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1Couples’ satisfaction with their work-life balance is a key indicator of family well-being [1]. A satisfactory work-life balance helps parents to have a more rewarding motherhood/fatherhood experience. Moreover, couples that take joint responsibility for maintaining such an equilibrium promote gender equality and non-stereotypical parenting (Marshall and Barnett, 1993). Most previous studies have focused on the strategies used to reconcile domestic and paid work, emphasising institutional constraints while largely ignoring the more subjective aspects of work-life balance. The aim of this article is to analyse satisfaction with work-life balance among dual-earner couples after the transition to parenthood.

2Previous studies reveal that couples traditionalise the gender division of domestic labour with the arrival of the first child. This is often a source of stress for women, who typically assume major responsibility for the family (Domínguez-Folgueras, 2015; Fox, 2009; Grunow et al., 2012; Kühhirt, 2012; Miller, 2010). Our article focuses on couples who shared domestic work before pregnancy. While these couples might traditionalise to some degree after transitioning to parenthood (Abril et al., 2015), a priori we expect them to maintain a more egalitarian division of work and care than couples that had initially adhered to traditional labour divisions. Our assumption is that an egalitarian division of childcare should lead to an improved work-life balance, which, in turn, could result in higher satisfaction levels. In addition, earlier research (Marshall and Barnett, 1993) established that individuals with egalitarian attitudes find it more gratifying to combine the role of parent with the role of worker. This also leads us to expect that parents-to-be with egalitarian behaviours before childbirth should experience greater satisfaction with work-life balance after the transition to parenthood.

3In this article, we aim to gain insights on the mechanisms underlying subjective experiences of reward. We examine men’s and women’s prenatal ideals and expectations about parenthood, and the extent to which their fulfilment contributes to enhanced satisfaction with the reconciliation of work and family life. Attention is simultaneously paid to the importance of institutional contexts in facilitating or limiting couples’ choices and their adoption of satisfactory strategies.

4Analysing the mechanisms that promote work-life balance satisfaction is important in the case of Spain. There have been significant improvements in the fields of childcare and family policies, and an unprecedented increase in dual-earner couples. However, during recent periods of economic growth, the fertility rate remained low and then plummeted further with the onset of the economic crisis, reaching a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of 1.27 in 2013 (National Statistics Institute, INE). These figures may reflect the difficulties of successfully managing both employment and parenthood.

5The study is based on a longitudinal qualitative analysis of 31 dual-earner couples. Participating couples were interviewed during pregnancy and about 18 months after the birth of their first child. The study contributes to the current literature on family sociology by providing a better understanding of the mechanisms that lead to subjective satisfaction with work-life balance (WLB).

Work-life balance and family well-being

6In this section, we review the elements most closely associated with couples’ satisfaction with WLB. A number of studies of WLB have emphasised the opposite: namely, difficulties and conflicts pertaining to WLB. Much research has argued that work-family reconciliation leads to problems that have a negative impact on quality of life, perceptions of personal efficacy, marital relations, parent-child relations, and even child development, particularly in familistic countries such as Spain (Gornick and Meyers, 2003). Striving to attain WLB is also associated with decreased job commitment and life satisfaction, and with psychological strain (Allen et al., 2000). In contrast, there is another approach that emphasises how people engaging in multiple roles experience more benefits than drawbacks. However, context may play a role. A positive relationship between work and family spheres appears more feasible in countries with policies that support working parents (Greenhaus and Powell, 2006; Marshall and Barnett, 1993).

7Recent literature indicates that feelings derived from combining family and work obligations are also related to couples’ gender values (Gordon and Mickelson, 2015). Individuals with traditional attitudes towards gender are more likely to experience stress, while those with egalitarian attitudes are more prone to feel rewarded by their double role of parents and workers (Marshall and Barnett, 1993). Motherhood and fatherhood ideals could also play a key role. Whereas in traditional family models’ expectations of paternal care and involvement are very low, contemporary ideals favour a more engaged, interested and participative fatherhood. Lamb et al. (1985; 1987) identified three major dimensions of paternal involvement: engagement, defined as the time devoted to care and play; accessibility, described as the availability or flexibility to be involved in caregiving; and responsibility, understood as participation in daily decision-making and planning of care-related tasks. Fathers who engage in all three aspects develop a “positive parental involvement” that strengthens the father-child bond and results in higher levels of child and family well-being (Palkovitz, 2002). In addition, women’s satisfaction with paternal involvement is related not only to the time that fathers spend with their children, but also to the emotional connection that they develop (Galovan et al., 2014; Lee et al., 2014).

