For the past few years, we’ve seen a spate of articles noting—often lamenting—Americans’ tendency to open their wallets wider for Mother’s Day than Father’s Day, spending $7 billion or even $8 billion more a year on moms than dads. A new report from the Council for Contemporary Families, timed to Mother’s Day, hints at why: a mother’s “position as most hardworking at home is undisputed.” Wipe more butts, get a better card—the math is not too complicated here.
That women continue to do more housework than their male partners isn’t news, but it’s been getting more attention lately—in no small part due to the Lean In campaign illustrating how domestic disparities have an impact on women’s work lives. (Because it’s NBA playoffs season, I’ve been seeing a lot of those Lean In commercials asking men to do their part and must admit my heart soars a little every time.)
The CCF report (which is a collection of recent studies) shows a major shift in how this dynamic plays out. It used to be that all kinds of women were doing more around the house; now, the gender gap between childless couples is closing. When you become a mother, though, look out—that’s when the gender gap widens again. One study in particular focused on this shift:
Ohio State’s Claire Dush and colleagues used time diaries with self-defined egalitarian couples before and after the baby arrived. Before baby, couples shared housework equally. Nine months after the baby arrived, couples continued to report putting in the same hours of work, but their diaries revealed that in fact “women added 22 hours of childcare (physical and engagement) to their work week while doing the same amount of housework and paid work as before. Men added 14 hours of childcare to their work week, but did 5 fewer hours of housework after the baby’s birth.” Kuperberg found the same trend—it is children, not marriage, that leads to an uneven division of labor at home.
The skewed division of labor at home is partly explained by new mothers scaling back at work more than new fathers, meaning “the combined paid and unpaid work hours of men and women are now about even.” (However, men still get an hour more a day of leisure time than women when you control for factors like age and education.) The new balance may seem fair, but as Stephanie Coontz, CCF’s director of research and public education, explains, “When a woman quits work, reduces hours, or takes a less-challenging job, she sacrifices earnings, raises, promotions, unemployment insurance, and pension accumulations, thereby undermining her future economic security.” As my colleague Torie Bosch wrote on Monday, those sacrifices leave women less prepared for worst-case scenarios such as death or divorce.
It’s not all bad news for moms: Men are leaning in more around the house than they used to, according to the CCF write-up. “University of Maryland’s Liana Sayer finds that as of 2012 married mothers were doing almost three and a half times” as much of the “core housework”—i.e., scrubbing stuff instead of playing with the kids—than married fathers do. But that’s way down from 1965, where mothers did 22 times as much. Both parents spend more time engaging with children than they used to, because of cultural pressure “to provide intensive parenting advantages to their children.”
We could ask fathers to honor this Mother’s Day by giving Mom a break around the house—at least give her that extra hour of leisure time that you have and she doesn’t. But that would suggest you’re doing her a favor. Maybe the ideal Mother’s Day gift would be a year-round commitment to closing the household gender gap once and for all.