Childcare in Lithuania and Belarus: How Gendered is Parenting in Eastern European Countries?

Aušra Maslauskaitė and Anja Steinbach write about their research in which they analysed parenting and childcare division among Lithuanian and Belarussian families.

Introduction

The division of domestic labor has become one of the most frequently examined issues in family sociology. Despite the strong interest in the gendered division of domestic labor, there is surprisingly little research on the division of childcare responsibilities in families, which takes into account detailed information about time and tasks spent on childcare. Another limitation of existing studies on housework and childcare is that most were conducted in Western European or North American countries, while research on such patterns in Central, and particularly in Eastern, Europe (CEE) is scarce.

In their recent paper in the Journal of Family Studies Anja Steinbach and Aušra Maslauskaite explored childcare division among Lithuanian and Belarussian families. The paper aimed to examine gendered parenting practices by analyzing a set of factors (individual, couple, and household) that determine the division of childcare in families.

Why Lithuania and Belarus?

Lithuania and Belarus are two neighboring countries, which followed opposite paths of political and economic development after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, and, consequently, currently represent very different societal contexts. During the Soviet era, these countries were subject to the same family policy measures, and women in both countries had high employment rates and held an advantageous position in higher education (Peshkova, 1972; Gruzevskis & Kanopiene, 2017). Furthermore, Lithuania and Belarus had similar divorce rates, fertility levels, and marriage patterns (Bondarskaja & Iljina, 1979; Darsky & Scherbov, 1995). After 1990 Lithuania took the path leading to liberal democracy and the creation of a market economy. The country introduced radical economic reforms, and has been classified as one of the CEE countries that pursued an extreme form of neoliberal capitalism (Bohle & Greskovits, 2007). While Lithuania experienced spectacular levels of economic growth before the 2009-2010 crisis, this apparent success was accompanied by increasing inequalities and high social costs (Zaidi, 2009), which were exacerbated by the austerity policies that were vigorously implemented in the Baltic countries after the crisis (Sommers, Woolfson, & Juska, 2014). In contrast, Belarus failed to develop democratic institutions and moved toward political authoritarianism after 1990 (Silitski, 2002). The slow pace of economic reforms in the country resulted in the emergence of a peculiar type of economic system, which some scholars have called “state capitalism” (Korosteleva, 2007). As the country has made limited progress in democratizing its political institutions, many of the Soviet-era family policies have continued unchanged, and the central role of the state in developing and implementing welfare policies has persisted (Pastore & Verashchagina, 2008; Stankūnienė, Jasilionis, Bobrova, & Shcherbina, 2018).

Theoretical argument

It has been theorized that at least in some countries a transition to a new gender regime is occurring. Some scholars have argued that societies will move toward or are already starting to reach a “new gender egalitarian equilibrium” (Esping‐Andersen & Billari, 2015, p. 25), or are experiencing the “second half of the gender revolution” (Goldscheider, Bernhardt, & Lappegård, 2015, p. 208). This new gender regime is characterized by an increasing egalitarianism in the private sphere, with men becoming more actively involved in both housework and childcare activities. To what extent have different countries, including the two countries that are at the center of our analysis, achieved this “new gender regime,” with women becoming equal participants in the labor force and men performing equal amounts of housework and childcare?

Our paper is based on the rational choice or bargaining theories, which argue that the division of household labor and childcare depends on the resources that each of the partners brings into the relationship (Blossfeld & Drobnič, 2009). In addition, we also consider the gender role or doing gender framework. Accordingly, it is assumed that the division of domestic labor and childcare is mostly determined by the attitudes toward gender (in-)equality and family roles a person holds (Greenstein, 1996). Through the performing (or not performing) of housework and childcare, women and men develop and stabilize their (social) gender identity (West & Zimmerman, 1987).

Data

Our analyses are based on data from the Families and Inequalities Survey 2019 for Lithuania  and the Generations and Gender Survey 2020 Belarus Wave 1 that was conducted in 2017. The Lithuanian Families and Inequalities Survey is a representative dataset covering the cohorts born between 1970 and 1984 (N=3,000). The Belarusian Generations and Gender Survey 2020 is a representative dataset of people between ages 18 and 79 (N= 2,859). Both surveys have identical measures, which facilitated the pooling of the data. We restricted the sample to respondents who were born between 1970 and 1984, who were living with children under age 14, and who lived together with the other parent in the same household. Thus, our final analytical sample consisted of 2,114 cases: 1,075 for Lithuania and 1,039 for Belarus. Details about the construction of the dependent and independent variables, as well as about the statistical methods, are provided in the article version of the paper.

