Shared leave, happier parent couples? Parental leave and relationship satisfaction in Germany

by Janna Wilhelm and Pia S. Schober

After the transition to parenthood and while children are young, couples’ relationship quality tends to decline. Recent conceptualisations of the stalled gender revolution have argued that gender inequality in the division of paid and domestic work within heterosexual couples are likely to contribute to declining relationship satisfaction, especially among women. At the same time, institutions have been pointed out as crucial in supporting the diffusion of gender egalitarian norms in order to move towards completing the gender revolution – which then might affect relationship satisfaction positively. In line with this argument, it has been shown across different countries that parents’ individual happiness heavily depends on the availability and generosity of parental leave policies. Also, leave policies that incentivise fathers’ uptake of leave and support mothers’ labour market return have been found to promote a more equal division of childcare and paid work and might thus play a particularly important role.

To date, however, little evidence exists as to a more direct relationship between parental leave and relationship satisfaction among parent couples outside the US context. Our study aimed to close this gap and shed light on the effects of parental leave in a European context with relatively generous, yet historically familialist policies. At the individual level, we examined how the division of leave between parents relates to changes in mothers’ and fathers’ relationship satisfaction in stable two-parent families. Then, we explored the impact of Germany’s parental leave reform in 2007, which marked a dramatic shift in national family policy. In the past, the German family policy model has frequently been classified as supported or explicit familialism, suppressing employment of second earners and reinforcing gender inequality. Leave entitlements were rather long and low-paid with a right to take leave until the child’s third birthday. The reform in 2007 (‘Elterngeldreform’) implemented an income-based benefit of between 65 and 100 percent of net earnings for 12 months (capped at €1800 per month). Two additional months of leave are awarded to the couple if each partner takes at least 2 months of parental leave. As in most families mothers take paid leave for 12 months, whereas the vast majority of fathers take either no leave or only these 2 months of paid leave, that would otherwise be lost to the family.

At the micro-level, we drew on role theory, suggesting that after childbirth parents face changing role demands as mother or father, income-earner, and loving partner – potentially leading to role conflict. Stress as a result of too many responsibilities can, in turn, lead to declines in relationship quality and satisfaction. During the early years after childbirth, most mothers in Germany are primarily responsible for childcare and domestic duties, whereas fathers’ domestic contributions increase much less. This role traditionalisation may increase perceptions of unfairness, role conflict, and role overload, especially for mothers with egalitarian ideologies and career ambitions. Role traditionalisation also often leads fathers to feel detached from family life. Following family system theory, we understand families as interdependent systems and assumed positive or negative effects of leave-taking on one partner to cross over to the other partner. Hence, we expected that leave uptake and longer leaves by fathers are positively associated with improved relationship satisfaction of fathers and mothers during the first years after birth. Whereas mother’s longer full-time leave might allow mothers to concentrate on family care and reduce role conflict and overload, the relatively long leaves of about a year or more have also been shown to reinforce a traditional gender division of domestic work even after mothers’ labour market return. We therefore tested whether longer durations of maternal leave are associated with either higher or lower relationship satisfaction  in the first years after the child’s birth. Also, we examined whether that the positive (negative) effects of longer maternal leave are weaker (stronger) for mothers with more egalitarian gender ideologies. Lastly, we investigated whether the 2007 parental leave reform increased medium-term relationship satisfaction for mothers and fathers by comparing couples who had their children after the parental leave reform withparents who had their children before the 2007 reform.

For our analyses, we used eight survey waves (2008/09 to 2015/16) of the Panel Analysis of Intimate Relationships and Family Dynamics (pairfam, https://www.pairfam.de/en/). First, we applied fixed-effects panel models to explore the longitudinal relationship between leave-taking and changes in relationship satisfaction. We extend earlier research by considering the actual length of leave taken and whether it was taken solo or jointly. Second, we implemented a difference-in-difference (DiD) design to examine medium-term effects of the 2007 reform on relationship satisfaction in heterosexual couples when their children were about 3 years old.

At the micro-level, we found some support for higher relationship satisfaction among fathers with increasing overall length of paternal leave (for a summary of effect sizes, see Figure 1). This corresponds to previous studies from the US and Korea, where fathers typically took much shorter leaves of just a few days or a week. Interestingly, our findings suggest that mothers’ and fathers’ relationship satisfaction declined with increasing duration of maternal solo leave. This finding was remarkably stable and remained significant when lagged variables were used. It is in line with several studies showing that women are happier with their relationship when they share housework and childcare more equally with their partners. Contrary to our assumptions, we found no moderating influence of mothers’ gender ideologies on relationship satisfaction. One possible explanation may be that mothers and fathers with more egalitarian ideals may partly counteract the traditionalisation of the division of domestic work despite long paid leaves by mothers, which offsets the potential negative effects of stronger perceived unfairness.

In line with these individual-level findings, our DiD analyses suggest that mothers who had children after the reform were significantly happier with their relationship. However, fathers’ relationship satisfaction did not seem to be significantly affected. These results also match previous research, which found a positive effect of the reform on parental happiness, with larger effects on maternal wellbeing. Unlike this latter study, which focused on life satisfaction, we did not find that increases in household income were a mediator of the reform effect on relationship satisfaction.

Figure 1. Effects of Changes in One Standard Deviation in Mothers’ and Fathers’ Leave Duration on Relationship Satisfaction of Fathers and Mothers

Note. Relationship satisfaction measured from 0 (very unsatisfied) to 10 (very satisfied).
*** p<0.001, **p<0.01, * p<0.05, † p<0.1. Source: pairfam, release 8.0.

In summary, our findings suggest that both parents’ satisfaction decreases with increasing duration of solo maternal leave. Remarkably, the two analyses in combination seem to suggest that the significant and sizeable positive effect of the parental leave reform in 2007 on German mothers’ relationship satisfaction may have been driven more by the reduction in mothers’ solo leave duration than the increase in fathers’ leave. This is noteworthy given that the latter has received much more attention by scholars and policymakers alike. However, this finding is plausible as most mothers in Germany tend to take about a year of paid leave, whereas fathers who take leave tend to take 2 months at most. In line with gender revolution theory, our findings provide further evidence that parental leave policies supporting greater gender equality may positively impact relationship quality and ultimately also stability. This is highly relevant for policymakers in Germany and other EU countries. In 2019, fewer than half of European Union countries offered well-paid parental leave and had adopted some type of bonus leave entitlement to encourage fathers to take parental leave. However, in August 2019, the EU Work–Life Balance Directive came into force, which inter alia requires all EU member states to introduce at least 10 days of paternity leave and at least 2 months of non-transferable paid parental leave for each parent. Therefore, in the near future, other EU member states are increasingly likely to implement parental leave reforms containing similar measures as those introduced in Germany over the past 15 years.

This blog post is based on an article published in the Journal of European Social Policy.

About the Authors

Janna Wilhelm is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of Sociology, University of Tübingen

Pia S. Schober is Professor of Microsociology at the Department of Sociology, University of Tübingen.

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