- Per a new study, “children of non-partnered mothers receive much less parental care—perhaps 40% less—than other children; and most of what they receive is from mothers who are less satisfied with their lives.” Tweet This
- Compared to single moms, married moms do less paid work, spend more time on “household production” activities, and spend more time with their children, who also get more time with dad. Tweet This
In academic studies of the family, two of the most contentious topics are the “Mommy wars”—that is, the unending squabble over stay-at-home parenting—and the question of how single parenting affects kids. In a new paper released through the National Bureau of Economic research, Daniel S. Hamermesh manages to touch on both of them.
He compares how married and single moms spend their time, finding that married moms do less paid work, spend more time on “household production” activities, and spend more time with their children. He also notes that the kids of married moms get lots of time with their dads, and that married moms tend to be more satisfied with their lives. An important upshot of Hamermesh’s findings is that “children of non-partnered mothers receive much less parental care—perhaps 40% less—than other children; and most of what they receive is from mothers who are less satisfied with their lives.”
Hamermesh’s work doesn’t prove that these differences are the reason that kids of single parents tend to struggle more in various ways (as I discussed in this space here), or show that parental care is better for kids than care by professionals or relatives (a possibility I explored here). But his study does help to quantify how home environments differ depending on a mother’s marital status.
To those of us in the U.S., the most important analyses in the paper stem from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS). Hamermesh tallies up how mothers of varying marital statuses use their time, and then adjusts the results to account for various demographic factors, such as race and age. The following results are the adjusted ones.
Married moms do paid work for about 20 minutes per day less than never-married moms and a whopping 53 minutes per day less than divorced moms. (Presumably, the difference stems from a mix of married moms’ being more likely to stay at home, work part-time, and work full-time but fewer hours; Hamermesh doesn’t separate out moms with different levels of work-force participation.) The extra time largely gets pushed into home production, with married moms doing about a half-hour more work at home per day than never-married moms, and 45 minutes per day more than divorced moms.
In terms of specific child-care tasks, such as educational activities, the gaps are not as large as one might assume. Married moms spend only about four minutes a day more on child care than never-married moms, and 10 minutes a day more than divorced moms. But they spend a lot more time in the presence of their kids in general—that is, including situations where the mother is engaged in some non-child-centric activity but when the kids are present—topping never-married and divorced moms by about an hour a day each.
On top of that, married dads spend 82 minutes per day on child care, about 80% as much as married moms do. “Together with the slight amount of additional time in childcare by married women,” Hamermesh writes, “this suggests that children of married mothers receive over 3 hours per day of care from their parents, compared to about 1-1/2 hours per day that children receive from their single mothers.”
Married moms were also more satisfied with their lives than non-partnered moms, being about 16 percentage points less likely to fall in the bottom third of one measure Hamermesh employs.
And in a separate analysis with the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79), Hamermesh analyzes how changes in marital status relate to measures of depression, focusing on data from mothers collected in 1992 and 1994, when the study’s participants were in their late 20s and 30s. He finds that
becoming married [by 1994] reduces depression only very slightly compared to its level in 1992. Becoming separated, divorced or widowed greatly increases a mother’s feelings of depression, raising the score by 0.67 standard deviations of the depression scores in the entire sample.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear how long this effect persists, and I’m not sure many people doubt that divorce can be miserable.
Hamermesh also repeats his work with time-use data from some European countries, mainly finding that the results are similar. One interesting result is that, averaging across all the countries, partnered women spend about 13 more minutes a day working (home and paid) than non-partnered women, but in Italy, it’s non-partnered moms who work a little more.
As I noted at the top of this piece, this study doesn’t prove that kids are harmed when they spend less time with their parents, or when their caregivers are less satisfied with their lives. But it carefully spells out some of the struggles single parents face when it comes to time management and depression, providing a foundation for future work to explore the consequences.
Robert VerBruggen is an Institute for Family Studies research fellow and a policy writer for National Review Online.