THE PARENT TRAP OCTOBER 11, 2013
“The only luxury is time,” Kanye West told Jimmy Kimmel the other night, “the time you spend with your family.” A new Pew Research Center report shows that most American parents agree with ‘Ye, who is, perhaps tellingly, a new father.
The report, based on data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as part of its 2010 American Time Use Survey, found that out of “child-care,” “leisure,” “housework,” and “paid work,” parents of children under 18 found that the highest percentage of child-care time is “very meaningful,” and that mothers and fathers find essentially the same proportion of child-care activities very meaningful: 60 percent for men, 63 percent for women.
“The real story here is that men are increasingly finding the same degree of meaning as we assume that women find” in parenting, said Kathleen Gerson, an NYU sociology professor who studies these issues. “I don’t think the question was even asked at an earlier period. This is very telling. Earlier the question was, ‘How important is your family to you?’ rather than, ‘How much meaning do you find in child care?’ And the reason it was posted that way is people, including researchers, just assumed men didn't do child care.”
But maybe the most notable thing about the report is the several discrepancies it shows between mothers and fathers in the context of these equivalent sources of meaning. Fathers, on average, have almost twice as much paid work per week as mothers—40.5 hours versus 22.8. Mothers, by contrast, perform a similar proportion of more child-care—13.5 hours versus 7.3—and substantially more housework (17.4 hours versus 10). Only mothers’ and fathers’ leisure time is roughly equivalent. (Also, in the report, fathers reported eight hours more per week, period, which Gerson said could be attributable to them working longer, sleeping less—although most studies show that women sleep less—or overestimating their amount of time. Knowing men, I’m guessing they are overestimating their time.)
But if fathers and mothers were following their hearts, this would not be happening. Fathers perform much less child-rearing even though they find it equally meaningful, and women perform much less paid work even though they find it slightly more meaningful than men.
Because the study is incomplete—we do not know, for example, the average socioeconomic status of these mothers and fathers—it is difficult to draw specific conclusions. One thing seems clear, however: When it comes to supposedly outdated cultural expectations for mothers and fathers, the past isn’t dead—it isn’t even past.
‘GOOD MOTHER’ VERSUS ‘BAD MOTHER'
Kenneth Matos of the Families and Work Institute laid out a classic child-rearing scenario for me. Your child comes back from an hour outdoors with mud on his clothes. How do parents react differently? “When women are trying to avoid the ‘bad mother’ label, it’s like, ‘Did my kid get muddy? I have to clean the clothes or people will think I’m a bad mother.’ The father says, ‘Oh, you must’ve been out playing in the woods.’ The father ends up having more leeway.” He added, “I think it becomes much more stressful [for women], and men don’t necessarily have those same social pressures.”
Though mothers report finding all four types of activities more “tiring” than men, this trend is particularly pronounced when it comes to child-care (where women deem 15 percent of activity “very tiring,” compared to six percent for men) and housework (where women deem eight percent of activity “very tiring,” compared to one percent for men). Also notable: mothers find almost half of “housework” “very meaningful,” where men find barely a quarter of it “very meaningful.” “Unlike women, men don’t have housekeeping as part of their identity as father or husband, and so they don't have as much social incentive to go invest time and energy,” said Matos. “In general, men are judged as whether they are good fathers. Women have to hit a point before they are free of ‘bad mother’ before they can start earning ‘good mother’ points.” This explains not only all the extra time women spend on both child-care and housework—which is related, since a dirty house could make one feel oneself a “bad mother”—as well as the fact that women spend far less time doing paid work. It even helps explain why mothers find more housework and child care “very tiring.” Living up to that double standard sounds rather stressful!
This dynamic also explains the type of housework mothers and fathers are more likely to do. “On average, mothers spend about seven hours per week doing cleaning and laundry, more than three times as much as what fathers spend on these tasks,” Pew reports. “Mothers also do a lot more cooking than fathers. On a weekly basis, mothers spend about seven hours cooking meals (and cleaning the kitchen), and the time that fathers spend on these tasks is about three hours per week.”
These results, Matos said, jibe with a study his Institute did with Real Simple magazine. It found, for example, that mothers generally don’t delegate household or child-rearing tasks to their spouses—not because they think their spouses incapable (they don’t), but because, as one put it, “If I did less around the house, or with my kids, I’d feel like I wasn’t taking care of them properly.” Similarly, more than two-thirds of mothers said they would not hire household or child-care help—which would otherwise be a great way to resolve work-life balance issues (and create more wages for others in the process).
WORK-LIFE BALANCE AS A PROBLEM FOR DADS
But fathers do face social pressures, and the one that most comes into conflict with their personal preferences is the expectation that they be the family breadwinner, particularly in response to mothers’ own social pressure to be the homemaker. Since wage inequality is not what it used to be, the fact that, in this report, fathers are working substantially more at paid jobs than women—again, 40.5 hours per week versus 22.8—despite the fact that they find child-rearing as meaningful and paid work slightly less meaningful suggests that cultural pressure plays an outsize role in this lingering vestige of 1950s gender norms.
“I do think that men have much more of their personal identity wrapped up in work, because that is the stereotypical role,” said Matos.
One provocative corollary to this is that it is fathers more than mothers who must confront so-called work-life balance issues, at least when it comes to time management. Mothers who hold back from grueling careers have to deal emotionally with feeling as though they lack the option to find meaning in that sphere. But from a time perspective, there is relatively little conflict for women who opt to bypass full-time careers. It is fathers who want a home life but feel the societal pressure to have more-than-full careers who are squeezed by the time vise. “We know from decades of research that men are increasing the time they spend in child care, and they’re doing it out of a desire to do so,” noted Gerson. “And, interestingly, research is increasingly showing—and I think it's a clue to what we have here—that men in general on average are more likely to experience work-family conflict than women.”
Here, especially, is where economic conditions—cheaper early daycare and education, better middle-class jobs, less income inequality, better paternity leave, more flexible working conditions—could really make a difference. “The economy is increasingly insecure for both professional middle-class fathers and working-class fathers,” explained Gerson, “so there is if anything greater pressure to put work first—not just to secure your long-term future, but to hold on to your job. There’s still this notion that the way an employer measures one’s work commitment is by the amount of time you put in, and while men and women are both subject to those pressures, men frequently are more so.”
It is all very messy. Individuals’ whims are changing. Yet neither social expectations nor socioeconomic and political institutions have caught up. “We do not only have changing notions of what it means to be a good mother, but changing notions of what it means to be a good father,” noted Gerson. “What I'm finding is that increasingly parents have to develop strategies to cope with the lack of options.”
Which is another way of saying that what’s really needed are better options.