I don’t work 98 hours a week. Do you?

If you want to know how many hours per week someone devotes to something, there are a few methods you can use. The first — the easiest — is just to ask the person. How many hours do you work per week? How many hours do you sleep per night? How many hours per week do you spend reading to your kids? This method is very straightforward, and cheap if you’re doing research. You just call people and ask them. You can even ask them online, and their answers fit in neat buckets on your spreadsheet. Hurrah!

Unfortunately, there are also two problems with this method. People are clueless, and they lie.

Ok, let’s put that a bit more diplomatically. Most people don’t know how many hours, exactly, they devote to many things in life. There are very few of us who actually track our time, continuously, for years! Second, in the absence of concrete information (e.g. a paycheck documenting that you worked 42.5 hours last week), people are prone to giving socially desirable answers. If everyone says motherhood is 24/7, and moms are martyrs, and never take time for themselves, you might be inclined to see evidence that supports this thesis, and give survey answers that seem to verify it.

I was thinking of this when numerous media outlets reported on a survey done by Welch’s (the grape jelly people) on how many hours moms work per week. You can read Working Mother’s take here. Welch’s surveyed 2000 women with children ages 5-12, and found that their work and family commitments began at 6:23 a.m. and didn’t stop until 8:31 p.m. That’s 14 hours, so multiply by 7 and you get 98 hours a week. Hence the headline: Study finds moms work 98 hours a week! These moms said they had a mere 1 hour and 7 minutes for me time per day.

I couldn’t find the original study on Welch’s website (if anyone at Welch’s sees this, please send it!) But with my time diary study hat on, I see a few problems, at least in the way media outlets reported on the matter. First, did the survey ask about weekdays or weekends? Or both, and they calculated a weighted average? Did they figure in holidays?

Also, I suspect Welch’s didn’t ask people to talk through a day (e.g. yesterday) hour by hour to arrive at this number. Because then we’d see that people, including women, often do many things that are not paid work or household work during these hours. Indeed, I imagine very few people spend 14 straight hours on any sort of work with no break. They do things like shower. Or go to the bathroom. Or scroll through Instagram. Or eat lunch. Or go for a walk. Or watch TV while waiting for the school bus to come home. Or answer survey questions about how many hours they devote to work which, last time I checked, isn’t going to be required for anyone’s job.

Instead, what I suspect this is getting at is that on people’s image of a “typical” weekday, the day starts with getting ready for work or caring for kids around 6:23 a.m., and the last kid is in bed by 8:31 p.m. At that point, there is the possibility of “uncontaminated free time” — time that won’t potentially be taken by work or housework. Even so, I suspect there is more time than this. The average mother watches well over 1 hour and 7 minutes of TV per day.

If we look at the American Time Use Survey, which has thousands of Americans talk through “yesterday” (not a typical day!) we find some slightly different numbers. The average employed woman who has a child ages 6-17 (not quite the same, but what we’ve got) works, on average 5.06 hours/day (averaged over 7 days/week), does 2.04 hours of “household activities” and 0.74 hours of “purchasing goods and services” combined with 1.01 hours of direct care of children or other household members (e.g. elderly parents who also live there). This comes out to 8.85 hours of market and non-market labor per day, or 61.95 hours per week. Now, 62 hours is by no means a short workweek. But it’s not 98 hours either.

If we look at women who are not employed (I can’t tell if Welch’s looked at both SAHMs and working moms or not), we see that they do 3.25 hours of household activities, 1.11 hours of purchasing goods and services, 1.47 hours of direct childcare/family member care and 0.12 hours of work-related activities (someone might be looking for a job, for instance, and not currently be employed), totaling 5.95 hours of market + non-market labor daily, or 41.65 hours weekly. Again, not nothing, but not 98 hours. I don’t think either could get close to 98 hours just by removing the 13-16 year old crew out of each (to match the Welch’s question), or even adding secondary childcare time (e.g. the kid is playing in her room and you’re watching TV).

Instead, what I think we have going on here is that parenthood often feels like it’s very tiring, and takes a lot of time, and is often emotionally draining (meaning it takes a lot of mental space). I’m certainly not going to argue that it is all unicorns. I’m writing this coming out of a weekend that saw the 2-year-old throw sand in my face at the beach (on purpose — he was throwing sand, I told him to stop, he looked at me, and heaved the whole shovelful right at my mouth), bite his sister, and wake up at 4:45 a.m. Plus I traveled for work this week, dealt with the camp runs, etc. While I probably spend less time on housework than others, I have more children than most people, and younger children than in this demographic being studied. Indeed, the 2-year-old accounts for quite a bit of time on my logs! I can see that as of writing this, at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, I have put in 76 hours of total labor on anything that could conceivably be kid, work, or household related. Sure, I feel like I might have put in 100 hours, but I haven’t, and discounting those extra 22 hours (which is more than 3 hours per day!) does matter in the story we tell ourselves about our lives.

