Liana C. Sayer is head of the University of Maryland Time Use Laboratory. Joanna R. Pepin is a postdoctoral fellow at the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
Motherhood provides satisfaction and meaning to many women, but it has never been easy, often demanding hard work and sacrifices. Conventional wisdom would suggest that when a mother lives with a husband or male partner, her load is lighter because she has someone with whom to share parenting and other responsibilities.
But when it comes to housework, that turns out not to be true.
We have analyzed data from more than 20,000 mothers who responded to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey (ATUS) between 2003 and 2012 — and our research showed that when there’s a man in the house, mothers spend more time cooking, cleaning, shopping and doing laundry than their single-mom counterparts.
This is the case even when a mom brings home the proverbial bacon. Related research analyzing data from ATUS surveys between 2008 and 2012 shows that after working a full day, married mothers who are the sole breadwinner do almost an hour of housework on average compared with about 11 minutes from married fathers who are the sole breadwinner. Even on their days off, breadwinner moms don’t take a break, doing three times as much cooking, cleaning and laundry as breadwinner dads.
The reasons for this are not entirely clear but may be tied to deep-seated societal views about what is expected of a wife and mother, reinforced by moms’ own expectations about themselves. Our research, and that of our colleagues, indicate moms put housework ahead of their own leisure and sleep because they feel personally accountable for providing a home for their families.
Single mothers feel just as strongly about providing a good home for their children but don’t have the added pressure of living up to the idealized notions of superwomen wives who produce sparkling dishes, spotless floors and flawless meals, all while supervising homework, helping sell Girl Scout cookies and making sure the science project is finished on time. These patterns are consistent among working mothers on all levels of the economic spectrum, including those with strong feelings of equality in other parts of their lives.
In general, it’s widely understood that women are socialized to organize and prioritize our activities and labor around the preferences of others, most typically our children and family members. The unexpected twist that emerged from our analysis is the way in which the presence of a man impacts these tendencies.
Yet, we — as a society and as individual women — can’t pin the blame on men.
Yes, as many women will tell you, men may be doing things that create additional housework. But they are also less demanding than women in terms of their expectations for themselves and us.
Though our husbands may see nothing wrong with serving store-bought cookies at our child’s birthday party, we moms will stay up late baking because of our own feelings that to do otherwise would somehow make us bad mothers. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to serve home-cooked meals or keep the house clean. But men who stay home and look after children may not feel the same pressure as women to keep the floors spotless and may be perfectly content ordering take-out for dinner.
It’s also true that married moms don’t always take advantage of other sources of help around the house: For example, the research indicates children do more housework when they live with a single vs. a married mother.
What’s clear is that women’s increased economic contributions to the family have not relieved them of the traditional wife and mother responsibilities. Even as women have taken on more traditional male roles outside the home, societal norms about what’s required of wives and mothers have ratcheted higher. Meanwhile, even when fathers do want to do more around the house, many workplaces have become more demanding, expecting long work hours and “always available” commitment.
Though these findings certainly challenge the notion that having a live-in partner relieves the burdens of housework, they are not meant to imply that single moms have it easier than those with partners. There are many factors beyond housework that create stress and challenges for single mothers. And financially advantaged women, regardless of marital status, can afford to offload many of the tasks they don’t want to do.
The superwoman ideology that reinforces mothers’ patterns of prioritizing household work at the expense of leisure and sleep has negative consequences on health and well-being. Less sleep is associated with stress, weight gain and other health issues. Is it any wonder that in terms of health outcomes, marriage has been shown to benefit men more than women?
Something worth pondering this Mother’s Day.