WASHINGTON — Fathers are taking on bigger shares of chores and child care, recent surveys show, and marriage experts say that it's probably good for their love lives.
The trend in helpfulness, which has some skeptics, updates a generation of reports that working mothers got little relief at home.
Instead, the latest data "paint a largely optimistic picture of trends in marital equality," according to Stephanie Coontz, the director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, an alliance of researchers, clinicians and writers.
The increases in helpfulness reportedly are greatest for two groups of husbands: young ones who say they believe in sharing equitably with their wives and older ones who've adapted to their wives' years of working outside the home.
"But the tide is also rising in places you wouldn't think: Men married with stay-at-home wives are changing, too," said Scott Coltrane, a sociologist at the University of California in Riverside who studies patterns in domestic life.
"In fact, men are doing at least a little more in industrialized countries all across the globe," Coltrane said. That includes Mediterranean countries in which the domestic roles of men and women traditionally have been very distinct.
In research that includes other countries, he added, U.S. fathers show the greatest — or nearly the greatest — change, especially when it comes to child care.
The new findings are based on time-use diaries in which subjects report what they're doing at intervals of 15 to 20 minutes without knowing how that information will be used. Sociologists consider such diaries more accurate than surveys. A disadvantage is that studies that use them take longer to perform and analyze.
Activities defined as household work included food preparation and cleanup, cleaning house, outdoor cleaning, clothes care, car maintenance, household paperwork, plant care, animal care, baby care, helping and teaching children, shopping for food and clothes, reading and playing with children, medical care for children, errands and travel related to obtaining goods and services.
The shift was nearly undetectable until the `90s, and wives still do far more than husbands do on domestic fronts. Among married U.S. couples with children younger than 18, for example, wives do twice as much unpaid work as men do, according to a 2006 analysis by a team of sociologists at the University of Maryland in College Park.
But the fathers' share is increasing, and when the researchers added paid and unpaid work for both sexes, the result was a virtually equal 65 hours a week for mothers and 64 for fathers.
"We are moving towards an androgynous society" in which husbands and wives do the same things and their balances of work and leisure are equal, said sociologist John Robinson, the director of Maryland's Americans' Use of Time Project and a co-author of the study.
The surge in helpful husbands is bound to continue, Coltrane added, "because it's driven by increases in their wives' paid work."
Larry Weise, 59, a credit-union president in Broken Arrow, Okla, is a believer.
Back when his first child was 3 and his wife, Sally, was working full time, "we had a heart-to-heart talk," Weise said, "and I changed because I wanted to make sure my marriage stayed intact."
Weise quit two of the three softball teams he played on. He started hauling his daughter to day care and doctors. He took up the vacuum cleaner.
"He didn't have to do half," Sally Weise said recently, "but if I was in a bind and needed help, I wanted him to recognize it without my having to ask. And he came through."
National numbers suggest similar shifts in millions of U.S. households, according to Coltrane and co-researcher Oriel Sullivan of Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Israel.
They say that the percentage of domestic work by fathers in dual-earner U.S. families increased from 20 percent in the 1970s to nearly a third by the start of the 21st century.
The net increase comes to about six hours a week, they report. Four of the added hours went to child care and two to housework, shopping, cooking and the rest.
The burden's shift is tough to weigh precisely, however, because family time devoted to housekeeping fell over the last 30 years while time devoted to child care rose.
Critics of the upbeat reports say that a lot of women's domestic work goes uncounted.
According to Pamela Smock of the University of Michigan, that includes household management (scheduling doctor's appointments and teacher meetings), emotional labor (noticing when things need talking through to resolution) and kin work (arranging holiday gatherings and caring for relations).
Another skeptic, Sanjiv Gupta of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, thinks that the decline in housework done by working mothers largely reflects that they're hiring help. In that case, working mothers are, at least in part, "purchasing substitutes for housework" with their wages, Gupta said.
Also hard to know is the extent to which individual husbands became more helpful. Another possibility is that a generation of relatively unhelpful ones aged beyond parenthood or died.
A more intriguing matter is the certainty among marriage experts that helpful husbands get more sex.
"When I ask men about this, they all say no," said psychologist Joshua Coleman, a marriage counselor in the San Francisco Bay area and the author of the book "The Lazy Husband."
"But when I ask women about it, they all say yes," Coleman said.
Peggy Rogers, 56, a nurse from Bassett, Va., said husband Joe's helpfulness certainly had made her feel closer to him as they'd raised three children together on equal-burden principles.
"I feel that he does it because he really cares for me," she said. "It makes my life easier and shows me he loves me. It also makes more time for us to be together. I feel that it's a gift from him."
According to Coltrane and Sullivan, marriages based on a tag-team approach to parenting do more than enhance intimacy. They also are more likely to survive than marriages in which husbands go off to work and wives stay home.
HOUSEWORK'S EFFECT ON MARRIAGE:
Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist known for his work with couples, says this about men who do housework in his book, "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work":
_ "Men overestimate the amount of housework they do. When they say they're doing it all, wives know they might actually be doing half."
_ "The key is not the actual amount he does, but the wife's subjective view of whether it's enough."
_ "Women find a man's willingness to do housework extremely erotic."