Women don't live a simple 24-hour day
I've always hated that old saying, which I feel like I first encountered in one of the Little House on the Prairie books. Now that I am a Mom, I hate the saying even more because now I really know it is true. I think this annoying truth accounts for part of how we as Moms drive ourselves crazy--in our professional lives, there are markers to say "this project is done." Work projects don't undo themselves and have to be repeated over and over, unlike washing the laundry. In our home lives, we need to draw definite boundaries if we are ever going to create space for anything other than the endless cycle of housework.
If I can sidestep discussions about how to share work with the men in our lives, I wanted to tell you why I scratch my head whenever I read time-use surveys that chop up the 24-hour day into neat little segments. The recent Univeristy of Maryland study reported in The New York Times expresses its data as three neat blocks: child care, housework, and paid work. The take-home messages are that
1.) Dads do more childcare and housework than they did in 1975. Still a lot less than Moms, but more than they used to.
and 2.) Women work more hours than they used to, but they also spend more time on child care than they did in years gone by.
What gives me pause is looking at the acutal hours of child care they count up. The 2000 data chalks up 13 hours of child care per week for Moms. Wha???? Who spends less than 13 hours a week (including the 48 hour weekend) caring for her child? How are they defining the category of child care? This number seems so out of whack it makes me question the whole study.
This week the October 30 issue of Time Magazine reports a new study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that creates lanes of dazzling, rainbow-colored stripes detailing how women, men, married, and single people spent their time on one day in 2005. The study dissected time up into many categories: phone calls, mail, email; caring for non-household members; religious, civic activities; caring for family; educational activities; buying goods and services; eating, drinking; household activities; work-related; free time; and personal care and sleep.
All of these are supposed to add up to 24 hours for everybody, but how do they account for a Mom's best friend, multitasking? I know the risks and downfalls of multitasking, but let's be honest, don't we all do it every day? Today I threw in 3 loads of laundry during breaks between writing projects. I walked the dog while listening to an audiobook. This afternoon I will write a presentation while peeking in on my daughter's after-school activity.
If I am cooking dinner with my family, is that "household activities" or "caring for family"? When we eat a meal together, isn't that also "caring for family" time? If we have to separate out "caring for family" or "child care" time into its own exclusive category, what does that look like--just the time we spend changing diapers or playing Monopoly?
The survey in Time also illustrates the hazard of averaging together different kinds of people. "Work related time" clocks in for no more than 4.5 hours for any group. So this data blends working and non-employed people, including students and retirees. What does it really tell us about any one of those groups?
So what to make of all this? One of my main tasks today is to finish polishing a talk I am giving on Friday at The Association for Research in Mothering conference hosted by York University in Toronto. My talk is called Motherhood is a Journey to Explore, Not a Ladder to Climb. These time-survey studies don't fit my personal life any better than a corporate-ladder model fits my career. My day is too big, complicated, hairy and interesting to be captured by a simple chart, no matter how many rainbow colors dress it up.
What do you think about these time surveys? Can we trust and fairly interpret the data? Are these studies telling us something important that I am missing?