8Satisfaction with WLB also seems to be related to whether each partner’s expectations are met after childbirth. A recent analysis (Biehle and Mickelson, 2012) revealed that during pregnancy, expecting fathers and mothers can nurture unrealistic expectations about the time that both would devote to care. The study found that most mothers’ dissatisfaction with their partners related to their unmet expectations in terms of paternal care involvement, while fathers, who were visibly more satisfied, considered that their partners’ dedication had greatly exceeded their expectations.

9In short, satisfaction with work-life balance is associated with the extent to which ideals and expectations of parenthood are met. These, in turn, are likely to be influenced by the institutional context (Lohmann and Zagel, 2016). In this empirical analysis, we explore couples’ satisfaction with their WLB after the arrival of their first child. We examine how WLB satisfaction relates to prenatal—and gendered—ideals about parenthood, the degree to which these ideals are materialised, and the structural conditions in which actual strategies are developed. In the next section, we describe the Spanish institutional context.

The Spanish case study

10Spain has traditionally been characterised as a strong “familist” welfare state, lacking policies that actively support couples with children (Saraceno and Keck, 2011). However, the progressive labour market’s incorporation of women and growing job insecurity have prompted a rapid increase in dual earner families. Dual-earner couples accounted for 61% in 2017. [2] Parallel to these socio-demographic changes, a shift toward more egalitarian gender ideals have also spread widely among young people (Castro-Martín and Seiz, 2014). Indeed, gender equality has become a central political issue instigating policy reforms, particularly in the period between 1997 and 2010 (León and Pavolini, 2014).

11Childcare services and parental leave are the primary formal resources that parents use to reconcile employment and family life. Virtually all children are enrolled in pre-school education at the age of three, as universal, publicly funded education is granted from that age. However, coverage for children under three is rather limited, highly privatised, and fragmented across the territory: 48% of children under three attended private schools in 2012-2013. Furthermore, school schedules do not always conform to the employment schedules of parents, who often work long hours—the average for men is 42.6 hours per week and up to 40 hours for women (OECD, 2013). So-called “split shifts” (long breaks for lunch in the middle of the day) are, additionally, the norm among nearly half of the employed Spanish workers holding full-time jobs (Gracia and Kalmijn, 2016). It is often difficult for working parents to rely entirely on early childcare services, especially if they do not have much flexibility at their workplace or cannot count on family help.

12Regarding parental leave, mothers in Spain are entitled to maternity leave for a period of 16 weeks, 10 of which can be transferred to the father, whereas fathers are entitled to 15 days of paternity leave if employed, or 13 days if self-employed (these figures reflect policies in place when our interviews were conducted). Both maternity and paternity leave guarantee full wage replacement, the ability to return to the same job, and an uninterrupted contribution to the social security system. Furthermore, employed mothers and fathers can take unpaid parental leave to look after their children for a maximum duration of three years from birth. This guarantees a return to the same job during the first year of leave. Parents can also apply for a statutory working time reduction. This entails a proportional wage loss but guarantees protection against dismissal until the child turns 12. Lastly, parents are entitled to breastfeeding leave, which consists of one-hour break per day until the child is nine months old, or the equivalent accumulated time in full days (according to the terms established by collective agreement).

13In short, the Spanish parental leave system is relatively generous in terms of the leave time that it allows to parents, but very limited in terms of economic protection when compared with other European countries (Lapuerta et al., 2011). For this reason, parental leave (without wage compensation) is not widely used. Mothers usually use accumulated holidays in combination with maternity and breastfeeding leaves to stay at home with a child for about five to six months, while fathers usually accumulate paternity leave and holidays to stay with the new born child for about a month (Lapuerta et al., 2011; Abril et al., 2015).

14It should be noted that access to the parental leave system is essentially restricted to workers who already enjoy privileged positions in the labour market. Employees with irregular work histories, such as those with fixed-term contracts (26% of the working population in 2016) or part-time work (24% of women and 8% of men in 2016), and low paid workers (14% of the working population in 2014 according to the OECD), rarely apply for the flexibility measures available to working parents, such as full or part-time parental leaves (Lapuerta et al., 2011).

Data and methodology

15This article is based on a subsample of dual-earner couples expecting their first child who participated in the “TransParent Project” (International Research Cooperation for Studies of the Transition to Parenthood) in Spain. Contact was made through childbirth preparation and epidural-related sessions at public and private health centres. To a lesser extent, recruitment was also carried out through personal contacts, to attract underrepresented groups at both the higher and lower ends of the social structure.

