Gay parents are more equal than others
Dividing household and parenting responsibilities is not an issue ... Dale Newman, left, and Alison Rutherford with Rafael. The women also share the breadwinning role. Photo: Nick Moir
ALISON RUTHERFORD is a little surprised that so many women she meets complain about their husbands' ineptness around the house.
It is not a problem she experiences with her same-sex partner, Dale Newman, who is the co-parent of three-year-old Rafael.
''There's a female culture of husband bashing which is quite alien to me,'' she said.
Same-sex parents, research shows, are significantly more egalitarian than heterosexual parents in the way they divide household tasks and parenting responsibilities.
With lesbian couples, the mother who carries the baby and breastfeeds it is not assumed to be the parent who will stay at home or be the main nurturer. In fact little can be assumed and everything must be negotiated when couples do not have gender roles to fall back on.
The findings, from the Work, Love and Play study which compared the experience of 317 same-sex parents - including 27 men - and 958 heterosexual parents, challenges the notion that biology is destiny.
''It is not uncommon for the biological capacity of mothers - childbearing, breastfeeding, nurturing - to be used as the rationale for women's more limited participation in the workforce and their primary role as homemaker,'' says Jennifer Power, of La Trobe University, a co-author. But among lesbian couples, generally both women take on a mothering role, regardless of who gave birth, and both tend to take on the work role. In other cases, the women changed roles over time.
The study found that compared with heterosexual parents, both same-sex parents are much more likely to be working part time. Only 6 per cent of Australian couples with children under the age of 15 have neither parent working full time, compared with 23 per cent of lesbian couples.
Perhaps because of the extraordinary effort gay people must go to to have children, spending time with them is a big priority for both parents, the study found.
As a result, both partners tend to take responsibility for generating income and for all household tasks. ''Sharing roles means each partner develops empathy for what the other is doing,'' said the study, published in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy.
Dr Rutherford, 41, from the school of public health and community medicine at the University of NSW, and Ms Newman, 47, a freelance illustrator, have been together 11 years. The planning and making of Rafael took four years, Ms Newman said.
Though Dr Rutherford was the main breadwinner, she was the more determined to have children and is Rafael's biological mother.
She took six months' maternity leave before returning to work three days a week. Then Ms Newman, who works from home, did more of the parenting.
The decision to live on two part-time incomes until Rafael started school was fairly easy. ''We're older parents, we'll only have one child, and five years is not a huge chunk of our lives,'' Dr Rutherford said.
While their closest friends are a heterosexual couple both of whom work part time, most parents of preschoolers they encounter are in more traditional relationships where women complain that their husbands do not do enough housework.
''I get jealous that the women don't have to be breadwinners as well as mothers, so there's always something to complain about,'' Dr Rutherford said.