The Mom Gig: How do stay-at-home moms spend their time?

IMG_0903I like writing about time management, but I am more fascinated by broader questions about how people spend their time. This winter, Redbook hired me to do a time diary study on how stay-at-home moms spend their days. This project, “The Mom Gig,” was released this week. In addition to my findings, Redbook commissioned essays from stay-at-home parents, and several profiles of moms in the various demographics we found: the newbies taking care of littles, the volunteering moms, the working SAHMs, and moms caring for special needs kids.

Now that it is out, I am happy to share some more time diary details here. People have a lot of misperceptions about how SAHMs spend their time. On one hand there is the mistaken notion that women are sitting around watching soaps, but on the other, some assume that 100% of time is devoted to childcare. This isn’t true either, even in families with babies and toddlers.

We had 558 women who didn’t work full time outside the home, and who had primary childcare responsibilities, fill out a survey. We asked questions about life and such, but we also had people fill out an hour by hour account of how they spent yesterday. This is somewhat similar to the methodology the American Time Use Survey uses. Yesterday may not be “typical” for someone, but answering questions about a “typical” day inserts a lot of judgment calls (and inaccuracies) into the study of time.

Anyway, one of the major findings for me was home much paid work happened during people’s diary days. A full third (34%) of women who completed a survey about their lives as stay-at-home moms listed work as an activity on their diary day. For those who worked, the average was about 4.5 hours. Volunteering was less prevalent than working; 10% of women volunteered on their diary day.

We only looked at weekdays, and for most people those start early. Some 22% of moms were up at 5 A.M. or earlier, and at 6 A.M., 65% were up and going about their days.

I also found that 22% of moms were woken up in the middle of the night by kids or pets. Night time diary entries included “nightmare patrol” and “checked for monsters.” As one woman put for her 4-5 a.m. entry: “Please let me still be sleeping.”

A fifth (20%) of the moms also had responsibility for another family member, such as an elderly parent. Almost one in ten (9.5%) of those who filled out our survey said they were homeschooling.

We found that 72% agreed or strongly agreed that “I feel society doesn’t understand how much I do.” Most are not well-to-do; the majority lived in households with incomes below $75,000 a year. About 19% reported living in households making less than $25,000 a year; only 7% lived in households with incomes over $200,000.

We asked moms what salary they would assign themselves for all the work they did. The most common answer (the mode!) was $50,000. I didn’t do a mean because some people assigned themselves salaries along the lines of $18 million. What I find fascinating about the $50,000 figure is I think it is fairly close to what people’s husbands earned, on average. This is probably not a coincidence. When families divide themselves into specialized roles, there is probably a general understanding that each role is equally valued (at least one would hope).

Day-to-day life had some differences along household income lines. Some 93% of moms in high-income households exercised regularly, as opposed to 44% of those in families making $25-50K; well-to-do moms were much less likely to have full housekeeping responsibilities (46% vs. 78% of the overall sample). The routine might involve school drop-off, then an exercise class, then socializing with friends before doing errands.

Women in households with lower incomes were more likely to spend their days doing housework. Many had some sort of income-generating activities (62% of SAHMs said they contributed to household income). But many of these income-generating activities were on the low-end of profitability (e.g. buying and selling stuff off Craigslist). Many moms wind up being entrepreneurial because it is hard to find traditional jobs that require 20 or fewer hours per week, and can be done flexibly from home. I imagine that not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. If organizations could find their way to designing jobs in 20-hour, virtual chunks, they would find an amazingly affordable, loyal labor pool. There is a lot of untapped capacity out there.

I quite enjoyed doing this study. I’d love to do more like this in the future, maybe with different demographics.

In other news: I’m working on an article on the habits of disciplined networkers. Do you have a networking habit? Such as doing one lunch per week, or sending one how-are-you-doing email daily? I would love to hear examples!

16 thoughts on “The Mom Gig: How do stay-at-home moms spend their time?

  1. Thanks for writing about modern SAHMs. This is the category I fall in, mostly under the volunteer and newbie. The role of the SAHM is changing from who it used to be, for sure.

  2. I think it’s great that so many SAHMs volunteer at their kids’ schools, and I see that with my own friends here in Seattle. But I feel like schools are taking advantage of this free labor by smart women (and sometimes men). It’s one thing to help out a couple of times a year to see what it’s like for your kid at school, or to provide help for a unique special event. But I see friends who are in the classroom every week, often multiple times a week, doing stuff (IMO) they should be paid for, or the school should HIRE someone to do this work, which seems to fall under the normal running of a classroom. Things like sorting supplies and setting up elaborate craft projects, being the “reading mom” who comes in to listen to kids reading aloud weekly, or helping at the math centers, etc.
    My friends who are SAHMs talk about this weird pressure to do these activities, like they feel like they SHOULD because they are not at work. I think that sucks.
    When I was a SAHM I declined most of these requests because if I wanted to do work like maintaining a class contact list, or setting up the class photo site, etc etc I could just go back to work and get PAID for dealing with spreadsheets, meetings, and data. That’s not why I chose not to work.
    I don’t doubt that most moms love doing these things, and getting a chance to see their kids at school, but I feel like it’s a larger problem where all of this unpaid WORK, done mostly by women, is just expected and I think that’s pretty unfair.

