October 17, 2013

The ‘leisure gap’ between mothers and fathers

In America, fathers, on average, have about three hours more leisure time per week than mothers. This “leisure gap” has been consistent at least over the past decade. What are dads doing with their extra time? For the most part, they’re watching TV, according to new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the government-sponsored American Time Use Survey (ATUS).

10-17-2013 10-07-48 AMThere is a large body of research devoted to studying leisure time. Some studies like those of time-use experts John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, use a broader measure of “free time,” which is the time left over after subtracting all hours spent in paid work, housework, childcare, and personal care.  Other studies, such as one by Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst in 2007, focus more narrowly on the time explicitly devoted to recreational activities or relaxation.

Using the narrower definition of leisure, our analysis of the 2010 ATUS data finds that fathers with children under age 18 in the household on average spend about three hours more leisure time than mothers (27.5 hours per week vs. 24.5 hours per week).

Most of the gap is found in front of the television set. Fathers spend 2.8 hours more each week than mothers watching TV or using other media. Fathers also spend more time playing sports or exercising than do mothers, while mothers spend more of their leisure time in social activities such as attending or hosting parties.

While there are gender differences in these different types of leisure activities, TV watching is a primary leisure activity for both parents. Fathers spend about 64% of their leisure time watching TV or using other media. For mothers, the share is 60%.

10-17-2013 10-07-59 AMThe ATUS not only asks people how they spend their time but also how they feel while they’re engaged in particular activities. Our analysis of this data shows that mothers find their leisure time to be more meaningful than do fathers. Mothers rate 63% of their leisure activities “very meaningful,” while fathers give a similar rating to about 52% of their leisure activities. Meanwhile, mothers feel more exhausted than fathers during their leisure time, and their stress level associated with leisure time is higher as well.

The fact that mothers feel more stressed and tired than fathers even during their leisure may have to do with the way they experience their time. Mothers’ free time is often interrupted, which may make it hard for them to relax, according to a study by sociologist Suzanne Bianchi and others. Moreover, a study by Shira Offer and Barbara Schneider found that mothers tend to spend more time than fathers in multitasking, and the additional hours spent on multitasking are mainly related to time spent on housework and child care.

For more information on how the time use data is collected and the classification of leisure activities, see our report on modern parenthood and parents’ feelings about their time.

Category: Social Studies

Topics: Family Roles, Parenthood, Household and Family Structure

  1. Photo of Wendy Wang

    is a senior researcher focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.


  1. Maj4 years ago

    I read this article, talked about it with my husband, and went and looked over the ATUS data. How would this article have sounded if it read “The Sleeping and Prettification Gap Between Mothers and Fathers: Mothers spend more time sleeping and grooming themselves in the bathroom each week than fathers do – by 3.5 hours!” ?

    The ATUS data shows that men do spend more time pursuing leisure activities than women do, but that time spent is about on par with the extra time that women spend on personal care and sleeping. Furthermore, the data also shows that this choice of how to spend time is consistent among both parents and non-parents. That means that the “leisure gap” isn’t between fathers and mothers, it’s between men and women.

    If men would rather spend their extra half hour each day watching TV or playing sports, and women would rather sleep in a few minutes and do some extra personal care for themselves, that’s their choice to make. But this article makes it sound as though fathers are sneaking in an extra TV sitcom here and there while mothers are stressed and unable to enjoy what little time they get. There is just no need to skew the presentation of data to show fathers in a negative light.

    1. nina4 years ago

      @Maj. In fact, the major issue is not about how one spends leisure time. The key point is that fathers with children under age 18 in the household on average DO SPEND about 3,5hours more on leisure time than mothers (27.5 hours per week vs. 24.5 hours per week). That (leisure gap) is what is most significant and that is what the facts (still) are in the daylife of mothers, also in Europe.

      How the article ‘sounds’ is a matter of your perception.

      1. Maj4 years ago

        Looking at the data, however, mothers DO SPEND more time sleeping and taking care of themselves than fathers do. The article seems to penalize dads for choosing to spend an extra half an hour a day watching TV, but it fails to mention that women will spend their extra minutes in bed and on taking care of themselves. That’s a personal choice about how to allocate those extra minutes – the study data doesn’t consider hitting the snooze button, or a woman whose “sister put polish on [her] nails” to be leisure time (that’s a direct quote from the ATUS notes). Instead, that’s classified as personal time. And as the study reports, women spend more time on “personal time” each week than men do, in amounts similar to how much extra time men spend watching TV.

        The problem isn’t that there’s a leisure gap. It’s that different things are considered leisure for the sexes. My husband will most definitely watch an extra something on TV, but he’ll do it while I’m taking a bubble bath in the other room with my scented candles lit. The study doesn’t count what I’m doing as leisure – it’s labeled personal care – and because of that, the study is skewed.

        As I mentioned before, you could easily write an article – using the same data – to say that mothers spend more time sleeping and taking care of themselves (because they do). If I did that, people would – and should – be understandably mad because it sounds as though mothers are being lazy and selfish. But the same should hold true for this article about fathers and leisure.