Mom Life and Dad Life

Earlier this week my co-blogger Mike had a really great post on work-from-home, and how we might turn former workspaces into new home spaces. It’s a really great idea, and an excellent example of a “second best” solution to the housing shortage.

I’d like to talk about a related but very different topic, which is the things we do in our homes. And for many working couples, that thing is raising children (and generally, keeping up the house).

If you spend much time on Twitter or Instagram, you’ve probably run across the account “Mom Life Comics.” It’s a very popular Instagram account, and lately some of the comics have been shared widely on Twitter (sometimes sympathetically, sometimes mockingly). The running theme of the topic, in short, is that moms carry much more of the “load” than dads do, both the physical load of doing stuff, and what’s sometimes called the “mental load” as well.

There’s a reason the comic is striking a chord with women: just ask any young mom today, especially a young mom that is also working. They have all felt this way at some point, and some of them probably feel this way all the time.

The idea is nothing new, of course. Sociologists have been using the term “invisible work” since at least the 1980s to describe the unseen, unpaid work that women do around the home. But the concept has, of course, been around for much longer. But how has the balance of work changed over time?

Here’s an interesting graphic that Pew Research put together a few years ago. Based on “time use surveys” from 1965 and 2016, we see some pretty dramatic changes over time. Of course, the growth in the number of hours that women work in the paid labor force has increased dramatically, but this fact is well known and has been studied widely. Perhaps less well known is that the amount of time, on average, that women spend on unpaid housework has been cut almost in half. Part of this is due to time-saving technologies, but we also see that dads, on average, are picking up some of the slack in housework.

What’s most interesting to me is when we look at childcare in the graphic. According to this data, both moms and dads are spending more time each week on childcare today than they did in the 1960s: 4 more hours for moms, and 5.5 more hours for dads. And crucially, speaking to the “tired parent syndrome” (I just made that up), all this additional childcare time means that parents are spending more combined time on these three areas than they were in the 1960s. Why do parents feel like there is less time these days for socializing with friends, dates, and, well, sleep? Because we’re both spending more time on our combined “work,” both paid and unpaid (of course, not all childcare is “work,” much of it is fun — but it’s still time).

So yes, moms of America, you are overworked and probably feel extremely stretched. But guess what? Dads feel that way too! I think this is why some are reacting negatively to the “Mom Life” comic: it often paints dads as lazy, self-centered, and not contributing to the “load.” But many dads are!

That brings me to the final area I think is important in this conversation. “Many” dads are contributing to the load. But not all are. The Pew graphic, and a lot of the other data we look at on this issue, are averages. Averages are always tricky, but they are especially tricky on this issue.

If we look into more detail on recent “time use surveys,” we can zoom in on married couples who work full time (I presume this is the target demographic of Mom Life). If we look at married couples (I’m not sure how same-sex couples figure into this data, sorry) with young children (at least one under 6), we see that mothers working full-time spend 2.3 hours per day on childcare, versus 1.3 hours per day for fathers working full time (see Table A6-B). But we also see that 93% of these mothers are engaged in childcare on an average, while only 75% of fathers are. Similarly, for families with older children, 62% of mothers working full-time are engaged in childcare, but only 45% of fathers are.

When we see those averages of hours per day, it’s including a lot of “zeroes” who aren’t doing any childcare. If we restricted the sample to those fathers that are actually contributing to childcare, we’d see the average creep up closer to mother’s average. A quick calculation suggests this would eliminate perhaps half of the childcare gap — but to be clear, that’s among fathers that do regularly engage in childcare (this means the gap is even bigger for families where fathers don’t contribute to “the load). BLS does make the microdata available, if someone wants to make a more precise estimate. But I think the bottom line here is pretty clear: in some married couples, the load is pretty equally shared (and both parents probably feel stretched thin); in other families, it’s primarily the mother that is handling the load (and feeling stretched very, very thin).