16The study was longitudinal and consisted of two waves of interviews. The first interviews were held at the time of pregnancy (2011) and the second when the child was about 18 months old (2013). In the first wave, individual interviews were conducted with each of the partners, who were also interviewed jointly. In the second wave, only individual interviews were conducted. The resulting transcripts were coded using the collaborative features of Atlas.ti software after members of the research team ensured correct implementation of the codes. [3] The interviews were conducted following a semi-structured outline organised by thematic area. [4]

17We restricted the analysis to a sub-sample of 31 dual-earner couples out of the 68 originally interviewed. As noted in the introduction, we selected couples that showed egalitarian practices during pregnancy regarding the division of domestic work. We considered that a couple had egalitarian practices when the woman did not perform more than 60% of the housework and the man did not do less than 40%. Tasks performed by an external person were not taken into account. The calculation was based, first, on partners’ self-perceptions of the proportion of domestic work that each performed on a typical day and, second, on subsequent monitoring of the reliability of that percentage by the researchers. To this end, the actual domestic work practices were analysed in individual interviews, particularly for respondents who were asked to provide a description of a typical day.

18The interviews provided information about ideals, expectations, and practices related to work-life balance, and on the feelings that these generated for couples. This last element is what we call “subjective satisfaction with WLB” and is a twofold concept: it includes satisfaction with what one does and satisfaction with what one’s partner does. We measured satisfaction by reading and conducting a detailed analysis of 155 interview transcripts and paying attention to expressions in which parents showed that they were uncomfortable, in agreement, or pleased with their arrangements regarding work and caregiving. Such emotions were manifested spontaneously throughout the interviews but were also explicitly dealt with in the interview script. We were particularly careful not to impose our own normative views about gender or to disclose the ultimate research purposes of the project. Respondents were informed that they were participating in a research project on policy reforms to support first-time parents.

19The sample of couples is very diverse with respect to social status and access to resources. Appendix 1 shows respondents’ main characteristics and, specifically, highlights the presence of homogamous or hypogamous couples—that is to say, couples in which the woman exhibits earnings that are similar to or greater than her partner. Appendix 2 includes a description of the couples according to their occupation and age differences. These factors may reflect other dimensions of power relations within partnerships. The concept of homogamy helps us to understand women’s bargaining power within the couple and, in particular, their power to negotiate a satisfactory work-family balance. Women’s ability to bargain may be related to their absolute or relative income, but other aspects such as social networks, personality traits, human capital, or social status may also contribute to their empowerment, as we will see in the next section (Coltrane, 2000).


20In this section we analyse the extent to which our sample of first-time parent-couples were satisfied or dissatisfied with their work-life balance, and the feelings arising from different strategies that they chose to manage it. To this end, a theoretical interpretive framework is proposed that is both longitudinal, as it considers care ideals during pregnancy and their influence on subsequent practices, and relational, because it focuses on the interaction of the partners when deciding between different WLB options. This involves taking into account the importance of gender values, relative resources, prenatal ideals about motherhood and fatherhood, and the institutional context.

21We identified two groups within the sample: a majority of couples who were satisfied with their WLB, and a minority that expressed dissatisfaction (see Appendix 1). In the group of satisfied couples, we recognised three subgroups: (A) those sharing childcare equally, (B) those with an unequal division of childcare due to adverse labour market circumstances, and (C) those with an unequal division of childcare mainly due to intra-couple disagreements. In the group of dissatisfied couples, we distinguished two sub-groups: (D) those in which women are dissatisfied with fathers’ childcare involvement, and (E) those in which women are discontent with their own time availability to care.

22What follows is an in-depth analysis of the couples’ reported satisfaction with WLB (measured as individual satisfaction with their own experience and their partner’s behaviour). From the interview data, we discern two main mechanisms that condition satisfaction: first, the degree to which parents’ expectations are fulfilled vis-à-vis ideals for “good motherhood/fatherhood,” and second, whether the institutional context (work, economic, and family environments) facilitates or hinders WLB. As becomes clear, consistency between expectations expressed in the first wave of interviews (the arrangements considered ideal by the couple) and the practices described in the second wave (the distribution of time spent on care and employment) surfaces as a crucial explanatory mechanism for the (dis)satisfaction that couples experienced after childbirth.

(Non-)fulfilment of expectations

23Within the Spanish context, satisfaction appears to be related to whether the ideals and expectations held by a couple prior to childbirth were fulfilled. This pattern is evident for couples who are jointly responsible for, and satisfied with, their WLB model—that is to say, those whom we label as “satisfied jointly responsible” (group A; see Appendix 1). These couples expressed an explicit discourse in favour of gender equality in the first wave of interviews, and both partners involved themselves in caring for the baby. The mothers made conscious efforts not to monopolise childcare, seeking instead to facilitate and, in some cases, even force joint responsibility. This entailed respecting the parenting style and practices of the father and considering that both mothers and fathers are equally important and capable caregivers.

24The fact that these mothers encouraged fathers to take care of the child should be interpreted in the light of the socio-demographic characteristics of the group. Group A consisted mainly of couples (11 out of 15) in which the mother had a similar or higher income level with respect to their partner during pregnancy (see Appendix 1 and 2). These mothers not only embraced egalitarian gender values, but also enjoyed a good economic position that allowed them to bargain with their partners regarding specific childcare arrangements.

