Week-On, Week-Off Parenting: Does It Work?

Revisiting a radical experiment in work-life balance

  • Photo-Illustration by Amedeo De Palma for TIME

    Anne and her husband Johannes Bulko, who have a 2-year-old son, Olvar, share one job: packer in a drug-supply firm. They work alternating weeks. The spouse who's not working stays at home caring for Olvar. "Our employer doesn't mind at all," said Johannes, "as long as there is always one Bulko signing in in the morning."

    Sound like a novel arrangement? It is — or rather, it was. The details above are lifted from a story that ran in TIME nearly 40 years ago. The article described a five-year experiment, which was started in 1970 and was sponsored by the Norwegian government, to test a radically different model of work-life balance. Sixteen couples took part, switching off between home and family. Some partners worked alternating days, and some alternating weeks. It was so progressive, even for Scandinavia, that a descendant of playwright Henrik Ibsen — considered a pioneer in the women's movement — participated.

    More than 30 years after the study finished, University of Oslo researcher Margunn Bjornholt tracked down 14 of the original 16 couples to see how they had fared. Was job-sharing, even temporarily, a smart move? How significantly did the years of part-time work set back their careers? How much did the arrangement affect their finances? Their children? Their marriages?

    "One surprising finding of this follow-up study was that so many of the couples continued to work part time for several years after the project concluded," says Bjornholt. Nine of the 14 couples she spoke with kept the arrangement for another six years, presumably until all their children were in school. One pair continued to switch on and off for 30 years.

    All the couples recalled the study as a time of low stress and greater quality of life, even though they didn't have much money. Three of the couples ended up divorcing, but most said the experiment strengthened their marriage. "It's very fundamental that both [spouses] have responsibility at home," one husband told Bjornholt. "This creates a basis for a shared experience and a shared understanding."

    Bjornholt's follow-up comes at a time when surveys suggest that people overwhelmingly believe women's working outside the home is a positive development — and just as overwhelmingly believe that the best caregiver for a young child is a biological parent. This presents something of a quandary, given that the kinks haven't quite been ironed out of human cloning.

    Job-sharing remains a rarity. And flexible schedules, in which employees choose where and when they'll get their work done, are no cure-all either. A new study by the University of Toronto found that of 1,200 U.S. workers surveyed, those who set their own schedule report blurring the boundaries between home and work more often than nonflextimers. This leads to increased work-family conflict, not less. "People have difficulty figuring out when one responsibility ends and the other begins," says the study's lead author, Scott Schieman. And in this employment climate, people who have jobs want to be seen as working harder, not less.

    Another commonly discussed alternative, having women take a few years off to raise children, is also proving problematic. Businesses change, technology changes, and colleagues and contacts move on. It's hard to jump-start a career. Plus, argues University of California law professor Joan C. Williams in her new book, Reshaping the Work Family Debate , the mommy track puts a lot of pressure on men. "The feminist argument has been that women should have choices," she says. "But that means fathers have no choice but to shoulder the burden of being the sole breadwinner."

    Meanwhile, Williams points to research that suggests that in two-income families, men who openly take responsibility for child care are often stigmatized at work. "My studies of union grievances show that some men would rather be fired than explain they can't work overtime because they have to look after their kids," she says. While many men are legally entitled to annual family leave in the U.S., it has not become culturally acceptable to take it.

    All this puts a huge strain on marriages, for both spouses. "There's a myth that women haven't bargained effectively enough to get men to do more," says Williams. "In fact, men report higher levels of work-family conflict than women do."

    Bjornholt's follow-up study found that five years of part-time work had not set the men's careers back irreparably. Half of them had attained managerial-level positions, and the half that didn't had chosen to focus on other goals. "Several of the men reported that their caregiving experience was viewed as highly relevant to managerial jobs," she says. Bjornholt also found that the sons of the work-share couples greatly respect their dads. "The men identify with their fathers and seem to share an egalitarian attitude and also seem to perceive the sharing of domestic work as important," Bjornholt says. (She's still studying the effects on daughters.)

    As for finances, although money issues eventually sent the fathers into full-time jobs, most of the work-share couples said they did catch up with their peers. One couple said their only regret about participating in the experiment was that it affected their pensions.

    But the temporary-job-sharing idea didn't stick — even in Norway, the first country to introduce paid paternity leave (six weeks) and semipaid parental leave for up to 12 months for either parent. In hindsight, the work-life experiment seems crazy; it's no cakewalk to raise a family on two part-time salaries, even for a little while. But is it any crazier than what families are doing to get by today?