Should We Celebrate Mother’s Day Every Week?

Doepke, Zilibotti, Love, Money, and Parenting book coverThe modern Mother’s Day holiday in the United States was first celebrated in 1908 in a time of strictly separated gender roles. While some single women were working for pay, married women were usually out of the labor force. Indeed, so called “marriage bars” formally prohibited the employment of married women in many occupations. With much of paid work reserved for married men, married women had to shoulder most of the burden of unpaid work, including caring for children, on their own.

No wonder, then, that there was a perceived need at a time for an occasion to specifically celebrate mothers. When mothers were working without pay and little other formal or informal recognition, a dedicated holiday provided at least an occasional opportunity to honor mothers’ profound contributions to their families and society at large.

But gender roles have evolved a long way since 1908. Bars against women’s employment in the labor market were gradually lifted, and after World War II many married women, including mothers, joined the labor force. Today, a large majority of mothers combines raising children with working for pay.

Conversely, fathers have become more involved in childcare. Until the 1970s, men’s participation in child-rearing was minimal, but today fathers take an increasingly active role in caring for their children. Fathers now spend considerably more time with their children and are less likely to be found in the bar or on the golf course compared to earlier generations.

These changes might suggest that today, there is less need for a mothers-only holiday. In the interest of gender equality, might it be time to abandon the gender-specific celebrations of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in favor of the single, inclusive “Parents’ Day”?

A closer look at the numbers suggests that, in fact, we need just the opposite – namely a Mother’s Day every week.

While differences in gender roles have become smaller over time, women continue to do a lot more childcare than men, not just in the United States, but across all economically advanced economies. Data from the OECD (a club of mostly rich countries) shows that women still do on average two-thirds of unpaid work in the economy, of which childcare is a major component. Gender equality in this dimension is almost in reach in Sweden, where women do 56 percent of unpaid work, compared to 63 percent in the United States. East Asian countries have the longest way to go: in Japan and Korea women still do more than 80 percent of unpaid work.

While some of these differences reflect that men spend more time working for pay, that is only part of the story. Women do the majority of housework and childcare even among couples where both spouses are working full time. As a result, women end up with less free time: across all OECD countries, women enjoy less leisure than men do.

In the United States, the change in gender roles actually has slowed in recent decades. Women’s labor force participation rose quickly from the 1970s to the 1990s but has stalled since, and is now lower than in many European countries.

The nature of motherhood has also been affected by a transformation in the nature of parenting in recent decades. We describe in our book Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids how sharply rising inequality has raised the stakes in parenting starting in the 1980s. While in the 1960s and 1970s obtaining a high-school degree came with the expectation of a secure future as members of the middle class, after decades of stagnation in median earnings in the economy by now only a college degree can provide the same level of security.

American parents responded to this changed environment by adopting more time-intensive parenting styles geared at helping their children succeed in a harsh economic climate. Typical couples now spend twice as much time on caring for their children than what was typical in the 1970s. Activities aimed at supporting children’s educational achievement, such as helping them with homework, rose the fastest.

This trend towards intensive parenting has contributed to a persistent gap in the parenting engagement of mothers and fathers. As parenting became more intense, fathers’ contribution went from very little to substantial. But in absolute terms, mothers increased their time spent on parenting even faster. As a result, mothers now have a full five hours less of leisure time per week compared to the 1970s.

Given these numbers, there are good reasons to use this Mother’s Day not just for thanking mothers for everything they do for their children and their families, but also to consider what can be done for the long-run trend toward more gender equality to resume. American women already get more education and are substantially more likely to graduate from college than men. But women will not be able to make full use of these skills in the labor market and have equal career opportunities until fathers carry a fair share of the load of parenting.

What would help, therefore, is a Mother’s Day every week –  reshuffling one-seventh of mothers’ weekly childcare duties to fathers would still fall well short of equality, but it would be a good start toward closing the gap.

Matthias Doepke is professor of economics at Northwestern University. Fabrizio Zilibotti is the Tuntex Professor of International and Development Economics at Yale University. They are the coauthors of Love, Money, and Parenting.