25Conchi is a good example of the above. She earned more than her partner and held a job with higher occupational status (she was a social worker and he was a plant operator). She expressed clearly that she believed a father’s and mother’s involvement to be equally important:


CONCHI (A01): I think that the presence of the father and mother—I see both as being equally important. […] For me, the fact that I had Carlos was really important, but I am not talking about myself; I’m talking about the kid, you know? About the children that we both have, right? Why does it have to be the mother and not the father? […] Sure, the mother has an added role because of the physical effort in giving birth, because of the hormones, basically: this is the extra role that the mother has in this story, but the father also has to adapt to the kid. There is an emotional impact, and then for the kid, I basically see that [it’s] both the mother and father, I don’t think that I am more [important] because I carried her inside me [2nd wave, individual interview].

27The male partners in this group of couples experienced an identity change during pregnancy that led them to readily embrace a new role as fathers. Furthermore, they anticipated work-family reconciliation needs and made plans to change their employment conditions. All of these elements seemed to contribute to their development of a “positive fatherhood” model (Lamb et al., 1985; 1987), which ensured, in most cases, a high level of satisfaction with WLB for both partners. Most of these men shared the three components of care (engagement, accessibility, and responsibility) on an equal basis with the mothers.

28However, some men took a less prominent role than their partners in terms of responsibility—they mainly adopted an instruction-follower role, while the initiative, planning and supervision, were mostly undertaken by the mothers. Such an attitude was not necessarily a source of unease for these couples, because the fathers still spent a lot of time with their children or achieved a strong emotional connection with them. Iván and Elena (A06) provide an illustration of this situation:


ELENA (A06): I think it is distributed fairly. […] He spends more time with him every afternoon, but I think this is compensated for by the arrangements, as in some respects I make more arrangements, you know? [2nd wave, individual interview].

30This evidence seems to suggest that the premise of “expectation fulfilment” would predict couples’ comfort with their WLB model. However, this was not always the case. We also found couples who showed a high degree of satisfaction despite not having had their expectations or ideals about childcare met. These are labelled as “satisfied-unequal couples” (group B). In this category, we find couples who had to renounce their ideal of egalitarian care due to unfavourable personal or employment-related circumstances, but who, unexpectedly, reported a high level of satisfaction with their WLB and their well-being as a couple (neither of the partners expressed unease about the other). Men within these couples incorporated caregiving into their identity and made plans to adapt their working conditions accordingly. In the end, however, they saw how these plans failed to materialise due to factors beyond their control. These couples shared a perception that the restrictions they faced in terms of parenting were unavoidable. This seemed to prevent feelings of dissatisfaction. Moreover, although fathers within this group were not able to be as accessible as they would have liked to be, they were still able to exercise an engaged and responsible paternal identity.

31Óscar and Olga (B02) are illustrative of this subgroup. They had to give up their ideal of equal childcare sharing because they did not manage to have their shifts changed to match each other’s schedules. Óscar explained that he wanted to have the same commitment to caring as his partner:


ÓSCAR (B02): [It’s about] looking after my son, not just enjoying being with him [...] I have some colleagues or friends who assume that, due to work, they have to spend all day out until 8.30 p.m. and all that, but I don’t, I’m against this [2nd wave, individual interview].

33Workplace-imposed restrictions delimit parents’ ability to adapt their schedules, thus leading to unfulfilled expectations. In the end, to be able to alternate care more easily and without having to rely on help from relatives, Olga reduced her working time to approximately 19 hours per week, while Óscar continued to work full-time. This reduction meant that in practice—and contrary to the couple’s ideals—Olga ended up becoming more involved in childcare than Óscar. Nonetheless, the couple felt generally satisfied with the way that they had managed to organise work and care. This satisfaction was grounded in their perception that their child was properly tended to.

34Another group of couples (group C) also expressed satisfaction with their WLB arrangements despite an unequal distribution of childcare. In contrast to group B, there was no clash between initial ideals and post-birth realities for group C. Inequalities in childcare were not the product of external circumstances forcing a particular division of labour. Instead, they stemmed from the partners’ conceptions of the child’s needs, what it means to be a father and a mother, and from a division of paid work that both partners accepted as a given. Interestingly, the prevalence of hypergamy was greater in this group of “satisfied-unequal couples” than in the first group of “satisfied-jointly responsible” ones (see Appendix 1). Perhaps as a consequence of this economic imbalance, mothers felt resigned to situations that they might not find entirely desirable, but which they themselves ended up justifying with reference to their partners’ work demands. Moreover, these women seemed willing to accept sharing childcare responsibilities unequally if the fathers showed a minimal degree of participation and accessibility in caregiving tasks. As expressed by Ainhoa (C05):


AINHOA (C05): He, well, he does what he can. […] True, we all have utopias and hopes but also I don’t think that I can demand more of him. I think he already does more than [...] see, he comes home and almost without changing his clothes, he starts to do things [2nd wave, individual interview].

