The Surprising Truth in the Debate About Whether Motherhood Is Selfless or Selfish - Verily
When you look at the time diaries of moms, a new picture emerges.

Motherhood, along with apple pie, is usually cited as a noncontroversial topic. Yet every few weeks, another please-click-me article gets people up in arms with the question of just how much sacrifice it actually entails. 

In August, Karen Rinaldi wrote a widely shared piece for the New York Times claiming that “motherhood isn’t a sacrifice, but a privilege.” Her argument: The characterization of mothers as martyrs to their families hurts women. But then over at Harper’s Bazaar in September, Gemma Hartley penned an equally viral essay on the unpaid and unappreciated emotional labor of household management that mothers often shoulder. Sure, her husband helps out with the kids and the housework, but “delegating work to other people, i.e. telling him to do something he should instinctively know to do, is exhausting.”

It raises the question: Is our time spent raising children really black and white, either a joy or all-consuming selflessness and drudgery?

This question is often answered with stories—Rinaldi and Hartley both wrote in the first person—but we have data, too. The numerical answers show that the nature of motherhood is more nuanced than is often expressed in headlines. But that’s not surprising. Time and motherhood are all complex. So is life.

If you ask someone how she (or he) spends her time, the answers are often more about how the person feels about time rather than about reality. For example, I once found an online poll asking moms about free time in which about half claimed they couldn't remember the last time they had "me time." But then there they were scrolling through the internet taking online polls not required for their job, nor part of childcare, housework, or anything like that. It’s a fun little me-time diversion—but people wedded to their story of having no time did not see it as such. There is also the matter of time pollution, the phenomenon of work creeping into leisure time and making it feel like work. Someone could be lying on a massage table yet feeling anguish about a kid's grade or about asking her husband to make dinner.

Fortunately, there are ways to get around the feelings and get to the facts. Every year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts the American Time Use Survey, which has thousands of Americans talk through the previous day, rolling over the entire year (including weekends and holidays). The survey doesn’t ask about any particular category of time, so people are less inclined to give socially desirable answers (“Sure! I read to my kids for twenty hours a week!”). Asking about yesterday takes out the bias inherent in deciding what is a typical day and what is not.

According to the ATUS, the average employed mother sleeps 8.56 hours per day. She works five hours per day (thirty-five per week) for pay. She does two hours of household activities daily (fourteen per week) and she spends 1.26 hours per day caring for household children as a primary activity (meaning their physical care, or actively playing with them). She spends 3.39 hours per day on “leisure and sports,” which includes 1.60 hours of watching TV.

If the child care numbers sound improbably low, keep in mind that this average would include, say, the mother of one 14-year-old, who spent the entire prior day at a friend’s house. Yet when people picture motherhood, they’re often envisioning something different: usually, a woman with multiple very small children.

The ATUS offers some perspective on this, breaking down time use by the age of a person’s youngest child. Employed women with a child under the age of 6 spend far more time on child care as a primary activity (1.96 hours/day) than women with older children. Stay-at-home moms of young kids spend 2.79 hours daily on child care as a primary activity. Women (including working mothers and stay-at-home moms) with children under age 6 average 6.22 hours/day on child care as a “secondary activity” (that is, while doing something else, like errands or housework). Adding to the impressions of motherhood as endless sacrifice, the gap between the time men and women spend on child care is considerably larger for mothers of smaller children than for older ones: a two-hour gap per day in “secondary activity” child care for moms with kids under 6 years old versus just a little over one hour for moms with older kids.

I have found these stark differences in my time diary studies, too. When I looked at 1001 days in the lives of women with professional jobs and kids at home, I found that women with babies (under age 2) had considerably less leisure time than other women. They spent a third less time on exercise, a third less time on reading, and 40 percent less time watching TV than women with older children. And that’s just the gap between women with babies and other mothers with big jobs. Consider that the average American watches TV as a primary activity for 2.7 hours/day, and gets 5.13 hours of daily leisure time, total. A mom of a toddler who gets to watch one thirty-minute show before passing out at night might feel starved for time by comparison, even if she does have some leisure space in her life.

The good news is that babies grow up. Also, most people don’t have that many kids. The average woman with two kids will spend a mere two years of her life (or less!) with children under the age of 2. Housework and errands likewise take up time, but they don’t take infinite quantities of time.

Consequently, there is generally space for other things too. When I’ve had women keep track of their time for a week, most of their schedules have shown time devoted to non-kid and non-household related activities. This is true even for single mothers, and women caring for children with special needs. Women may not have as much time as they want for their own pursuits, but they generally have some time. There is time before bed spent reading, or perusing social media. There is time flipping through a magazine while the kids are playing in the yard. There is time on a lunch break looking at the shops by the mall food court. Women with very young children have less time for these things than others, and they spend proportionally more time on their children than their husbands, but these proportions do change as the years go by.

Time is complex. The truth: mothers spend lots of time on their families, but not all their time on their families. Of course, people's measured time use doesn't offer much perspective on mental time polluted by work and worry, which is the likely reason for the consumptive feelings associated with motherhood. Maybe it's time for moms to ask themselves how they would prefer to spend "me time" if not on social media, watching TV, or just worrying. Unfortunately, it’s tough to write a click-bait headline expressing that reality.