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).