36In this group of couples, it was common in the first interview for fathers to talk about being able to adapt spontaneously to fatherhood without giving much forethought to the adjustments that would have to be made. After childbirth, these fathers did not make any radical adaptations beyond trying not to arrive home too late. Mothers, by contrast, negotiated shorter working hours or leave of absence, and ended up becoming significantly more involved in care routines.

37This process coincided with a naturalisation of motherhood by several of the women, who felt that they had an innate connection to the needs of their children and that care was a vocational responsibility for mothers. The adoption of such traditional ideologies seems to underlie the satisfaction reported by these mothers, despite the gap between their partner’s and their own care involvement. Their discourse revealed a sense of justice that was detached from the realities of the division of care. Rather, it was connected to cultural norms that assign women greater domestic responsibility when their partner contributes more economically (see Zuo and Bian, 2001, on perceived fairness in the division of housework). Fathers, in turn, were comfortable with performing a secondary, supportive role. Both mothers and fathers claimed to value the quality, rather than the quantity, of paternal dedication to care.

38A minority of the couples belong to a group in which the women explicitly expressed “dissatisfaction with their partner” (group D). These couples were experiencing a strong dissonance between their initial plans and the practices that they eventually adopted. While they had not always expressed well-developed care plans in the first wave of interviews, the fathers had at least mentioned that they would become involved in care while holding strictly to their work schedules. After childbirth, these couples found the reality to be very different from their expectations. Men in this group proved extremely work-oriented, delegating most childcare tasks either to their partners or to external services. Most did not take full paternity leave—in fact, they even postponed it to be used as a holiday. They wound up working long hours and rarely spent time with their children on weekdays. Nonetheless, these men expressed overall satisfaction with their fatherhood experience.

39This contrasts sharply with the profound unease conveyed by mothers in this group, who were satisfied with their own model of WLB but deeply disappointed with their partners’ low levels of paternal involvement. Although they externalised many domestic and care tasks—a typical response among upper-class couples (see Alcañiz, 2015)—these women still devoted a substantial amount of time to childcare and assumed all planning, arranging, and monitoring responsibilities. They tolerated the employment adaptations they had to make with great discomfort, hoping that they would be only temporary.

40The tendency for gender roles to become more traditional among these couples contrasts with the objective characteristics of the mothers. The women in this group had university degrees and high incomes, in some cases even higher than their partners.’ According to the economic theory of relative resources (Lundberg and Pollak, 1996), this should have given them considerable bargaining power. While some women indeed tried to negotiate the division of care with their partners, they were generally unsuccessful in making significant changes. If their partners expressed egalitarian values during the first interview, by the second interview, it had become clear that these did not translate into practice.

41Gender attitudes and practices for this group ultimately conformed to traditional arrangements. The fathers proved unwilling to modify their work routines, which forced their partners to assume the role of primary caregivers. The mothers, in turn, expressed that they were understanding about job responsibilities and agreed to externalise many household tasks, but found themselves unprepared to relinquish a minimum daily time to be spent with the child. Beyond allocating specific tasks or ensuring that each parent invested an equal amount of time, these mothers’ priority was that their children be well cared for (see Thomson, 1991). Consequently, they perceived their situation to be unfair because their partners did not hold the same priorities. The case of Sara (D04) is illustrative in this respect: despite having a live-in professional caregiver at home, she ended up reducing her working hours because she believed that “one doesn’t have a daughter to have someone else take care of her.” In contrast, her partner Samuel (D04) considered that everything had been organised very well. He saw no problem with coming home late after work and spending a short while with his daughter before dinner, or even finding her already asleep. According to Samuel, decisions about care had been made in a “natural way,” as each parent devoted time to childcare tasks dependent upon their availability and preferences.

42Finally, we found couples where the mothers were very satisfied with the involvement of their partners but felt deeply dissatisfied with themselves for their inability to develop the kind of maternal practices that they considered ideal (group E: “women dissatisfied with themselves”). These women had a strong work orientation or considerable time constraints, which generated feelings of absence and guilt. While they could rely on their partners to assume most care activities, they nonetheless felt bad with themselves, as if childcare were something optional for men but not for women (see Miller, 2011). This was, for example, the case for Maider (E01):


MAIDER (E01): […] when you spend many hours away from home, you feel very guilty and now that I have to be in [another city], that I will leave on Monday and return on Wednesday night, I know that if I miss my return flight, I will burst into tears at the airport, because I have that feeling of guilt, that feeling of not being there for her, and then you come back and suddenly discover that the child is doing something new, something that you missed, right? Then you feel really bad [2nd wave, individual interview].