    1. @ARC – I agree that a lot of this is what a teacher’s aide might have done.
      Though speaking of volunteering, we just learned that in school volunteers are going to have to go through a whole elaborate background check process. And since I haven’t lived in PA for 10 years I might actually have to be finger printed to chaperone a field trip. Talk about a good way to discourage volunteers!

    2. I agree. In my state, educational funding has been cut and aides were the positions that took the hit. Parents who volunteer in these positions are a blessing for sure. But I wouldn’t want anyone to feel like they had to, but I can see where the pressure comes in. In our area, some of these smart women have gotten together and began lobbying for more money for education to rehire assistants.

      1. That’s fantastic! In our school district (which is otherwise quite well funded) there is no money to hire real art teachers, so it’s all parent volunteers in elementary. I find that super disappointing. With this same situation in another state, a friend reported that the PTA pooled their money/raised donations to hire specialists that the school could not pay for.

    3. The good news is that many employers do view these volunteer jobs as real work experience. SAHM often use these volunteer gigs to develop work skills to make them more employable when they re-enter the work force. For example, I developed a school group’s website because I knew I’d have to have that skill on my resume when I started looking for jobs. I also took on organizing a huge two-day event that required finding and training 100 volunteers. I treated my volunteer work as a resume builder and kept track of measurable outcomes (eg. increased attendance by XX percent) and solicited recommendation letters. I felt it was a win-win for me and my school district.

  3. Do you have any sense of which income bracket has the highest percentage of SAHMs?

    I see tons in our church in the DC suburbs and am guessing incomes are often in the $200k+ range, but are these families more likely to have SAHMs than other families of more modest means, where the choice may have been made because childcare costs would have outstripped the mother’s earning potential?

    1. @Kathleen – from what I recall, in general lower income families are more likely to have SAHMs, but that’s because in general 2 income families are going to be higher income than 1 income families. So I think the question you’re asking is slightly different — based on the male partner’s income, which demographics are more likely to have SAHMs? I would guess this would be more of a U-shaped curve. On the lower end childcare costs outstrip earning potential. Then in the professional class there are a lot of 2-income couples. Finally we get to the rarefied air of extremely high earning men where it’s probably relatively less likely again for their partners to work for pay.

      1. Makes good sense.

        One more question: any sense whether stay at home dads use their time differently than stay at home moms?

  4. I love reading about focused time studies like this one. It’s impressive to see how many moms are finding ways to contribute toward the household income, even if it is small stuff like selling things on Craigslist. I completely agree with you on the amount of untapped potential for part-time workers. However, I get the sense that this is changing. There are a lot of opportunities out there for freelance, virtual work – and they seem to be increasing. It’s just a matter of SAHM’s learning about these jobs and realizing that they are qualified to do them.

    1. I’m not sure what it would look like across the board, but in my experience they spend the time differently. My husband works out of town. When has time off and takes the kids while I work, his priorities are much different. He is more interested in playing and entertainment, quick meals etc than ensuring the laundry is done, kids are eating balanced and have the proper things laid out for the day etc. It means a big mess at the end of the week, but we also have incredibly happy kids! It’s a trade off I can handle.

  5. Loved both your blog-piece and the article at Redbook! Very well written, and packed with insights. Will refer back to this later for my own biz. Thank you!

  6. This is fascinating – thank you for writing about it! I work part time, and supplement that with consulting work at home during the 5-7am and 8-10pm hours. I’m torn between doing enough to keep my career going while wanting to spend more time with my kids.

    I agree with what you said about the untapped capacity. I work for/with startups and I’ve often wondered what business opportunities there are at helping moms find quality work that is part-time. I think the market for this is there – look at the number of moms that end up working for MLM companies (Beach Body, etc) because they want income from a part-time/virtual situation. It’s just a matter of convincing more traditional companies that there is value in part-time and/or virtual work.

  7. I know a lot of us Moms appreciate you writing this. Having just come off of maternity leave for the third time, I can certainly appreciate the amount of uncredited work a SAHM does. It’s a lot harder than it looks! Have you looked at time diaries for working moms with multiple children who juggle work, kids’ multiple activities and other pursuits such as university? I would be curious to see the data to determine whether I’m just crazy or very normal

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *