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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

How Parents Spend Their Time: A Dramatic Change

Life for couples who marry today is likely to differ greatly from the life of couples who married 50 years ago. A new report from the Pew Research Center makes that clear. It left me wondering just how surprised a visitor out of the past might be to discover how marriage and parenthood function nowadays.

The Pew report underscores the changed roles of women in the workplace and of men at home. The “way mothers and fathers spend their time has changed dramatically in the past half century,” the report bluntly states.

It shows that “dual-earner couples” are now typical to an extent that was not typical in 1965. It shows that contemporary parents struggle to balance life in the workplace with life at home. Couples report feeling rushed and pressured.

Despite workplace demands, however, the Pew report shows that today’s mothers and fathers rate themselves rather highly as parents. It also shows these parents wanting to devote even more time to their children.

The Pew report is noteworthy for the attention it focuses upon so many pieces in the puzzle of 21st century home life. It holds a few surprises, as well, indicating, for example, that today’s parents actually devote more time to their children than their forebears did half a century ago.


The Pew report, titled “Modern Parenthood,” was released March 14. It is based largely on a survey the Pew center conducted in late 2012.

A number of points stood out for me in the report. I hope the following 10 points from the report serve to highlight its complex, but informative, purpose:

1. Dads today do “more housework and child care” than dads did in the mid-1960s, and moms do “more paid work outside the home. Neither has overtaken the other in their ‘traditional’ realms, but their roles are converging.”

2. “Roughly equal shares of working mothers and fathers report … feeling stressed about juggling work and family life; 56 percent of working moms and 50 percent of working dads” find it difficult to balance these responsibilities.

3. “When their paid work is combined with the work they do at home, fathers and mothers are carrying an almost equal workload” today.

4. “Despite the trend of more mothers working for pay, American parents’ time with children continues to go up.” Since the mid-1960s, “fathers have nearly tripled the time they spend with their children.” Mothers’ time with children “has also increased.”

5. Parents “give themselves good grades overall for the job they are doing raising their children.” Sixty-nine percent of parents with children under 18 say they either are doing an excellent or very good job. Just 6 percent say that as parents “they are doing a fair or poor job.”

6. “American parents generally feel OK about the amount of time they spend with their children.” Just one-third of parents say they spend too little time with their children. Feeling that “they spend enough time with their children” is a big factor in how parents “evaluate their parenting.”

7. “Parents who say they do not spend enough time with their children are less happy than those who say they spend the right amount of time with their children.”

8. “When it comes to what they value most in a job, working fathers place more importance on having a high-paying job, while working mothers are more concerned with having a flexible schedule.”

9. “Among mothers with children under age 18, the share saying they would prefer to work full time has increased from 20 percent in 2007 to 32 percent in 2012. Tough economic times may have ushered in a new mind-set.”

10. “Somewhat of a disconnect” remains “between what mothers describe as their ideal work situation and what society says is ideal for children.” Thirty-two percent of mothers with children under 18 “would prefer to work full time,” but “only 16 percent of all adults say having a mother who works full time is ideal for young children.” Some 42 percent of adults consider part-time work better for mothers of young children.

Into the Future

The changing roles of men and women at work and at home have preoccupied social analysts throughout the time of my long career as a journalist. Many changes noted in the Pew report were anticipated decades ago, though some were not as clearly predicted as others.

Society undoubtedly will continue to undergo changes. So I suspect journalists 50 years into the future still will be covering developments that influence the workings of home life.

In any event, parents today are continuing to think things through on the home front. The Pew report itself creates that impression.

By way of example, it suggests that many fathers want to find ways to spend more time with their children.

It says, too, that although women “have reached near parity with men in terms of their representation in the workplace, many women, especially mothers, still wrestle with what their ‘ideal’ situation would be – working or not working, working full time versus part time.”

At the time of writing this article, I received a call from one of our adult daughters seeking whatever insights I might have on precisely that issue, that “ideal situation” for a mother. It appears that for many couples, achieving the best possible balance between life outside the home and life in the home remains a work in process.

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.