Women with children and a heterosexual male partner do the most housework—more even than single moms, according to an analysis of time-use data.1
Specifically, married and cohabiting mothers report more housework than never-married or divorced/separated mothers, but all mothers report about the same amount of child-care time, find Joanna Pepin of the University of Texas at Austin, Liana Sayer of the University of Maryland, and Lynne Casper of the University of Southern California (see table).
Mothers With a Male Partner Do More Housework, Sleep Less Than Single Mothers
Predicted Minutes of Mother’s Time in Activities, by Marital Status
Note: Based on American Time Use Surveys (2003-2012). Model controls for extended family member, number of children, children under two years old, children ages two to five, education, employment, race, age, and weekend diary day.
Source: Joanna R. Pepin, Liana C. Sayer, and Lynne M. Casper, “Marital Status and Mothers’ Time Use: Childcare, Housework, Leisure, and Sleep,” Demography 55, no. 1 (2018): 107-33.
For the study, they examined 24-hour time-use diaries from participants in the nationally representative American Time Use Survey (ATUS) between 2003 to 2012; they focused on white, black, and Hispanic mothers ages 18 to 54 with at least one child under age 13 living with them. Their analysis takes into account weekday and weekend schedules, and other differences such as employment, education, age of children, and the presence of other extended family members in the household.
Married Mothers Sacrifice Sleep and Leisure
After adjusting for other factors, married mothers did significantly more housework and slept less than never-married and divorced mothers, which runs counter to the notion that single mothers are time poor because they lack a partner to help with household chores and work for pay, Pepin notes.
The findings show the trade-offs mothers make in the face of limited time. All mothers protected their time with their children, doing roughly the same amount of child care once other factors are controlled. But married mothers did more housework at the expense of their own leisure and sleep, while nonpartnered mothers tended to do less housework and sleep somewhat more, the researchers find.
Cohabiting mothers spent about the same amount of time doing housework and sleeping as married mothers, but cohabiting mothers reported more leisure time. The differences in leisure time between married and cohabiting mothers may reflect differences in work hours, work schedules, or commuting times, but more research is needed to clarify the reason.
Married women may feel that to be a good wife, they must prioritize housework and child care ahead of their own leisure and sleep.
Social Expectations Shape Women’s Time
The data show that women with a male partner in the home put more time into housework, such as home-cooked meals—work that is symbolic of women’s feminine roles. “Being in a partnership appears to ratchet up the demands or expectations for housework,” Pepin points out.
Married women may feel that to be a good wife, they must prioritize housework and child care ahead of their own leisure and sleep, Pepin suggests. In other research, women have told interviewers that they feel social pressure to provide home-cooked meals, clean clothes, and a well-kept house; these expectations appear to be closely tied to contemporary definitions of appropriate behavior for wives and mothers.
Mothers’ Quality and Quantity of Leisure Time Differ
While never-married and cohabiting mothers reported more leisure time than married and divorced/separated mothers, they were more likely to spend it in sedentary activities, such as watching television, usually alone. Pepin notes this time-use pattern may be partially explained by physically demanding jobs, although more research is needed to be certain. By contrast, married mothers were slightly more likely to report leisure activities that were social and active, such as going out with friends or exercising.
Work Schedules Challenge the Traditional Household Division of Labor
Another study using ATUS time-diary data examined time spent on various types of housework in U.S. heterosexual married-couple families with children.2 Regardless of whether or not they are employed outside the home, women tend to do more traditionally female housework tasks (interior cleaning, laundry, and meal preparation) and men do more traditionally male-typed housework tasks (home maintenance, yard work, and vehicle care).
However, work schedules and time constraints can contribute to nontraditional divisions of housework tasks between parents, report researchers Noelle Chesley of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and Sarah Flood of University of Minnesota–Twin Cities.
They analyzed parents’ housework time and tasks, comparing breadwinner father/at-home mother couples with breadwinner mother/at-home father couples. They drew on ATUS time diary data for 2008 to 2012 from more than 4,500 participants; their analysis controlled for a variety of characteristics including age, education, race, unemployment, income, retirement, disability, and the number and ages of children in the household.
Cooking, Cleaning, and Laundry Comprise the Bulk of Housework Tasks
The way couples divide traditionally female household tasks drives the overall division of housework time because female-typed tasks tend to be done much more frequently (often daily) than male-typed tasks, they find.
Breadwinners spend less time doing housework tasks traditionally linked to their gender on work days. Housework time differences among breadwinner mothers and breadwinner fathers shrink as their daily work hours increase, suggesting that time availability plays a role in reducing gender differences in housework among parents in similar situations.
Women feel socially accountable for the appearance of the household.
“Our comparisons also suggest that at-home parents may do more gender nontraditional household tasks on days their spouses work,” they report.
In breadwinner mother/at-home father couples, differences in housework time depend on whether breadwinner mothers are at work on a given day. On their days off, breadwinner mothers do more housework than at-home fathers, spending as much time doing housework as at-home mothers. By contrast, at-home mothers appear to do more housework daily whether breadwinner fathers are at work or not.
“Among working parents, mothers and fathers likely feel different housework pressures,” the researchers suggest. “Women feel socially accountable for the appearance of the household.”
Earlier research shows that breadwinner mother/at-home father couples engage in a “domestic handoff” on breadwinner mothers’ days off, either as a way for mothers to feel in control or to give the at-home fathers a break, according to the researchers.
They find that breadwinner mother/at-home father couples are frequently economically disadvantaged. The arrangement is often an adaptation to male job loss or job instability rather than a choice made “out of a strong desire to fulfill gender egalitarian ideas.”