- The fact that moms and dads do different blends of home work and paid work is not necessarily a problem, and to insist otherwise is to devalue parents’ own preferences. Tweet This
- Among married couples living together with kids, if anything, it’s dads who do more work in total—adding up paid work, housework, child care, and even shopping. Tweet This
Editor's Note: The following article, originally published on June 11, 2019, is our number 1 blog post of the year.
You’ve probably heard a lot of complaints about dads over the past few years. We fathers are not pulling our weight around the house. Poor Mom is stuck working a “second shift,” doing more than her share of household chores even after a full day at the office. In fact, even “good dads” aren’t so good after all, and don’t deserve all the praise that is apparently heaped on them whenever they are seen in public within 50 feet of their kids.
In honor of Father’s Day, allow me to dig into the data on how parents spend their time, and to bring to light a side of it that few seem willing to discuss. It’s a side that makes dads look . . . good.
My core points are these: Among married couples living together with kids, if anything, it’s dads who do more work in total—adding up paid work, housework, child care, and even shopping. Moms do work more in some specific circumstances, but the data acquit fathers as a group of the slacking charges so frequently leveled against them. Further, the biggest complaint that is actually consistent with the numbers—that moms and dads do different blends of home work and paid work—is not necessarily a problem at all, and to insist otherwise is to devalue parents’ own preferences.
Who Works More?
I’ll start with a fact that has been reported several times, yet mysteriously has never inspired think pieces in mainstream-media outlets. Combining housework, child care, and paid work, dads put in just as much time as moms do—in fact, a little more. The Pew Research Center found this in the 2011 American Time Use Survey (though a gap of just 54 vs. 53 hours per week) and again in the 2016 round (61 vs. 57), and a joint panel of the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute confirmed the results using the 2015 data. Combining the 2013 to 2017 ATUS,1and limiting the data to respondents married and living with their spouses to ensure the moms and dads represent similar households, I find a gap of about 40 minutes per day, or four and a half hours per week: about 59 for men and 55 for women.
But that’s a big overall number that might obscure a lot of variation. Maybe (a) moms are more likely to stay home, in which case they put in fewer hours, but (b) in cases where moms and dads both work for pay, women end up doing far more work.
Except that’s not true, either—at least if you take account of the fact that when both parents work for pay, dads tend to work longer hours at their jobs. (This is something noted in Josh Levs’s book All In.) Once again, using my combined ATUS sample, I find remarkably similar time investments by working moms and dads in the same situations:
- In cases where the respondent works for pay and so does the respondent’s spouse, dads do 62 hours worth of total work each week to moms’ 59.
- In cases where both the respondent and the spouse work for pay full-time, dads work 63 hours in total, to moms’ 62.
It's also possible to look at couples in which one partner doesn't work for pay—though this must be done carefully, because different reasons for not working have different implications for how much work around the house one is able and expected to do. (Just imagine the different expectations you'd have for your spouse if they became temporarily unemployed, became disabled, or decided to leave the workforce for the specific purpose of watching the kids.) To account for these differences as well as possible, I looked at couples where one person works full-time and the other is out of the labor force but not disabled.
In these couples, the working spouses work about the same amount whether they’re moms or dads. But the non-working spouses work a lot less if they’re dads:
- Among respondents who work full-time and have a spouse who is out of the labor force and non-disabled, dads work 62 hours to moms’ 61.2
- In the flipside scenario, where a non-disabled respondent is out of the workforce and has a full-time-working spouse, dads work just 33 hours to moms’ 46. That’s a gap of about two hours a day! Yikes.
Of course, stay-at-home moms are far more common than stay-at-home dads—and even stay-at-home moms do less total work than do full-time-working dads married to stay-at-home moms (46 vs. 62 hours). So, this exception, while dramatic and worthy of study, is limited in terms of its effect on the overall comparison of moms and dads.
I can also make some other changes to the analysis to see if I can make things look worse for moms. For instance, “household activities” don’t include grocery shopping in the ATUS’ definition, but for our purposes, they probably should. Indeed, while we’re at it, why not include all shopping, along with caring for all types of household members, not just children?
Still, the broad patterns hold. Dads, in general, work a little more, though the 40-minute gap is cut by more than half; both-working and both-full-time households split their total time about evenly; non-working dads with full-time spouses drastically underperform non-working moms in the same situation, though neither work as much as do full-time working parents with non-working spouses.
If the dad you’re married to isn’t pulling his weight, by all means, call him out on it. Judging from the above, this is especially likely if he's out of the labor force; throw his Xbox controller in the trash, wipe the drool from his chin, kick him in the rear, and tell him to wash some dishes! But in general, we’re doing just fine.
There are, of course, some blind spots here. For one thing, moms still take the lead in managing family life, a responsibility that is not easily quantified. For another thing, you can always come up with new comparisons to make in search of disadvantaged women — couples where one partner works full-time but the other works part-time, etc. I won’t bore you (or myself) by digging into all that and will instead just stipulate that I’m sure some of these comparisons are unflattering to men, just as others must be unflattering to women.
Some have also taken the approach of quantifying leisure rather than work, finding that dads get more of it—but, as also noted in All In, the additional leisure that dads get is canceled out by women spending more time on sleep and other personal-care activities. I'll further stipulate that when parents break up, moms are more likely to get the kids, which is a difficult situation to evaluate because there’s little data on men with non-resident kids.
