Annual Report 2006–2007

Parental work and time with children

This section is an edited extract from FaHCSIA's Social Policy Research Paper 30, Mothers and Fathers with Young Children: Paid Employment, Caring and Wellbeing, by Jennifer Baxter, Matthew Gray, Michael Alexander, Lyndall Strazdins and Michael Bittman, July 2007.

Combining paid work and the care of young children is time-intensive. This article makes use of information reported in the children's time-use diaries to show the extent of parental availability throughout a range of children's activities.

This analysis focuses only on those times when the mother or father was present. Only diaries completed for a weekday and nominated to be a "usual" day were analysed in order to ensure the diary day could more accurately be related to parental employment.

Highlights of this analysis2 are:

Overview of parents' time with children

On average, mothers spent over 15 hours per day with their infant children and over 12 hours per day with their 4-5 year olds. This was roughly double the amount of time that fathers spent in the company of their infants (just over 7 hours) or 4-5 year old children (just over 6 hours) (see Table 11). The time that parents were not present included when someone else was caring for the child, but perhaps more importantly it included times when the child was in a room alone, but in proximity to parents or other carers.

The majority of mothers' time with the infant was spent with the infant sleeping (approximately 6 hours and 20 minutes per day) or in interactive care activities, which includes holding or cuddling the child, the child crying, or the child being read, talked or sung to (just over 5 hours and 30 minutes per day). For almost 4 hours per day, mothers engaged in personal care activities such as bathing, changing nappies, feeding and breastfeeding. Clearly, interactive care and personal care are likely to be high-contact activities, and involve a considerable amount of interaction with the mother. This demonstrates a heavy investment of parental time and the potential for symbolic communication in the early phases of the child's life. This was reinforced by a total of approximately 5 hours of mothers' presence during children's play activities (passive, active and other play). Infants' educational activities occupied less than 20 minutes of their mother's time on an average weekday.

Table 11 - Mean time spent with mothers and fathers, by children's activities and cohort (hours per day)

Children's activities Time with mother Time with father
Infant 4-5 year old Infant 4-5 year old
Sleep
6.3
4.4
3.8
3.0
Personal care
3.7
2.4
1.5
1.1
Interactive care
5.6
1.5
1.2
0.7
Education
0.2
1.1
0.1
0.4
Passive play
0.9
2.2
0.3
0.9
Active play
1.9
0.8
0.7
0.3
Other play
2.1
1.3
0.8
0.5
Travel
1.7
1.5
0.4
0.4
Time in any activity
15.2
(n = 1,914)
12.1
(n = 1,171)
7.1
(n = 1,785)
6.1
(n = 1,062)

Note: Times are for a "usual" weekday. More than one activity can be recorded at a time, so the times in each activity cannot be summed.
Source: Growing Up in Australia, Time-use diary (Release 1) Wave 1

On average, fathers' time with infants was less than mothers' time in all activity groups, although, as for mothers, fathers were most often present when the infant was sleeping, in personal care or interactive care. Fathers were more likely to be present during personal care than they were during interactive care, unlike mothers (see Table 11).

Box 1 - Classification of children's activities

Activity category Infant 4-5 year old
Sleeping/resting Sleeping/napping, awake in bed Sleeping/napping, awake in bed
Personal care Bathe/nappy change/dress/hair care, breastfeeding, other eating/drinking/being fed Bathe/dress/hair care/health care, eating/drinking/being fed
Interactive care Held/cuddled, crying/upset, read a story, talked to/sung to Held/cuddled, crying/upset, being reprimanded/corrected, read a story, talked to/sung to
Education Colour/draw/look at book, participate organised activities/playgroup Colour/look at book/educational game, use computer, taught to do chores or read
Passive play Looking around/doing nothing, watching television, listening to tapes Watching television, movie, listening to tapes, radio, music, do nothing/bored/restless
Active play Destroy things/create mess, crawl or climb Destroy things/create mess, walk/ride bike/other exercise/participate organised lessons/activities
Other play Other play, visiting people/special event/party Other play/other activities, visiting people/special event/party
Travel Taken places with adult, taken out in a pram or bicycle seat, travel in a car or on public transport Taken places with adult, taken out in a pusher or bicycle seat, travel in a car or on public transport

Time spent with children by mothers' hours of work

In both cohorts, maternal employment was associated with mothers spending less time with their children, although the difference between employed and not-employed mothers was not large, at 2.0 hours difference (12.6 per cent) for infants and 1.8 hours difference (13.7 per cent) for 4-5 year olds (see Table 12).

