Are Most U.S. Women Intensive Mothers? Perhaps Not.

By Jane Lankes

Today when we think about mothers, we often think of moms as overworked, tired, and stretched thin—more so than their own mothers were, and far more so than their grandmothers were. Women today spend more time with their children than in previous generations, breastfeed for longer periods, spend more money on kids’ needs and wants, invest more physical and emotion energy into parenting, and are more likely to prioritize children over their own health and well-being. This is called intensive mothering, and it is based on the idea that good mothering requires all this effort. This belief is widespread in the United States and several other western countries, leading to stress, anxiety, and guilt for modern mothers.

With so much emphasis on how much more common intensive mothering is today than a few decades ago, it’s easy to imagine most women believe intensive mothering is necessary and are intensive in their own parenting. Indeed, it feels nearly impossible to talk or write about modern women’s parenting without presuming it involves this kind of high time and energy investments. But, are most mothers actually that intensive? Who isn’t an intensive mother?

We know from the work of other scholars that women who are working-class or non-white are less likely to be intensive, in some ways. For example, they are more likely to believe that mothers’ health and happiness is an important goal, in contrast with intensive mothering beliefs emphasizing that children should always come before parents. But are these the only women who take a less “intensive” approach? How different are these women from the majority?

In my recent Gender & Society article, I found the presumption that most American mothers follow these intensive mothering norms may not be accurate. Using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics Child Development Supplement (PSID-CDS), I explored how women adhere to, reject, and negotiate intensive mothering attitudes and behaviors. I found four types of mothers: Relaxed Mothers (33%), High Investors (25%), Essentialist Mothers (22%), and Strained Mothers (20%). Relaxed Mothers were relatively low on intensive mothering overall. High Investors displayed high intensity behaviors, but still retained some attitudes that were more relaxed. Essentialist Mothers were the only group that believed mothers were naturally better at caregiving then fathers. Finally, Strained Mothers were emotionally stressed, but were still fairly non-intensive in their parenting behaviors. In short, while women who do not mother intensively are often seen as  “deviating” from the norm, my research suggest they may be in the majority, or at least as prevalent, as the ones with high intensity.

Relaxed Mothers and Essentialist Mothers tended to be less educated, less wealthy, and younger than High Investors and Strained Mothers. They were also more likely to be Black or Hispanic and be a single mother, suggesting Relaxed and Essentialist Mothers are overall less socially advantaged than High Investors and Strained Mothers. Therefore, while the least intensive group (Relaxed) was less advantaged and the most intensive group (High) was more advantaged, there’s still a lot we don’t understand about how background characteristics are related to intensive mothering; Essentialist and Strained Mothers are both fairly moderate or mixed in their parenting intensity, but they looked very different in terms of education, income, age, race/ethnicity, and marital status. More research is needed in this area.

Employment status also had a complicated relationship with intensive mothering. Relaxed Mothers, the least intensive group, and Strained Mothers, the most emotionally strained group, both were likely to be employed. This suggests employment can result in varying parenting experiences for moms, with some showing high emotional strain and others appearing more relaxed. Moreover, monetary resources don’t appear to “protect” working moms from emotional distress, as Strained Mothers were far more wealthy than Relaxed Mothers.

My research shows far more variety in mothering styles exists than is often assumed, and these findings matter for social policy. We often assume that most mothers can and will be intensive parents, meaning, most kids are receiving the high levels of investment characteristic of intensive mothering. It’s important that we stop framing high intensity mothering as the norm, because this almost certainly hides important differences in children’s development across families.

Jane Lankes (@JaneLankes) holds a Ph.D. in sociology and demography from The Pennsylvania State University and is an incoming postdoctoral fellow at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. Her research examines family, gender, and well-being, with focuses on motherhood and marriage.

“Women’s Work” and the Welfare State: New analysis quantifies how gender, class and social policy shape unpaid care work

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened inequalities in unpaid care work, with increased childcare and housework burdens disproportionately borne by women. Across Europe and North America, women have been pushed out of the labor market, while mothers are increasingly suffering from stress and burnout.

Social policy might be able to reverse these trends – and the Carework Network has been urging the Biden-Harris administration to take decisive action now and reinvest in care infrastructure to “build back better”. Similar campaigns have been launched internationally, including in Canada and the UK.

But what can data tell us about the potential for welfare programs to address the gender gap in unpaid care work?

In our recent article in Gender & Society, we quantify the connections between social policy spending and inequality amongst unpaid care workers across 29 European countries.

We find that social policies do matter in addressing women’s “double burden” (at home and in paid work). Spending on social policies targeted to families – i.e., child allowances and credits, childcare supports, parental leave supports, and single-parent payments – is associated with a smaller gender gap in time spent on housework. And while this dynamic is visible across the income spectrum, it is strongest in lower income households.