The institutional context

44Two factors relating to the institutional environment appeared as key elements in couples’ WLB satisfaction: having a work schedule that allowed them to spend time with the baby and enjoying work flexibility. The working schedules most associated with higher levels of satisfaction were those that allowed partners to have most of the afternoon free and when work days were uninterrupted (with no long breaks for lunch). The satisfaction derived from a work schedule favourable to WLB was enough to compensate for other unfavourable working conditions, such as instability, low salaries, or having to take on a lot of work despite a reduction in working hours.

45Another element frequently associated with a satisfactory WLB was the immediate work environment of superiors and colleagues. Others’ attitudes toward those seeking WLB could enable or hinder the exercise of formal rights or one’s ability to adjust the working day to suit family needs. Having a boss who had taken advantage of parental leave or was sympathetic to the demands of parenthood was crucial, for both men and women. In several cases, sensitivity to WLB was linked to female-dominated work environments, although this was not always the case. Several respondents explained that they had met women in executive positions who still believed it necessary to adopt traditionally male patterns of behaviour (i.e., full commitment to the company over family) to be successful at work.

46In our interviews, working environments were unfavourable mainly due to parents’ inability to adapt working hours to care needs. The problem of excessive working hours in Spain and their poor compatibility with family life was a recurrent theme in respondents’ discourse, regardless of their level of satisfaction. Several of the participants alluded to a culture of “presenteeism” as limiting actual balance and flexibility, even when companies formally offered measures aimed at reconciling work and family life. Some mentioned the need to make use of statutory work time reductions due to long hours and a general failure to comply with official schedules. A good example was the case of Sara (D04), who would arrive home at 9 PM before becoming a mother and had to reduce her working hours after her child was born:


SARA (D04): In the end, working hours are impossible. They are infinite, you know? Especially in the private sector [...] When you ask to reduce your working hours, what you buy is the ability to leave at the stipulated time and ensure nobody will look down on you, or they might do, but then they say, “Well, as you have also had your salary reduced.” That’s more or less my impression, you know? […] At least, I buy that; it’s not that I leave at half past four, it’s just that otherwise I would have to leave at 8 p.m., or whatever time, I would just have to work, I don’t know […] for an unlimited number of hours [2nd wave, individual interview].

48Family networks—and especially grandparents—played a crucial role in helping some of the couples achieve WLB. The availability of a family network made the parenting project much easier and less costly than it would have been otherwise. Nurseries were difficult to afford for couples with low or even medium incomes. The importance of support from grandparents was especially evident when the working circumstances of the parents were not particularly favourable. Many couples who received help from their extended family emphasised that it gave them peace of mind. Conversely, some couples who were unsatisfied reported that their dissatisfaction would have been even greater if they had not been able to rely on grandparents to help cover care time needs.

49One of the dissatisfied mothers explicitly attributed part of her frustration to the institutional context. Beatriz (D01) explained that she found it very hard to return to work after maternity leave and expressed being upset with what she viewed as the scant attention that Spanish public policies pay to the baby’s needs:


BEATRIZ (D01): The issue of maternity leave […] we always talk about the rights of the mother and father, but I hear very little about the rights of children to be with their parents. I mean, it is something that is ignored, the issue of WLB; for me there is something really important missing here, which is the need for a baby to be with their parents or at least with one of them as a reference point [2nd wave, individual interview].

51Similarly, the dissatisfaction of another mother, Caro (B01), had much to do with external conditions and work-related factors. These included the fact that her partner was not able to obtain any job flexibility—to the point that he was dismissed as a result of his flexibility requests—resulting in sudden changes to the couple’s employment situation. As she explained in the second interview, these circumstances forced the couple to renounce their ideal of egalitarian care. Due to both parents’ extremely precarious employment situation, the father had to take jobs with very unfavourable conditions for WLB and assume the role of main breadwinner.

Discussion and concluding remarks

52This study qualitatively examined WLB arrangements for couples having recently made the transition to parenthood in Spain. It delved into the quality of their WLB by considering both parents’ satisfaction with reconciling employment and care demands. Ultimately, the aim has been to understand which factors facilitate or hinder satisfaction. To this end, the analysis has focused on two aspects of potentially crucial importance: the degree to which WLB practices conformed to initial expectations and the institutional constraints that the couples faced.

53Several conclusions can be drawn from our analysis of 31 dual-earner couples. First, while all of the couples included in our sample followed gender egalitarian practices in the division of housework before the birth of their first child, nearly half moved towards a gender-unequal distribution of childcare: only 15 of the 31 couples were jointly responsible for caregiving by the time of the second interview. This finding is consistent with results from previous cross-national research (see Domínguez-Folgueras, 2015; Fox, 2009; Grunow et al., 2012; Kühhirt, 2012; Miller, 2010), which posits a shift toward inequality after the arrival of the first child. We also conclude that, contrary to our expectations, an egalitarian division of domestic work does not automatically lead to an egalitarian division of childcare. In our analysis, we attribute this outcome to different ideals and expectations about parenthood for men and women.