Of course, fathers should continue making changes to share even more of the load. The unfortunate reality is that for couples that are likely viewing the “Mom Life” comics, the load is probably pretty equally shared already.

8 thoughts on “Mom Life and Dad Life

  1. Zachary Bartsch August 4, 2022 / 7:03 am

    I have 4 children under the age of 6.

    1) Bryan Caplan, in ‘Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids”, also points to the increasing time that we’re putting into children. He suggests that the additional time may not be ‘worth it’ if a parent and child are not enjoying themselves.

    2) I live in one of these close-to-equal households. We definitely specialize. I put the kids to bed because that takes a firm routine with little room for exception. Parenting specialization reduces the total mental cost.

    3) We also economize on transaction costs. Getting ready for work and going shopping are time consuming. We both work four days per week (I still get my 40 hours in), and can spend longer stretches with our kids on the ‘off’ days and in total. We try to limit shopping trips, which again results in less time driving, etc. Not to mention that economizing on time saves us childcare costs twice per week. All of this also helps us to feel like our weekend time is not so scarce and coveted.

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  2. Scott Buchanan August 4, 2022 / 10:28 am

    According to that graphic , the total mom + dad time spent on “child care” doubled between 1965 and 2016. I was a child in the 1960’s. For me and my friends, our parents did not put much time into entertaining us or playing with us, especially beyond age five or so. Kids were expected to entertain themselves, especially with siblings. I think family sizes may have been larger in the sixties- – – single children have a harder time.

    After school or on weekends were typically spent outside, playing with other kids in the neighborhood, and especially with child-organized games like kickball. We were not driven much to adult-organized games, where the parents then sat on the sidelines.
    Or, we roamed the woods or ride our bikes around town, even at ages ten or so.

    All this took a sense of security, not feeling like your kids were in danger if they were out of your sight, even miles away, you weren’t sure exactly where. My parents let me do all kinds of things that I would not (in the 1980s/90s) have been comfortable letting my kids do.

    Not saying any of this is right or wrong, just trying to add some information to the observed trend for child care time.

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  3. Crowstep August 5, 2022 / 10:15 am

    Your post assumes that men and women working full time are working the same hours, and therefore assumes that men aren’t pulling their weight.

    In reality, full time can mean anything from 35 hours per week to 50+ hours per week, and men who work full time work longer hours than women who work full time. The average man in the US works 41 hours per week, while his female counterpart only works 36 hours.

    A more accurate question would be, why are men doing a disproportionally large share of unpaid work relative to their already larger share of paid work?

    Although really, a better question to ask would be how can we reduce the number of hours both men and women are working. I think Scott Buchanan is on the right track there. I think modern parents spend too much time looking after their children, and would do better to provide the same amount of childcare that their own parents did.

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    • Jeremy Horpedahl August 5, 2022 / 2:33 pm

      In families where both spouses work full-time, it’s true that men work on average 7 hours more per week. But they also spend 5 hours more per week on “leisure,” primarily watching TV. I am suggesting they spend a little less time watching TV and devote that time to helping out their wife.

      Data from: https://www.bls.gov/tus/tables/a7-1519.htm

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      • callumadavis August 8, 2022 / 10:56 am

        Why should men spend less time on leisure if they are already doing more than their fair share of paid and unpaid work? Your twitter thread says that closing the ‘childcare gap’ is important, but it unclear why this should be the case. Why is it important that men do an equal amount of childcare to women, but not important that women do an equal amount of overall work to men?

        The only justification I can see would be if you considered it morally correct that men work more than women.

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  4. callumadavis August 5, 2022 / 10:21 am

    The focus of this article seems strange. The data clearly shows that men work more than women and have done since the 60s, even if we include childcare and housework. You state this yourself.

    Yet the conclusion of the piece is that men should work even more. Shouldn’t you be concluding that women should be putting more hours in to more equally share the marital workload?

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