Results

Table 1 presents descriptive results for each item on the childcare task scale for Lithuania and Belarus. As expected, we found that in both countries, mothers were more likely than fathers to be solely responsible for childcare tasks in the family. In both countries, mothers were more likely than fathers to be responsible for dressing the children and staying home when the children were ill (in LT: 59.2 percent and 69.4 percent, in BY: 51.6 percent and 61.1 percent). The tasks that were frequently shared by parents were playing with the children or taking part in leisure activities with the children (LT: 59.1 percent, BY: 79.9 percent). Generally, parents in Belarus shared more of childcare tasks than parents in Lithuania. In Belarus, three out of five childcare tasks (putting children to bed, playing/engaging in leisure time activities with children, and helping children with their homework) were more likely to be performed by both parents than by the mother alone. In Lithuania, in contrast, only one item (playing/leisure time activities) was more likely to be done by both parents than by the mother alone. For a more detailed presentation of the results of the multivariate analysis please consult the article version of the paper.

Table 1. Distribution of childcare tasks of parents in Lithuania and Belarus (percentages)

Note:   Families and Inequalities Survey 2019 (Lithuania) and Generations and Gender Survey 2020 (Belarus)

Conclusions

First, we found that Lithuanian mothers performed more childcare tasks on their own than Belarusian mothers, and that the parents shared fewer childcare activities in Lithuania than in Belarus. Despite these country differences, we observed that in both countries, fathers’ solo contributions to childcare were very marginal, and that fathers were most actively involved in recreational activities. We can assume that in Lithuania, the traditional gendered division of childcare was reinforced by radical political and economic reforms, together with parental leave policies that allowed parents to take long leave periods with very high-income replacement levels. Overall, our results show that the division of childcare is more egalitarian in Belarus, and, thus, that Belarus is closer to the “second half of the gender revolution” (Goldscheider et al., 2015) than Lithuania. Paradoxically, having transitioned to a market economy and a liberal democracy did not catalyze gender egalitarianism in Lithuania, at least in the private sphere.

Second, we found that the larger the income gap was between mothers and fathers, the more childcare activities mothers performed. Additionally, our findings indicated that an income gap between the male and the female partner was more strongly associated with the division of childcare in Lithuanian couples than in Belarusian couples.

Third, we found that greater decision-making power for women was positively associated with a traditional division of childcare. One potential explanation for this finding is that women with more decision-making power are displaying their gender, as the doing gender theory would suggest, by performing more housework and childcare (West & Zimmerman, 1987). Another possible explanation for this result is related to the legacy of the matrifocal family, which was strongly supported by state policies and the public discourse in the Soviet period (Utrata, 2008). The woman holding the “four corners of the home” epitomizes the cultural ideal and social reality of Soviet society, and these discursive notions of gender might still play a role in shaping family life in Lithuania and Belarus.

Fourth, our findings indicate that traditional gender values were positively associated with a traditional division of childcare in Lithuania and in Belarus. Thus, it appears that normative expectations about femininity, masculinity, and parenthood were playing a crucial role in the social organization of childcare within the families, and brought childcare into the gender identity building domain.

Aušra Maslauskaitė is Professor of Sociology at the Vytautas Magnus University and Senior Researcher at the  Lithuanian Center for Social Sciences. She received her PhD in Sociology from Vilnius University. Her research interests are family demography, gender and family, families and inequalities. She leads the National Research Infrastructure „Generations and Gender Programme Lithuania“.

Anja Steinbach is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. She studied sociology at the University of Leipzig and obtained a PhD as well as her Habilitation in sociology from the Technical University of Chemnitz. She was a visiting researcher at Syracuse University’s Aging Studies Institute and is a Board Member of the ISA-Committee on Family Research. Recent publications include articles in the Journal of Family Issues, Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, Journal of Marriage and Family as well as Social Science Research.

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