The Gendered and Classed Dimensions of Unpaid Care

Data from the 2007/2008 and 2016/2017 waves of the European Quality of Life Survey highlights the scope of the care crisis even before the onset of the pandemic.

Figure 1 presents the mean weekly number of hours spent on unpaid care, broken down by care type (i.e. childcare as compared to housework), gender, and income quartile, for people living with at least one child under the age of 18 years. Several patterns emerge.

First, across all income groups, childcare makes up the majority of time dedicated to unpaid care work. This means both men and women spend proportionately more time caring for children than cooking and cleaning.

Second, women devote around twice as much time to unpaid caring as men. This pattern is consistent across the income spectrum, though the gender gap is especially large in lower income households.

Third, women with higher household income spend less time on unpaid care work than their poorer counterparts – likely because wealthier women outsource work to paid care providers. Men, by contrast, dedicate similar (lower) amounts of time to unpaid care work regardless of income level.

Fourth, childcare makes up a larger proportion of unpaid care work for wealthier women than for poorer ones. This reinforces prior research on “intensive mothering”: time spent educating children has become an important means of class reproduction within higher-income families, while “menial” tasks such as cooking and cleaning are more readily outsourced.

Spending on Family Policy is Associated with Reduced Inequalities in Housework

Using national data from the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation’s SOCX database, we then examine the state’s potential role in reducing inequalities in unpaid care work.

Figure 2 illustrates the relationship between how much a country spends on helping families (as a percentage of GDP) and the mean number of total hours spent by women and men, per country, on housework.

The two panels highlight that the gender gap in unpaid housework is a common feature across each of the 29 countries we examine. Regardless of the country or level of spending, women continually perform more unpaid housework then men.

Yet the data also show that the more a country spends to help its families thrive, the fewer hours women spend on housework. Women in countries where money spent on families accounts for a higher proportion of GDP spend less time, on average, doing unpaid housework tasks.

Using Family Policy to Build Back Better

Our analyses show that while women – and especially poorer women – spend more time on unpaid care work than men, carefully designed social policy spending may help to shrink the size of that gender gap. For governments, then, (re)investing in social programs that target families offers a promising route forward to counteract the large increases in unpaid care work that have occurred during the pandemic. These programs should be a crucial component of post-pandemic efforts to create a more equitable and caring society.

Naomi Lightman is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary. Her current research focuses on the of impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the employment conditions and health and well-being of paid caregivers in long-term care settings. Her related research publications examine the intersections of gender, inequality, care work (paid and unpaid), and social policy. You can follow her on Twitter @naomilightman.

Anthony Kevins is Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at Loughborough University. His research centers around inequality, public opinion, and various social policy programs, often with a focus on labor market vulnerability. You can read more about his research on his website, which also includes non-paywalled, open-access copies of his published studies – and you can follow him on Twitter @avkevins.

Teaching Module: Care Work

Image Source: BBC News

Are you looking for more information about gender in your classroom?

Take a look at this new teaching module from the Gender and Society Pedagogy Project on Care Work! If you want your students to understand the different conceptualizations of care work, “global care chains”, and the hierarchies and interdependences created by the stratification of care work, this module would be an addition to your class. The teaching module includes class presentations, a list of suggested discussion questions, a week-long Time-use Diary activity, and an activity assessment.

This module is intended for use in an upper-level undergraduate course and utilizes readings from two different articles published in Gender & Society, “Reproducing labor inequalities: challenges for feminists conceptualizing care at the intersections of gender, race, and class” (by Dr. Mignon Duffy) and “Migrant Filipina Domestic Workers and the International Division of Reproductive Labor” (by Dr. Rhacel Salazar Parreñas). The learning module can be adapted for both in-class and virtual learning in any size class.

The author of this teaching module is a member of the Gender & Society Junior Scholar Advisory Board, Carieta Thomas. She is a Doctoral Student at University of Calgary.

You can find this module on care work here.

Does it Cost Men to Care?

By Janette Dill, Kim Price-Glynn, and Carter Rakovski *

Occupations that have a large percentage of female workers – what we call feminized occupations – typically pay less than occupations with a predominately male workforce, even when the jobs require similar skill sets or education. And feminized occupations that require providing care for other people, called care work, are even more devalued. On the other hand, when men enter feminized occupations, past research has shown that they often experience a “glass escalator” effect, which raises their wages and opportunities for promotion as compared to their female counterparts. We were curious about what happens when men enter a feminized care work occupation. We know that care work occupations are devalued, which would lead us to expect that men working in care work occupations would make lower wages as compared to men in other occupations. However, men may enjoy the benefits of the “glass escalator” in feminized care work occupations, which may help to compensate for the devaluation of care work and boost their wages. Continue reading “Does it Cost Men to Care?”