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Sheila Lirio Marcelo

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Beyond The Minivan: Women And Care Arrangements

Posted: 10/23/09 05:47 PM ET

It's called "The Juggle" for a reason. We're always checking to make sure our kids have the right form of care, get shuttled from one place to another on time, have help with homework, and stay on track with their education and development. Of course, this is all piled on top of devoting time and energy to a career, taking care of a home and everything that goes along with it and, oh yeah, making sure the dogs have been walked, fed and groomed. And if our parents are older and need our help, we are there to make sure they're cared for. That's a lot of balls in the air all at once!

For much of history, this sort of responsibility-juggling has fallen on the shoulders of women. It's Mom who finds babysitters or nannies. Mom helps out at school, knows the teachers, and follows up on grade reports. Mom's the one who manages the household, too; she picks out meals and does all (or most) of the housework. Mom's the one that drives the minivan.

But since World War II, the role of women has shifted. It started gradually, with the Rosie Riveter factory workers helping the war effort, built up through the '60s and '70s (when one-third of all women worked) and continues today. Now, women make up 49% of the workforce and will overtake men as the majority within the next couple years. Maria Shriver, first lady of California, and the Center for American progress recently published a study on the phenomenon--The Shriver Report--that said, "Mothers are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families."

Working moms, once unheard of, have become a cultural norm. Yet we're still mostly trying to find a balance in our home lives when it comes to making care arrangements. In two-parent homes, that responsibility has traditionally fallen to mothers--a trend that isn't changing as fast as the face of the workforce. For example, when an elderly parent needs care, almost 80 percent of the time it's a woman (a daughter, sister or relative) that ends up either arranging home care or doing the caregiving herself. Women are still far and away the main decision makers when it comes to child care.

Another study, this one from the Institute of Child Health in the United Kingdom, covered the health of 12,500 British five-year-olds. The research found that children with working mothers ate less healthy foods, watched more TV and spent more time in front of a computer than those with stay-at-home moms. The underlying point was that moms were the ones responsible for feeding the kids and making sure they were healthy and active. The study didn't mention dads. Why not?

With the trend of more women working combined with a recession where three out of every four jobs lost belonged to a man, I think we're poised to see a similar shift in the American home. It's going to be a matter of sheer necessity--when both parents work, Mom and Dad need to be a team on the care front.

We're starting to see this already in employment. At my company, Care.com, for example, we've seen 8 percent more men sign up to be care providers (like babysitters or nannies) during the recession than we did the year before.

In my own family, Ron and I have learned how to split up the duties at home--not that we haven't had our share of conflicts along the way! But we've devised a working system for sharing the load when it comes to the kids, my parents, our dogs and our home.

For me: I do the bills, wash laundry, manage the kids' activity schedule, organize the family calendar, care for my parents and hire care providers for the home. And like most wives, I give Ron friendly reminders to do his share--I'm sure he thinks I'm "nagging."

Ron's responsibilities: He helps me with the bills, takes care of all of our youngest son's sports activities, does trash detail, walks the dogs and keeps track of maintenance. He also spends his afternoons with Adam, picking him up from school and chauffeuring him wherever he has to go. We previously had a great nanny, Natalie, who we found on our service, but now that Ron is coaching most of our son's various sports activities after school, it didn't make sense for us to pay someone to work an hour each day to pick him up.

We've aligned our work schedules specifically so we can make sure both our boys have the care they need: I work the full-time job at a fast-paced dotcom and Ron works part-time specifically for this purpose. It's not a complete reversal of gender roles (I've never called him "Mr. Mom!"), but it's something that's worked well for us.

As the overall male/female work demographic continues to shift, families will have a greater need to sit down and discuss who's responsible for managing care arrangements and the inevitable crises that come along. What is your family doing to balance the care responsibilities?