their employers. There were also important gender differences: although fathers were more involved in childrearing than their parents had been, mothers still did most of the day-to-day work. Our analysis based on accounts by parents of the actual work they do suggests that fathers taking on more responsibility for child supervision is one way of enabling dual working.

46While public policy and cultural values do help explain some of the differences between countries, equally important are the type of employment parents have and the sector they are employed in, with parents often choosing employment that enables them to manage dual earning or becoming self-employed so that they have greater flexibility.

47The five strategies in this study suggest that there might be a relationship with the kinds of resources available in different countries and with cultures of care. However, most strategies could be found in all countries, indicating that dual earner households are facing common problems in combining work and care, irrespective of the institutional environment. Hence, the presence or absence of good quality child care or of grandparents might make certain strategies more likely, but in the end parents have to balance a range of resources, wherever they live.  However, the Nordic extensive family policy pattern did make it easier for parents to manage work and care and helped to smooth out class differences.

48The research is based upon a small, non-representative sample of parents, but suggests ways in which parents across Europe cope with managing work and care.  It also suggests that social class and country context might have some impact on how parents in dual earner families manage their lives. These insights would need to be tested systematically in other samples and other contexts in order to see if these are really emerging trends in a Europe where both mothers and fathers are expected to work full time.

49The productivist social policies that encourage women, including mothers with small children, to be fully engaged in the labour force, place additional burdens upon women and men to manage work and care. These policies, favoured by both the EU and the OECD (Mahon 2006), would appear to liberate women from the traditional roles assigned them under the “male breadwinner model” but at the expense of placing extra pressures on women who still bear the main burden of household and caring labour. Although there is increasing acceptance of mothers working full time in the form of the liberalisation of attitudes (Crompton, Brockmann and Lyonette; Inglehart and Norris) the gender division of labour in the home has shifted only marginally in response, meaning that mothers now have not a double but a triple burden: employment, domestic labour and caring work.   

I think there’s a lot of pressure on women now to not only be good mum’s but good workers as well and, I think that mum’s if they don’t work they feel guilty or they feel that people are judging them for not bothering to work and then if they do work, they feel people are judging them for going to work… so I think that maybe we are expected to do a lot more nowadays than maybe back in my mum’s day (Mother UK).

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Pamela Abbott, Corinne Nativel et Claire Wallace, « Dual Earner Parents Strategies for Reconciling Work and Care in Seven European countries », Observatoire de la société britannique, 14 | 2013, 73-97.

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Pamela Abbott, Corinne Nativel et Claire Wallace, « Dual Earner Parents Strategies for Reconciling Work and Care in Seven European countries », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 14 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 février 2014, consulté le 20 janvier 2020. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1521

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Pamela Abbott

Professeur de sociologie à l'Université d'Aberdeen

Corinne Nativel

Maître de conférences en civilisation britannique à l'Université de Paris-Est Créteil

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Claire Wallace

Professeur de sociologie à l'Université d'Aberdeen

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