There’s a certain story out there that women are exhausted. The 2007 National Sleep Foundation’s poll on women's sleep habits came out with the headline “Stressed-out American women have no time for sleep.” A new book by Katrina Alcorn called Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink chronicles her own tale of anxiety and makes the case that, well, women are maxed out. Now the Pew Research Center brings some data to this question with a new study analyzing findings from the American Time Use Survey on how parents spend their time, and how they feel about it.
The first interesting finding is that fathers work more hours per week than mothers. We know they work more hours for pay (40.5 vs. 22.8, averaged over the population), but when you add in housework and childcare hours (10.0 and 7.3, and 17.4 and 13.5 respectively) you get a higher total for all kinds of work (57.3 hours vs. 53.7 hours).
So you'd think men would be more tired than women. Men also sleep less than women. But it turns out that some kinds of work seem more tiring than others. Some 12% of people categorized childcare as “very tiring,” 7% called housework “very tiring” and 5% called paid work “very tiring.” (Interestingly, 5% called leisure “very tiring.” Go figure). These figures are somewhat skewed by the split between men and women. While 15% of women found childcare exhausting, only 6% of men did. While only 1% of men found housework exhausting, 8% of women did. Women found paid work less stressful than childcare and housework.
Poke deeper into the numbers and you start to see the reason women find childcare more exhausting than men do. They’re doing more of the physical care -- the bathing, feeding, dressing. But mothers and fathers spend very similar amounts of recreational time with children. As for housework, fathers are much more likely to do repairs, while mothers do cooking and cleaning. They’re pretty closely matched on the managerial side (that mental load thing).
So what are we to make of this? If childcare and housework are more exhausting than paid work, then that might explain why men are less tired than women despite their higher work loads. They work more total, but they do less of these more tiring kinds of work. It could also be that the reason women find childcare and housework more exhausting than men do is that they’re doing the less fun parts of it -- at least on the childcare side. Playing with kids is more fun than making them eat their veggies at dinner, or changing a diaper. (I'm not sure that changing a light bulb is better or worse than throwing a load of laundry in).
It all makes sense, but the issue is that the standard narrative of how maxed out women should cope is that they should cut back at work. They should work fewer hours, or opt out in order to make life less tiring and stressful.
But if childcare and housework are more exhausting than paid work, then this doesn’t really seem like the answer. Indeed, the secret to work life balance might be to work more, and find ways to get rid of some of the more exhausting household tasks. Childcare might have meaningful upsides (indeed, women ranked childcare as very meaningful) but probably some housework can be chucked. If you could spend an hour more working, and an hour less cleaning, that would change the exhaustion equation in a very different direction than spending an hour less working and an hour more taking care of the house.
What tasks do you find most tiring?
Photo courtesy flickr user WarmSleepy