In other news: More evidence I have me-time: I am almost all the way through Team of Rivals! It’s a really good read, even if it is 750 pages. It hasn’t really felt long at all.

In other other news: From my research, I think it’s quite possible that a number of women not currently in the labor force would actually like to devote more time to paid work. You can read my full article on The Productivity Boom We’re Missing here. (The NY Post printed a shorter version last weekend).


17 thoughts on “I don’t work 98 hours a week. Do you?

  1. I totally see your point. And I agree, to a degree. But, when we go out for a date, and we hire a babysitter to basically put kids to bed for 1 hour & then sit on the couch watching youtube videos (or, you know, do homework) for another 2 hours, we are still paying her for 3 hours of work. Because she’s on call should something come up & one of our kids needs an adult. (Or someone over the age of 6.) By the same reasoning, I am working from 8 am – 9 pm everyday (& usually from 5:30 am – 6 am for a baby feeding.) Even though it’s currently 4 pm & I’m typing this comment while 2 kids nap sleep & 2 more kids enjoy 30 minutes of screen time. How do you account for multi-tasking in tracking time? If I take a 10 minute shower with my 4 year old & help her shampoo her hair, is that “working mother” time or “me-time?” Or if I make my kids lunch, nurse the baby, and then scarf down the apple slices & toast they didn’t eat while I read to them before naps, is that “meal time” or “mom time?” I may be doing this all wrong, but besides about an hour a day where I manage to get everyone either napping or doing quiet time, the day looks like that-somehow trying to take care of everyone at once. And to me, it feels like work.

    1. @Michelle- true, you’re paying the sitter for 3 hours of work, even if she’s watching YouTube for 2 of those hours (good deal for her!) But if the definition is just that someone might conceivably need something, then why stop when the kids are asleep (as in the 8:30 end in the survey)? And why consider work done either? Someone could send me a work email in the middle of the night and I could wake up and answer it. I probably check my email here and there in the evening, so I’m theoretically available, and yet if I’m sitting on the porch reading a magazine I would be hard pressed to call that work.

      1. Also, I’d add that having a nursing baby means your youngest child is probably under age 5 — different demographic than the Welch’s study (which was kids ages 5-12). If I didn’t have my 2-year-old I would have so much leisure time I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Mothers of infants do work very long hours. Possibly not 98 hours a week, but still a lot.

        1. I didn’t notice that this was a study for moms of 5-12 year olds. Mine are 0, 2, 4, and 6. Sometimes I dream about the easy life I imagine living in 4 years. It might be an illusion, but I can’t imagine there will be as nearly much hands on child management at that point.

  2. That Welch’s story is dumb. Geez. But even if that logic is true, it leaves 70 hours a week. Subtract 56 hours for sleep (where have I heard that before, lol!!) and that leaves 14 hours of free time. I wonder what kind of response there would have been if the headline read “Working Moms Have 2 Hours a Day of Free Time!!”??

    1. @Pamela – it’s all about the framing, right? But I know what the response would be — when John Robinson put out a study saying women had 30 hours of leisure time a week, people went nuts. I think saying people have any free time is sometimes taken as saying they’re lazy, or not doing anything important, which isn’t true at all.

      1. You’re right that it’s not a popular thing to say, but you essentially say the same thing as John Robinson but I have a completely different reaction. Because he (if I’m getting the right guy) thinks that everything not paid work or obvious labour (mopping floors, changing nappies) is leisure. If I recall correctly in Brigid Schulz’s book he wanted her to classify spending hours on the phone with govt departments to sort out the repatriation of her brother in law’s body (who had recently died overseas) as leisure!

        1. @Alicia- When I’m on hold, I usually read a magazine or scroll through social media (which could be leisure). Alternately, I could see classifying those sorts of phone calls as other family care or management, or household administration.

          I love Brigid. In that particular section of Overwhelmed, though, she had a definite point to make. She writes in her book of sending out queries to email lists saying “Looking for moms with leisure time.” She does not mention anyone responding that they had anywhere near the 30 hours — but I know someone did, because *I* responded saying I had about that in leisure time. We exchanged emails about it. My answer didn’t make it in the book 🙂 But the truth is, by the end of the book, she realizes that a lot of the time that could have been leisure she was chopping up or doing stuff like scrubbing the oven for no good reason. Sure, there are horrible phone calls people have to make (as you point out!) But even busy lives have space for much joy.

