Olivia Samuel and Anne Paillet

associated researchers at INED, tell us about the findings of a study on parental care of infant children.

(Interview conducted in July 2017)

How was the study conducted, in what framework?

The research began with the launch of the ELFE project (French longitudinal cohort study from birth) in 2005. Our initial idea was to study how gender identities are constructed in childhood through the production and transmission of health norms and practices within families. Over time, the contours of the project changed and were extended. As we waited for ELFE data to come it, we conducted a qualitative survey, questioning fathers and mothers over a period of three years (including during pregnancy) about the activities involved in taking care of their second child. In parallel we broadened our subject to include the body in general, in terms of hygiene and health but also appearance and attitudes towards the body. It seemed crucial to us to study how and why, very early in life—during pregnancy, in fact, and in the first months after birth—parents “sex” or gender their child.
Furthermore, we wanted to investigate how parents’ practices of “sexing” the foetus and their child are situated socially, as well as the activities by which mothers and fathers physically care for their children. In all social milieus, children are implicated very early in socialization contexts wherein expectations around girls and boys, types of upbringing, and even modes and degrees of sexual differentiation vary.

Among the phenomena you studied are how parents care physically for their infant children. What have you observed about how men and women share infant care tasks?

We examined how parents take on the daily tasks of caring for an infant around two months of age. Feeding, diapering, bathing, nail-cutting, treating diaper rash, nose-wiping, putting to bed—all parents have to perform these tasks; few delegate to a third party when children are that age. We measured not only how the tasks are divided between mothers and fathers (in families thus composed) but also parents’ respective feelings and attitudes toward them. Do they say they like doing them; that they do them only because they have to; that they prefer not to do them? It would seem that neither the division of this type of labour between parents nor parents’ reported attitudes toward it depends on the child’s sex. The longitudinal data from the ELFE survey will enable us to determine if parents establish differentiations between girls and boys as the children grow up. What is clear is that level of participation and attitudes toward care tasks differ considerably by parent’s sex. Our results confirm the conclusions of a considerable number of studies on unequal sharing of domestic and parenting tasks: mothers perform most of the tasks involved in physically caring for an infant child. However, sharing can be more or less equal depending on the task. It is particularly imbalanced for diaper changing and baths; slightly less for putting to bed or bottles (in the case of children who are not breastfed). Furthermore, while the structure or ranking of tastes is fairly similar for men and women (both prefer feeding and bathing to nose-wiping or nail-cutting), we do find a significant difference: women do not try to find a way out of the tasks they do not like to do; they do them just the same, whereas men more often delegate them (to women), especially in the working and upper classes.

Does task sharing in caring for children of this age vary from what is found for older children?

For the time being, ELFE survey data can only be used to compare the situation for children aged two months and one year. We find little change between those ages. We will soon have data from the following waves and greater perspective for studying how task sharing and attitudes change as children grow up. Therein lies the great value of longitudinal tracking—precisely the kind that the ELFE study enables us to do.

This study is being conducted by Olivia Samuel and Anne Paillet, associated researchers from the Laboratoire Printemps; Yoann Demoli; Christine Hamelin; Agnès Pélage; Carole Brugeilles; Céline Clément; and Rose Prigent from GTM-Cresppa. The late Catherine Rollet of Laboratoire Printemps also participated.