As Mother’s Day approaches, some may be tempted to pity the single mothers. With no spouse in the house to help out with the chores and the childcare, they must be far more sleep-deprived than married mothers. And getting a chance to just kick back and watch some TV? That’s probably another indulgence reserved mostly for married mothers, who can relax while their husbands are doing the dishes and putting the kids to bed.
One of the fundamental lessons of social science is: Don’t believe something just because it seems obvious. The conventional wisdom about the harried single mother was put to the test in a study of the “time poverty thesis.” In their investigation of a nationally representative sample of more than 23,000 mothers, Joanna Pepin, Liana Sayer, and Lynne Casper found that the single mothers did less housework and spent more time on leisure and sleeping than married mothers. What’s more, the single mothers managed all that while spending no less time caring for their children.
The study, “Marital status and mothers’ time use: Childcare, housework, leisure, and sleep,” was published in 2018 in the journal Demography. But it didn’t explode into the national conversation until the next year, when, just before Mother’s Day, two of the authors wrote about it for the Washington Post. Some single mothers could have predicted the findings. One of them was Lara Bazelon, who wrote an article for Slate titled, “Single moms spend less time on chores than married moms. I’m not surprised!”
Who Were These Mothers?
The 23,088 mothers were between the ages of 18 and 54 and were living with children under the age of 13. As part of the American Time Use Survey, they reported their activities during the previous 24 hours in a computer-assisted telephone interview. The surveys were conducted between 2003 and 2012. White, black, and Hispanic mothers were included; others, such as Asians, were excluded because there were too few in the sample.
The married mothers in this study were all married to a man. Their time use was compared to that of mothers who had never been married as well as mothers who were divorced or separated. Mothers cohabiting with a man were also included.
Why Do Single Mothers Have More Leisure and Do Less Housework?
The findings from the survey cannot definitively answer the question of why married mothers get less sleep and less time for leisure while spending more time on chores than single mothers. The authors considered several possibilities.
The explanation they favor is that married mothers are trying to fill the role of the good wife and the good mother. In a heterosexual marriage, it is traditionally the wife who is supposed to prioritize cooking and cleaning over her own leisure or sleep. Among scholars, this is called “doing gender.” All that time spent on chores, at the expense of things that are relaxing, is a performance, the theory goes. It is a way of demonstrating what a good wife and mother one is. With no spouse in the house, single mothers likely do not feel the same pressure.
Did It Matter if the Single Moms Were Never Married, Divorced, or Cohabiting?
The authors compared married mothers to three different categories of unmarried mothers. The findings were clearest for the never-married mothers. Their advantages over the married mothers were usually the greatest. They did less housework than the married mothers and spent more time on leisure and sleeping. The divorced mothers also spent less time on housework and more time sleeping than the married mothers, but the differences were a bit smaller.
What about the mothers who were cohabiting? They are living with a male romantic partner, but they are not married. Perhaps, then, they don’t feel the same pressure to sacrifice their own sleep and leisure and do more of the chores. The cohabiting mothers did the same amount of childcare and housework as married mothers, and they got the same amount of sleep. But they spent lots more time on leisure.
Are These Results Really About Having a Spouse in the House?
The authors wanted to make the case that having a husband around is the key to all that extra time married mothers spend on chores and the time they don’t spend relaxing. After all, just living with a male partner was not quite the same. But maybe adding any adult to the household (not just a husband or romantic partner) would result in more chores and less leisure for mothers.
The American Time Use Survey provided a way to address that question. The survey collected data on whether the mothers had any adult extended family members in the house. That did make a difference in the time mothers spent on housework—but in the exact opposite way.
Mothers who lived with extended family members (such as grandparents or aunts or other relatives) spent less time on housework; as we’ve already seen, mothers with a spouse in the house spent more time on housework. Mothers who had extended family members around also spent less time on childcare. (The presence of extended family members made no difference in the amount of time mothers spent on leisure or sleeping.)
Rather than adding to mothers’ chores or creating expectations that mothers should be doing more cleaning and caretaking, extended family members seem to be more likely to extend a hand. Apparently, they help out with the chores and the childcare. They are probably important to the children in many ways. That’s one of the implications of a study showing that adolescents raised by single (never married) mothers in multi-generational households do even better than the children of married parents—they are less likely to drink or smoke and more likely to finish high school and enroll in college
Are Single Mothers Doing Fewer Chores and Getting More Leisure Time Because They Are Single?
I have cautioned many times that when currently married people are compared to unmarried people at one point in time, we need to be careful about interpreting the results. When there are differences between married and unmarried people, we cannot conclude that the differences occur because of marital status. That’s true when the results favor the single people, just as it is when the married people look like they are doing better.
In the study, the married mothers differed from the other mothers in important ways. For example, on average, they were more likely to be highly educated, older, white, and working part-time instead of full-time. Taking those differences into account did shrink the gap between married and unmarried mothers in the time they spent on leisure activities. But the single mothers still maintained their advantage. That suggests that marital status was important, but it is not definitive evidence for causality.
One more stereotype bites the dust. Without a spouse in the house, single mothers actually do less housework and take more time to sleep and watch TV than married mothers—all while spending the same amount of time caring for their kids. It may be that trying to excel at being a good wife is draining.
Professors Sayer and Pepin caution that their findings “are not meant to imply that single moms have it easier than those with partners. There are many factors beyond housework that create stress and challenges for single mothers. And financially advantaged women, regardless of marital status, can afford to offload many of the tasks they don’t want to do.”
I’ll mention one of those sources of stress: singlism. Even after dispensing with this one stereotype of the “time poor” single mothers, plenty of other stereotypes still persist. These mothers and their children are still at risk of being stigmatized and disadvantaged by discrimination. Ideologues such as the marriage fundamentalists continue to insist that all families are inferior to those headed by heterosexual parents in their first marriage. They are wrong, but they are very effective in spreading their message.
When news about stereotype-defying studies such as this one gets out, it becomes easier for single mothers and the people in their corner to resist the stigma. In her essay on the research, Bazelon posed this question: “Could it actually be that single mothers are living more fulfilling lives than they would if they were married?” Her answer: “In my experience, yes.”