But more pressingly, up to this point, I’ve completely ignored the blend of paid work and house work that men and women do. I’ve done this because I see paid work and home work as equally valuable—and the question of which is more pleasant is impossible to answer, given that “paid work” can mean anything from playing rock concerts for adoring fans to falling off a roof you're installing in the Louisiana summer. (Happy Equal Occupational Fatality Day!) But let’s unpack the issue.
It is absolutely true that women’s work time tends to be weighted more heavily toward home work. Across all the married moms and dads in my ATUS sample, child care and housework amount to 58% of moms’ work time, versus 27% for dads. Even among couples where both parents work full-time, 37% of moms’ work hours but only 26% of dads’ work hours are spent on child care and household activities.3
To someone committed to “gender equity,” the problem is obvious. But this neglects the desires of the men and women whose behavior creates the inequity. If men and women behave differently because they have different preferences, and if we won’t force them to behave the same way, we cannot expect “equity.” Just look at the gender disparities that remain in Sweden, which does much more through policy to encourage equal work arrangements.
It is absolutely true that women’s work time tends to be weighted more heavily toward home work. Across all the married moms and dads in my ATUS sample, child care and housework amount to 58% of moms’ work time, versus 27% for dads.
So, let’s look at male and female preferences, and let’s start at the broadest possible level.
As David Barash put it in his book Out of Eden, “there is no society in which men do more fathering than women do mothering.” And as Steve Stewart-Williams noted in The Ape That Understood the Universe, it is far more common not just among humans but in nature writ large for females to be the sex that invests more in children. The reasons for this are obvious and many. The mother is always present at a child’s birth, for instance, making maternal bonding an especially reliable way to ensure a kid is taken care of; moms also can be sure that the children they deliver are their own, and thus don’t risk “wasting” (in evolutionary terms) their parental investments on a child who doesn’t share their genes. At a minimum, we shouldn’t find it surprising or offensive if women indicate a greater desire to spend time with their children, even if it costs them at work. And they do.
One way that women indicate this is through their actual decisions. Years ago, women were all but forced to stay at home while men worked, but this changed dramatically in the middle of the 20th century, and women flooded into the workforce until the turn of the millennium. Social liberalism made additional gains after that point—with increasing secularism and, most on point, declining shares of American adults agreeing that it's “much better for everyone involved” for men to work while women tend house, especially since 2010. But women have joined men in slowly leaving the workforce, at least until a very recent uptick driven by lesser-educated single moms. And the gains to female employment stalled at a level at which men are still more likely to work than women. Among those 25–54, nearly 90% of men but only 75% of women are in the labor force. Maybe we could change this picture by actively subsidizing work among mothers, but either way, it's awfully hard to square two decades of declining female labor-force participation and rising social liberalism with the idea that women’s labor-force participation is to this day primarily a function of their oppression.
There’s additional insight in opinion polls asking women about their “ideal” work situation, which can tell us if the nation’s mothers do somehow have a repressed desire to do much more for GDP than they already do. In general, per a recent IFS/Wheatley Institution survey, just 28% of moms want to work full-time, 40% part-time, and 23% not at all (with the remainder saying they’re not sure). An earlier survey of the general public reached a fairly similar breakdown about the ideal situation for mothers and provided a contrast with fathers: Only 12% of the public thinks full-time work is ideal for moms, while 70% thinks it ideal for dads. A goal of pushing moms to do more at the office and less with the kids goes against the preferences of a lot of those very moms.
What about housework? Yes, women do more—which, as we've already seen, is generally a problem only if you ignore men's greater hours at their jobs as a balancing factor. And on top of that, there's very good evidence, as Jonathan Chait has put it, that men don't want a lot of housework “to be done by anyone.” They're not blowing off necessary cleaning; they just disagree how much cleaning is necessary, as is clear from the fact that single men with no kids do only half as much cooking, cleaning, and laundry as do single women with no kids. In a marriage, both partners should be willing to do their fair share of the work needed to get the house to a socially and hygienically acceptable level, but beyond that, the cleaner partner has no right to insist on a higher standard than his or her spouse wants and force the partner to carry half the burden. Lest this sound like I'm venting a personal grudge, I'll assure you that my wife and I are both pigs, and neither of us does anywhere near half of the cleaning that should be done.
Once again, these are aggregates. Each couple is different. If you don't like the division of labor in your household, talk to your spouse about it. But the division of labor in households in general hardly seems troubling.
Men should be free to lean out from work and do more with the kids. Women should be free to work as much as they want. Indeed, on this point I’m backing my words with action: Our third child is due in December, and a few months beforehand, I’m going to become a full-time, stay-at-home dad and a part-time writer on the side, while my wife continues at her full-time job.
But if couples, in general, tend to arrive at the opposite arrangement, we should respect their decisions and celebrate both kinds of contributions to a household’s ability to thrive. And we should stop whining about dads as a group not doing their share of the work their families depend upon—because that’s not true.
Robert VerBruggen is a Research Fellow of the Institute for Family Studies and deputy managing editor of National Review.
1. I include more than 13,500 respondents who are living with a spouse and share the household with at least one of their own children.
2. Due to the limits of the ATUS, spouses are considered out of the labor force if they (a) were recorded as not in the labor force several months earlier when these same households participated in the Current Population Survey; and (b) are still not working as reported in the ATUS itself.
3. These numbers are all a bit higher when you include caring for non-children and shopping: in order, 64%, 33%, 44%, and 32%.