Economist Asks 'Is Taking Care of Your Child Housework?'

Story posted November 11, 2010

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Few working mothers with younger children would be surprised to learn that much of their so-called "free" time—hours not spent on the job or doing housework—is taken up with child care.

The stereotype of a time-crunched, multi-tasking working mother who squeezes in child care between her job, cooking, vacuuming, shopping, and chauffeuring is a mainstay of 21st century American life.

It turns out though that there are substantial variations among women, which break down dramatically along income lines.

According to a new book just published by Bowdoin economist Rachel Connelly, Time Use of Mothers in the United States at the Turn of the 21st Century (W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2010):

* Mothers who devote the most time to caregiving are high-wage married women;
* Women with younger children spend more time on self-reported caregiving activities on weekdays than they do on weekends;
* Single mothers, who are more likely to work in the evenings and who on average have older children, spend less time on child care than do married mothers.

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The book, which Connelly co-authored with longtime research partner Jean Kimmel of Western Michigan University, analyzes extensive time diary data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Survey (ATUS). That survey tracks the activities of tens of thousands of Americans beginning in 2003, offering a rich statistical portrait of how they spent a 24-hour period. Connelly and Kimmel have used the ATUS data from 2003 to 2006.

From that data, the authors teased out a wide array of information about time use among a nationally representative sample of more than 6,000 single, married, and divorced mothers with children under the age of 13.

"We were interested in many facets of how U.S. mothers spend their time," says Connelly. "How much leisure time do they have? What time of day do women do a majority of their primary caregiving? How does wage impact the time they devote to caregiving? How are various aspects of child care allocated in two-parent households? Do men and women spend their non-work time differently? Does the time of day one works matter in terms of caregiving time?"

Some of their findings confirmed well known statistical trends:

* More mothers are entering the work force, with 60 percent of U.S. women with younger children employed;
* Married women spend more time doing unpaid work in the home than their husbands—an average of 26 percent of their time on a given weekday is spent on unpaid work (housework and child care) whereas only 10 percent for married men with children under age 13;
* Men spend more time in the labor market than women and have approximately the same amount of leisure time during the week (with one hour more than women on weekends).

Within those figures, however, the researchers uncovered some unexpected findings about women at either end of the income spectrum. The children of single mothers (who often are in the lowest income group) receive less caregiving time from their mothers, implying that these children are disadvantaged in time inputs as well as in income. In addition, single mothers are more likely to work in the evenings, which is shown to affect the amount of caregiving time that young school-aged child receive in the evenings when homework is usually completed.

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At the upper end of the income spectrum, Connelly and Kimmel find that higher-wage married mothers devote more time to primary caregiving than do lower-wage married mothers, especially on weekdays.

"We thought it would be the opposite, that women with higher incomes would be working longer hours and have fewer hours for childcare. And it is true that higher-wage women are working more hours but they are also reporting more hours of caregiving," notes Connelly. "Where is the extra caregiving time coming from? The answer is, it's coming from women's leisure, home production and from sleep."

While Connelly is cautious about ascribing causal factors, she does reflect on how the figures may illustrate changing cultural values.

"I think women's employment has a lot to do with it," she says. "Because women are not at home during the week, they may be upping the ante by spending more time with children than they used to. Child care has a big investment component. It may be a source of pleasure, but you also spend time reading to them or getting after them to do homework because you want to have a positive relationship with them. You want them to do well."

"When you look at women's time use, child care is a very different beast. It's not housework, and it's not leisure, but it takes a lot of time and there are no shortcuts. There are lots of shortcuts for housework time. You can get somebody else to do it, but you can't get someone else to have that special moment with your kid."

Rachel Connelly, Bowdoin's Bion R. Cram Professor of Economics, is an internationally renowned economist who has published more than twenty articles about various aspects of the economics of child care. Her 2004 book, Kids at Work: The Economics of Employer Sponsored On-Site Child Care, which she co-authored with Bowdoin economics professor Deborah DeGraff and Rachel Willis of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is considered seminal in the field of employer sponsored child care.

Connelly is widely cited as an expert on the economics of the family in national media outlets, including The Washington Post.

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