Free Time and Emotional Wellbeing: Do Dual-Earner Mothers and Fathers Differ?

By Shira Offer

Previous research suggests that although women and men spend overall the same amount of time on leisure activities, important gender disparities exist in the quality of free time. Time diary studies have shown that women are more likely than men to combine free time activities with other activities, most notably housework and childcare, and are less likely to spend free time alone or in the sole company of adults. Hence, it is argued, because women’s free time is less “pure” and more often “contaminated” by other activities, free time is less relaxing and enjoyable for women than for men. Nevertheless, the question of how women and men emotionally experience free time has remained overlooked in quantitative research. I address this gap in my research (here) by testing how parents feel during their free time, using survey and time diary data from the 500 Family Study , which includes information on the daily activities and emotional states of parents in dual-earner middle-class families in eight urban and suburban communities across the United States.

The descriptive results showed that both mothers and fathers spent about 20 percent of their waking time in leisure. Consistent with previous studies, the mothers in this study had slightly less pure free time than fathers and were more likely to combine leisure with unpaid work. These findings may reflect mothers’ higher commitment to family roles and they provide some support to the view that women tend to sacrifice their own free time in response to family demands. For example, rather than relaxing for a while after a day at work women would help children with homework or fix dinner upon their return home.

However, and contrary to expectations, mothers did not seem to benefit less from leisure than did fathers. For both mothers and fathers leisure was a positive experience, even  when it was combined with another non-leisure activity. This effect did not differ by gender, suggesting that the mothers in this study felt equally deserving of leisure and hence better able to enjoy it, or that the fathers may have valued family work highly, thus legitimizing the mothers’ need for relaxation.

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The results further revealed that not only adult free time, as expected, but also free time in the company of children and family was associated with higher emotional well-being. However, two important gender differences were revealed: mothers derived less enjoyment from leisure when their children were present but felt more engaged in their absence than did fathers. It could be that because mothers have fewer opportunities to spend free time on their own than are fathers, they may be less inclined to take adult free time for granted, appreciate it more, and consequently feel more engaged. Unlike previous research suggesting that women have a limited ability to enjoy leisure due to their family obligations, the mothers in this study seem to have been adept at leaving their concerns about family matters behind when they spent time in adult leisure. By contrast, because fathers spend on average less time with their children, they may value free time in the company of children highly and therefore derive more enjoyment from these activities than do mothers. It could also be that fathers receive more social acknowledgment from their surroundings when they engage in leisure activities with their children or that they are less constrained by childcare obligations and exercise more choice in their interactions with children than mothers.

Overall this study suggests that free time, even when it is “contaminated” by other activities or the presence of children, is beneficial to the emotional well-being of both mothers and fathers. However, it also helped unravel subtle gender differences in the subjective experience of leisure, which reflect entrenched gendered social norms regarding what “good” parents ought to do for their children. It suggests that mothers, who assume the major responsibility for childcare, may feel more anxious about being criticized by others when engaging in leisure with their children, whereas spending time with adults alone may free them from the pressures of “good mothering.”

Shira Offer is currently associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. Her article, “Free Time and Emotional Well Being: Do Dual-Earner Mothers and Fathers Differ?” is published in the April 2016 30 (2) issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.

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