54Second, couples’ satisfaction appears to depend less on specific strategies developed to achieve WLB than on the extent to which these correspond to initial expectations and ideals about parenthood. This pattern is seen very clearly in group A, which we identified as “satisfied jointly-responsible,” who were able to implement an egalitarian ideal, but it is not exclusive to them. Nor can it be said categorically that meeting expectations is the only mechanism leading to satisfaction, as some couples showed a high degree of comfort despite not having had their expectations met. The latter are the “satisfied-unequal couples” (groups B and C), who either had to give up their ideals due to circumstances beyond their control or adapted to divergent conceptions of motherhood/f atherhood without major frustration. Still, in this latter case, ideals were found to have been less clearly defined initially. The initial fuzziness may have contributed to the feelings of satisfaction, or at least the tacit agreements that these couples reached in their division of care. Similarly, the unease of the “unsatisfied-unequal couples”—expressed mainly by women—is clearly related to dissonance between their initial expectations about their partners (group D) or themselves (group E) and the arrangements that they ultimately adopted. Accordingly, as we expected, the degree of consistency between initial expectations and actual practices helps us to understand a variety of rationales for couples’ WLB satisfaction. This is consistent with earlier literature linking WLB with different components of family well-being (Biehle and Mickelson, 2012).

55Intra-couple homogamy also influenced WLB satisfaction. For couples in which both partners were satisfied and jointly responsible for WLB—the ideal group in terms of gender equality and family life organisation—most were homogamous or hypogamous (i.e., the woman earned the same or more than her partner). This suggests that women’s economic empowerment favours higher satisfaction with WLB and a more equal sharing of childcare. This claim, however, must be interpreted cautiously in the context of our analysis, given the small sample size and its non-representative character. Future research should be conducted to empirically test this hypothesis on country-representative quantitative and longitudinal datasets.

56The institutional context emerges as a mechanism that contributed to either enhancing or reducing satisfaction but did not totally condition it. Nor were institutional factors sufficient in and of themselves to explain satisfaction levels. Work schedules compatible with care, flexibility, and a work environment that allowed recourse to rights or adjustments favourable to WLB, were all found to foster feelings of satisfaction among fathers and mothers. At the same time, these circumstances could also be said to fulfil two conditions clearly related to satisfaction—a couple’s ability to put their original ideals and plans into practice, and a form of paternal involvement that was both engaged and responsible. The availability of a family network to cover gaps left by public policies and formal rights also contributed to greater satisfaction, as this eased conflicts between work and family demands. Nevertheless, a favourable work environment was not always a guarantee for satisfaction, and vice versa—unfavourable work environments did not necessarily lead to dissatisfaction.

57Beyond these findings, the analysis allows for more general reflection on the conditions that enable a satisfactory WLB in contemporary Spain and the potential role for public policies. On the one hand, the results suggest that there is substantial room for improvement in promoting more jointly responsible—and therefore more satisfactory—WLB strategies, especially for the men who showed an initial desire to share in parental responsibilities and yet saw their plans thwarted by work constraints. Employment regulations to ensure that working men and women can exercise their existing rights would have a major impact, given that at present this is often conditional on a sympathetic working environment and an understanding boss.

58Enacting public policies to expand fathers’ rights and to establish early patterns of shared parenting, such as individual and non-transferrable parental leaves, could also be effective. Such policies would enhance and normalise new conceptions of parenthood as a phenomenon that concerns men and women equally and requires protection for both sexes—for society in general and for the labour market in particular. The foreseeable consequences would be an increase in paternal care involvement, greater leeway for both parents, and greater ease for couples to enact their ideals and plans. The results of this analysis suggest that reorienting public policies in this direction should lead to a more rewarding overall WLB. This is especially important for the Spanish context, where the number of dual-earner couples opting for joint childcare responsibility is increasing (at least in terms of attitude; Navarro, 2006).

59Individuals holding high-ranking positions have a particularly difficult time attaining a satisfactory WLB. A recurring strategy for couples included in our sample was an outsourcing of care. We also observed that parental unavailability, propelled by a demanding labour market and sustained by traditional ideologies, can result in considerable dissatisfaction. Women were explicitly uneasy when their partners were virtually absent from care. Despite the fact that many had high educational or economic resources, some women were unable to renegotiate a favourable gender balance and instead took on almost all of the care responsibilities. At the root of the problem seems to be a perception—particularly entrenched in Spanish workplaces, with their culture of presenteeism and expectation of long hours—that high-ranking positions presuppose exclusive commitment, leaving no time for other areas of life. Hence, couples’ experiences analysed in this article highlight the need for systemic change. A transformation appears necessary in Spanish society, as in many others, regarding the relative importance of paid and unpaid work and the perception of children as a common good (England and Folbre, 1999). In light of our results, changes in work culture would likely go a long way towards achieving a socially widespread, more satisfactory work-life balance.


