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Parents are less rushed today than twenty years ago, but are they finding things any easier?

Posted on 03 April 2020 by Molly Mayer, Researcher .
Tags: Modern Family Index, UK Time Use Survey, childcare, parents, women's equality

For any parent reading this while supervising their child doing homework, or trying to make dinner while also doing a load of laundry and discussing the strengths and weaknesses of a particular Pokémon figure, it will come as no surprise that parents are busy. In 2015, 91% of parents with children under sixteen reported feeling rushed.

In the face of the Covid-19 measures, schools and nurseries are closed and family members, friends and paid childcare providers are mostly out of reach. Pressures on parents are perhaps greater than ever, with many more juggling full-time work and childcare commitments.

It might be surprising today, but prior to Covid-19 parents were experiencing less time pressure than they were twenty years ago. Comparing parents’ time diaries from 2001 and 2015, we found that in 2015 parents felt less rushed, multitasked less and experienced less fragmented time.

The UK Time Use Survey (UKTUS) is a fascinating survey of households which includes interviews and self-completion time diaries. We analysed the data for parents with children under sixteen and looked at three different measures of time pressure: multitasking, fragmentation (the amount of time parents spend on a task before switching to a new one), and feeling rushed.

In 2001, parents multitasked 35% of their time. In 2015, time spent multitasking dropped to 28%. Parents also spent four minutes longer on an activity before switching to another, meaning their day was less fragmented. And even though 30% of parents reported feeling always rushed in 2015, this number was down from 38% in 2001.

If you are a full-time working mother of children under five with a partner who also works full-time, you may be thinking this seems completely wrong. And you would have good reason. Mothers, parents of children under five, and couples with children who both work full-time experience the greatest levels of time pressure. For instance, in 2015 mothers multitasked an average of 3 hours 48 minutes of their non-working day, with fathers multitasking for just under 3 hours.

But despite these differences, amongst all types of parents, time pressure has declined since 2001. This goes against common perceptions of what parenting is like today. Articles on parents struggling to find a work-life balanceget enough sleep, and care for their children abound. Why has the decline in time pressure faced by parents not made parents feel more relaxed?

A possible reason is the rise in intensive parenting, an approach to raising children characterised by rich parent-child interactions, closer supervision, lots of extracurricular activities and heavy parent involvement in schooling. Parents may be spending objectively longer doing a task before switching to a new one, and doing only one thing at a time, but the pressure to be a good parent may just make them feel they are never doing enough.

Another reason may be the “always on” society that we live in. This year’s Modern Family Index by Working Families showed parents find it difficult to switch off from work once they are at home. Parents report this negatively affects their relationship with their partner and children, with 54% saying it has led to arguments with their children.

So, what does this all mean? Even though parents feel less rushed today, too many are under a great pressure and feel inadequate both at work and at home, particularly among some groups of parents. We need to do more to support parents, especially mothers.

We can show parents more empathy by not judging them when they let their kids have some extra screen time so that they can have some peace and quiet. Employers too, can ease the pressure they put on parents by encouraging all employees to limit after-hours email and work. By lessening the demands on parents, we can help turn this objective decline in parental time pressure into something parents actually experience and enjoy.

According to new research from the US (download here), the majority of extra childcare in the fallout from Covid-19 will fall on women, making it difficult for many to work as usual. At the same time, we’re also seeing a huge rise in workplace flexibility, which can help make it easier to work around caring responsibilities. If greater flexibility is here to stay that would bring benefits for all parents, but could be a game changer for mothers.

This blog draws on the latest report from our ongoing research project, Changing Patterns in Parental Time Use. The final report from the study will be published later this year.

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