IN A WORK-ORIENTED culture, free time is a golden treasure - and sometimes an elusive dream. Just ask parents who work full time. For many, the cycle repeats endlessly: Work all week, then run errands and do household chores all weekend. Free time to spend with a spouse or children? Sorry, that may have to wait.
No wonder some dual-career couples consider what appears to be a logical solution to work-family overload: If income permits, they decide that one partner, usually the woman, should cut back to part-time work.
Yet that may not always produce the hoped-for results, according to new research from the Council on Contemporary Families in New York. It finds that simply reducing time on the job doesn't necessarily have a positive impact on the quality of life for women or men.
"A lot of women reduce their work hours to have more time with their children or partner," says Rosalind Barnett, a researcher at Brandeis University. "But if they're spending the extra time on household tasks, that doesn't translate into better relationships with their family, whether it's the spouse or the children."
In a survey of nearly 100 women physicians in two-career couples with at least one child under 14, those who worked full time reported better relationships with their husbands than those working reduced hours. Marital quality may actually suffer when mothers work part time, Ms. Barnett says.
Part-timers, she finds, end up doing far more household chores, such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry - things that can't be postponed until it's "convenient." Handling these tasks cuts into the quality of their daily life.
Barbara Risman, cochair of the council, explains that when a woman goes from a full-time to a part-time schedule, she may lose whatever negotiating power she had with her husband in getting him to become a more equal partner at home. "Now he can say, 'Well, I work full time and you don't.' "
The female doctors in Barnett's study can presumably hire cleaning help if they choose to. For other couples left to handle their own chores, the question of who does what around the house looms large. Negotiating the division of labor in a marriage can be a prickly task.
Back in the 1970s, in the heady early years of the women's movement, some idealistic couples began taking an egalitarian approach, resolutely dividing household duties down the middle: You cook dinner Monday, Wednesday, Friday this week and I'll do it next week. You take out the trash on Thursdays and I'll bake bread on Tuesdays. You make the bed on even-numbered days and I'll do it on the odd- numbered ones. Such precision!
But domesticity, dust, and disorder have a way of defying easy solutions. What sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls the "second shift" - the at-home work that must be done after regular work hours - continues to fall more heavily on women. Even when husbands and wives spend equivalent hours on the job, most men still don't share equally at home. Ms. Hochschild calls it a "stalled revolution."
New government figures show that almost all of the pay gains American families have received in the past year have come from women's earnings. Although women still earn less than men, on average, their wages have grown while men's have stagnated, making women's work even more valuable.
Part-time work has its advantages. But Barnett stresses the need to define clearly what the reduced schedule will accomplish. "Be sure you use the time you've freed up to do some of the things you wanted to do in the first place."
Chasing dust bunnies from under the bed, wiping fingerprints off the woodwork, washing dishes piled high in the sink - all rank as equal-opportunity tasks in the new domestic order. Who will do them - willingly or grudgingly - remains the great unanswered question that will determine whether the "stalled revolution" advances or falters.