          I probably exercise about 5-7 hours/week these days, and read for another 10-12 (time that exists because I generally don’t watch TV at night). I have couple time with my husband, go out with friends occasionally, definitely spend non-work time on social media, and occasionally do longer personal stuff (e.g. massages).

          1. There’s an interesting follow-on question: is something leisure if you don’t enjoy it? Like answering an angry email from a friend who’s upset about something. Or volunteering somewhere you got roped into, but don’t really feel that excited about. There may be an issue of people allocating leisure time to stuff that isn’t fun in the grand scheme of things.

  3. Maybe it is because I only have 1 kid and she is 2.5yo- but some of my time with her is leisure. We could certainly hire a sitter- but I have a certain threshold of fun kid time that I like to have each week and generally don’t saturate it as I work outside the home as well. We do a lot of playdates with our own friends and I get to chat with my friend while our kids play together (supervised)-that is leisure to me.

  4. I agree to a point. People exaggerate the number of hours they work, both because it legitimately feels that hard to them, and also to show everyone else that they are working harder. But I will also say that sometimes even 20 minutes matters a lot. Recently the ACGME increased our residency work hours, such that we are now only required to have 8 hours between shifts instead of 10. I was told recently that this hasn’t resulted in an “important” reduction in time off between shifts. Only 20 minutes! I can tell you, however, with absolute certainty, that I can feel the difference between 7 hours of sleep and 6 hours and 40 minutes. Additionally, we’re talking 20 minutes on average, every single day, which starts to add up. So…. I guess I’m a bit touchy on this subject. An awful lot of people say things like, “But it’s only 5 minutes! (or 20),” as if that number is so small that it couldn’t possibly matter. But those small numbers add up quickly, and all of them do matter. Quite a bit, actually.

    1. @omdg – I’m with you that 20 minutes of sleep matters in that crucial window. If I get 7 hours I’m happy. If I get less, I’m noticeably less functional. Of course, in my work it probably doesn’t matter — which is not the case in medicine. I have no idea why anyone in the medical world would be proud of or encourage sleep deprivation. I understand that emergencies happen in the middle of the night and surgeries go long and such. But sleep-deprived medical professionals seem like accidents waiting to happen.

  5. I don’t think I work 98 hours per week, no. But I do know that, as a single parent of two (my youngest is 5) I have very little time in which I am not (a) working for pay, (b) involved in childcare and domestic work or (c) sleeping. That’s not to say my life is full of drudgery (I really enjoy my work!) but I know I’m an outlier (I’ve looked at the ATUS). Most of my leisure occurs on weekends, with kids in tow; there’s pleasure in that, but as you know, also a lot of mediation. Is it really leisure if it’s not particularly relaxing? Just musing. Getting a massage or taking a barre class meets needs that dragging kids to swimming lessons does not!

  6. answer survey questions about how many hours they devote to work–
    aha, I have done this for my employer. Mostly identifying the types of work and how many hours we spend doing it.
    You are right, just sitting at my desk for 8 hours doesn’t mean I “work” just that I have to be “at work”. And don’t forget to count the commute time. Even though going to the bathroom can count as work time. That being said, I do agree with you Laura.

  7. I agree with everything you write, but you already know how much I adore you. 🙂 On this point, specifically, I worked for a guy who constantly told me that he worked 100 hours a week. NO. Unless he has a VERY broad definition of “work.” Sorry, but sitting in front of your computer does not mean you’re working. Right now, I’m home with my five kids, but I’m commenting on a blog post, so I’m definitely not parenting. Or working, one could argue. 🙂 I’ve also NEVER bought into the concept of working more hours making you better, or more productive. I work fast, because I’m good at what I do. So I don’t feel the need to log long hours, just to make other people feel better.

  8. I think I do work at least 98 hours a week.
    My day starts before 6 am and doesn’t end until around 10 pm.
    My only real downtime is during my commute (not sure if that really counts ugh) and I eat lunch at my desk so I can get home in time to pick up the kids from the after school program. Weekends are for family time and all the chores I couldn’t get to during the week, and working from home because the emails never end.
    And then the chauffeuring to activities and talent show practice and Doctor and dentist and if you can’t give me a weekend appt. I will get this cavity filled elsewhere because you are not the only dentist even on this street.
    The days are long, but the years are short!

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