Tracking parental leisure time and ‘intensive mothering’

Paula Fomby, a professor of sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences, worked with a team of PURM students over the summer to analyze time-use data of parents from 1965 to 2019.

Tyler, Paula, and Claudia posing at bottom of staircase.
From left: Tyler Trang, Paula Fomby, and Claudia Bellacosa.

For many parents, how they spend their time might seem mundane, even obvious: shuffling kids to sport practice, picking them up from school, helping with homework, and beyond. But in the nitty gritty of it all, for some parents, time is spent in a greyer area: searching for top-notch daycare, arranging test prep, or networking for the best piano teacher in town.

It’s these latter types of time spent that interest researchers like Paula Fomby, a professor of sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences. What she wants to know more about: “intensive mothering.”

“It’s a style of parenting that has really emerged in the past 40 or 50 years in the U.S., characterized by a singular investment of mothers’ time in children that is very broad in terms of not just providing child care, but investing in children in a very intensive way that focuses on children’s development in their education, as social beings, engaging children in sports, structured activities, and mothers being caregivers but also the executive planners of their children’s development,” explains Fomby.

This style was conceived, she adds, with a mindset of “the child being sacred.” The term “intensive mothering” was first coined in 1996 by Sharon Hays, who studies gender and family issues.

While Fomby initially set out to study how parents spent their leisure time more broadly, she became interested in the idea of intensive mothering in particular, and organized a duo of undergraduate researchers in the School of Arts & Sciences to assist with data analysis, using time-diary data from 1965 to 2019 (omitting the pandemic years to avoid outliers). They examined time spent in basic child care, like bathing a child, shared time in things like play and reading, and time spent arranging and managing children’s activities.

As time went on, they decided to narrow their focus to look at how time spent varied by groupings: married white women, married Black women, unmarried white women, and unmarried Black women.

Fomby says that the intensive style of parenting emerged in the 1970s as married white women entered the workforce. At the time, there was public anxiety that children and families would fall apart while women dedicated themselves to work. In response, working women actually doubled down on their family time, and working mothers today spend more time in child-focused activities than they did in the 1960s.

“Expectations about intensive mothering set up an untenable duality for women as committed members of the labor force while also being increasingly, intensively interested in their children,” says Fomby. “But what is really striking to me about this literature is that the intensive mothering norm developed specifically in response to white married women’s entrance into the labor force, even though Black women and single mothers had already been in the labor force for many years, and there had been no public worry about whether these moms were getting the ‘right’ amount of time with their kids. It was simply the expectation that these women would be in the labor force, even if it meant less time with their children.”

From that perspective, she says, intensive mothering arose against a racialized and socially-classed backdrop of what it means to be a good mom, and whose children are more socially valued.

The project, she adds, is looking back at the time these norms emerged in the 1970s and evaluating whether the observed behavior of married white women is also a pattern among Black mothers and unpartnered mothers.

The short answer is no—though it’s complicated.

“A takeaway finding is that white married working mothers continued to stand apart as the ones who spend the most time with their kids, while Black married working moms are spending about as much time with their kids as Black unmarried working mothers. This may be because married Black families are resisting the intensive mothering norm and giving more caregiving responsibilities to fathers and other family members compared to white families,” Fomby says.

The team was also interested in variables that might influence time spent with children: educational attainment, family income, the number of people in a household who might be alternative caregivers (think: live-in grandparents), the number of kids in the household, and other relevant factors. They’re also describing what the substance of the time looks like and graphing the number of minutes a day mothers spend with their kids.

Claudia Bellacosa, a third-year from Rome who’s double majoring in economics and gender and sexuality studies, along with Tyler Trang, a second-year from Bakersfield, California, majoring in sociology, teamed with Fomby to conduct a literature review and analyze time-use data pulled from the American Time Use Survey, which contains time-use diaries collected since the 1930s. (Participants are asked to document time spent in their days and often include about 20-25 entries in a day, says Fomby.)

Bellacosa and Trang participated as part of the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM), supported by the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. PURM provides first- and second-year students the opportunity to spend a summer conducting research under the guidance of Penn faculty.

Bellacosa, who was drawn to the intersection of economics and gender in the project that’s so central to her majors, says that, while it may seem obvious that in research it’s never exactly clear what’s being looked for, it was an altogether different experience to see that up close. She realized how findings from the data would influence the trajectory of the process.

“Once you do find that interesting trend, or piece of information, you can’t stop there,” she says. “It’s important to question these trends and what the differences are between groups. Seeing that is one important thing I learned about research.”

Trang, who was interested in experiencing sociology research that might apply to his desire to be a pediatrician, learned a lot about quantitative research—while also realizing it’s not his preference.

“Through this I discovered I’m not the type to enjoy quantitative research; I’m much more interested in qualitative, with interviews and in-depth observations and things like that, so I think in the future I’ll look more for something that’s qualitative and allows me to interact with people more,” he says. “But I think overall it was good to get exposure to the quantitative side, to make inferences through data analysis.”

Fomby says the next step is to develop the research into a paper.

“[Trang and Bellacosa have] been really flexible and great learners thinking about the project conceptually, carrying out the quantitative analysis, and thinking about interpretation and meaningful presentation of results,” reflects Fomby. “That’s been exciting for me, approaching the end and seeing them go through this whole arc from identifying the research problem to finding a way to describe and interpret the problem through data.”