Appendix 1. – Couples classified according to their satisfaction with work-life balance, main socio-demographic characteristics and share of childcare

Notes : * The partner earns less in wave #2. **The partner earns more in wave #2. ¥ He unemployed / ¥¥ She unemployed. | Tertiary programme = 3 year undergraduate degree.

Appendix 2. – Couples classified according to their occupation and age variation

A01 (Plant operator; Social worker)
A02 (Maintenance operator; Administrative assistant)
A03 (Electrician; Secretary)
A04 (Technician; Manager of the Technical Office)
A05 (Hospital assistant; Teacher)
A06 (Plant operator; Manager)
A07 (Bank manager; Teacher)
A08 (Office clerk; Journalist)
A09 (Technician; Secretary)
A10 (Nursing professional; Technical assistant)
A11(Intermediate officer; Technician)
A12 (Researcher; Researcher)
A13 (Technician; Technician in renewable energies)
A14 (Computer technician; Statistician)
A15 (Bricklayer; Teacher)
[15 couples]
29; 31
28; 26

37; 31
43; 41

40; 35
37; 34
33; 32
38; 35
33; 30
30; 30

39; 37
44; 41
44; 37

43; 42
38; 36
(Median age at motherhood: 35)
Jointly responsible work-life balance
Unequal distribution of child care
Unfavourable circumstances
B01 (Administration assistant; Unemployed)
B02 (Nursing assistant; Nurse)
[2 couples]
28; 30
35; 34
(Median age at motherhood: 32)
Unequal distribution of child care
Couple’s different conception of parenthood or justified by work demands
C01 (Technician; Documentary maker)
C02 (Applications programmer; Manager)
C03 (Industrial designer; Graphic artist)
C04 (Industry services; Graphic artist)
C05 (Manager; Adminis trative assistant)
C06 (Commercial sales representative; Tech. in tourism)
C07 (University teacher; Consultant)
[7 couples]
38; 34
35; 36
38; 31
38; 36
36, 35
41; 41

43; 41
(Median age at motherhood: 36)
Unequal distribution of child care
D01 (Artist; Technician)
D02 (Manager in building enterprise; Manager)
D03 (Manager; Editing manager)
D04 (Entrepreneur; Technician)
[4 couples]
40; 37
44; 40

38; 35
37; 38
(Median age at motherhood: 38)
Unequal distribution of child care
E01 (Shop supervisor; Social worker)
E02 (Warehouse operator; Hairdresser)
E03 (Technician; Politician)
[3 couples]
32; 32
35; 35
31; 33
(Median age at motherhood: 33)
Note: Overall median age at first motherhood in the sample is 35. Source: authors’ own elaboration based on 31 couples interviewed.


  • [1]
    Authors have contributed equally to this article. This research has been supported by Recercaixa2014, Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (Projects CSO2014-58754-P and CSO2016-80484-R), and Juan de la Cierva, Fellowship (FJCI-2015-27260).
  • [2]
    Figures calculated by the authors based on data from the Spanish Labour Force Survey.
  • [3]
    Ten people from the research team participated in coding the interviews and preparing memos. Several tests were conducted in pairs to ensure inter-subjective validity, i.e. that all team members understood the coding protocol in the same way, and the passages in which analytical and substantive codes had to be applied in connection with our theoretical framework
  • [4]
    See the interview scripts [On-line:], accessed on 24/05/2018.

Satisfaction With Work-Life Balance: Couples With Egalitarian Practices in Their Transition To First-Time Parenthood In Spain

This study analyses dual-earner couples’ subjective satisfaction with work-life balance after having their first child. We draw on a longitudinal qualitative analysis of 31 Spanish couples who showed an egalitarian division of housework prior to childbirth. Participating couples were interviewed during pregnancy and about 18 months after the birth. We analysed individuals’ subjective feelings of satisfaction with the way that childcare was organised. The study reveals that half of the couples moved towards a traditional gender division of childcare, but that this did not necessarily entail dissatisfaction with work-life balance. Satisfaction with work-life balance is less dependent on specific arrangements than on whether initial expectations are fulfilled.


  • Work-Life Balance
  • Couples’ Subjective Satisfaction
  • Childcare
  • Transition to Parenthood


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Maria José González
Universitat Pompeu Fabra
Departament de Ciències Polítiques i Socials
Irene Lapuerta
Universidad Pública de Navarra
Departamento de Trabajo Social
Teresa Martín-García
Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas
Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales
Marta Seiz
Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia
Departamento de Sociología II (Estructura social)
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This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
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