The XX Factor

Parents Rate Child Care as “Exhausting” and “Meaningful.’ Work? Not Meaningful.

The source of exhaustion—and meaning.

Photo by Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

In the modern American family, work and child care duties are still split down traditional gender lines. A new Pew Research Center report has found that the average American dad works more and plays more—and spends less time on housework and child care—than the average American mom. The average dad with a child under the age of 18 works 40 hours a week, compared to mom’s 23. He spends 10 hours performing housework, while mom spends 17. He takes care of his children for seven hours a week, compared to mom’s 13. He spends 27.5 hours a week engaged in leisure activities, compared to mom’s 24.5. Even when dad is caring for the kids, he’s more likely to spend that time playing. The average mom assumes the bulk of physical parenting duties (like diaper-changing, feeding, and dressing), “managerial” ones (like making plans and attending events), and educational activities (like reading and doing homework). Only when it comes to playing games and sports do moms and dads spend equal time engaged with their kids.

Parents’ feelings about the jobs they’re doing also diverge along gender lines. Pew’s findings are based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, which has been recording daily activity patterns in the U.S. since 2003. Starting in 2010, the survey began asking respondents to also report on their “emotional state” during those activities—including levels of happiness, stress, exhaustion, and the feeling that the activity at hand is “meaningful.” Mothers were more likely to rate each of their daily activities as both “very tiring” and “very meaningful.” But both moms and dads rated child care as a particularly meaningful and exhausting activity—and moms spent about twice as much time on that activity as dads did. Meanwhile, the average dad’s central activity—paid work—was unlikely to bring meaning, happiness, or exhaustion. Only 36 percent of paid work activities bring American parents meaning, compared to 62 percent of child care duties; paid work is “very tiring” 5 percent of the time, while child care is exhausting 12 percent of the time.

As Pew notes, its “findings are in line with previous research on gender and feeling tired”; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that 15 percent of women “reported that they felt ‘very tired or exhausted’ every day or on most days,” compared to 10 percent of men. Is finding meaning in life inherently exhausting? Would we all feel better rested if we just stopped caring?