The differences were greater when hours of work were taken into account. For mothers of infants, the difference between no employment and full-time employment was 3.7 hours, and for mothers of 4-5 year old children, the difference was 3.9 hours a day. If full-time employment is considered about 8 hours a day, then for every hour of work, time with children is reduced by about half an hour or less.

This is consistent with other research that concluded that mothers are reluctant to reduce the amount of time that they spend with their children.3 Employed mothers preserved time with children, to some extent, by spending more time with children at the beginning and the end of the day and by spending less time on activities such as leisure and sleep.

Table 12 - Mean time spent with mother and father by mother's hours of work (hours per day)

Mother's employment status and hours of work Time with mother Time with father
Infant 4-5 year old Infant 4-5 year old
Not employed
15.9
13.1
7.0
5.9
Total employed
13.9
11.3
7.3
6.3
  1-15 hours
14.7
12.2
6.6
5.3
  16-24 hours
13.8
11.9
7.3
6.7
  25-34 hours
13.7
10.3
7.5
6.2
  35 hours or more
12.2
9.2
9.2
7.7
All children
15.2
(n = 1,914)
12.1
(n = 1,171)
7.1
(n = 1,785)
6.1
(n = 1,062)

Note: Times are for a "usual" weekday. Single-mother families are excluded from analyses of time with father.
Source: Growing Up in Australia, Time-use diary (Release 1) Wave 1

Fathers spent more time with children, both infants and 4-5 year olds, when the mother was employed (see Table 12). However, these differences were modest and only partially compensated for the difference between employed and not-employed mothers' time with children: employed mothers spent 2.0 hours per day less with infants while their partners spent 20 minutes more; and employed mothers spent 1.8 hours less with 4-5 year olds while fathers spent around 24 minutes more.

Time spent with children by fathers' hours of work

The time that fathers spent with their children, whether infants or 4-5 year olds, was affected by the hours they devoted to paid employment, but the largest differences related to comparisons of not-employed fathers with part-time employed fathers and full-time employed fathers. For the fathers who worked 35 hours or more per week (the overwhelming majority of fathers), time spent with children was relatively invariant (see Table 13). In the 4-5 year old cohort, time fathers spent with children declined with longer hours worked, but in the infant cohort, time fathers spent with children was lowest when they worked 45 to 54 hours, rather than 55 hours or more.

Although not-employed fathers spend the most time with children (see Table 13), the 12.3 hours spent with infants and 9.0 hours spent with 4-5 year olds was still only approximately the same amount of time that mothers working full-time hours spent with their children (see Table 12).

Table 13 - Mean time spent with mother and father, by father's hours of work (hours per day)

Father's employment status and work hours Time with mother Time with father
Infant 4-5 year old Infant 4-5 year old
Not employed
16.5
11.3
12.3
9.0
Employed
14.8
11.8
6.8
6.0
  1-34 hours
14.8
12.3
9.1
8.3
  35-44 hours
14.9
12.0
7.1
6.4
  45-54 hours
14.2
11.1
6.2
5.7
  55 hours or more
15.4
12.4
6.7
5.5
All children
15.2
(n = 1,785)
12.1
(n = 1,062)
7.1
(n = 1,785)
6.1
(n = 1,062)

Note: Times are for a "usual" weekday. Excludes single-mother families.
Source: Growing Up in Australia, Time-use diary (Release 1) Wave 1

Mothers' time spent with children was barely affected by their partner's work hours. Mothers of infants spent the most time with their children when fathers were not employed. When fathers of infants were in paid employment, however, there was a relatively small variation in number of hours that mothers spent with their child. This pattern of relative stability of mothers' time spent with children was also found in the 4-5 year old cohort, irrespective of whether the father was employed or not (see Table 13).


2. Note that the data does not comprehensively measure the time that parents spend undertaking child care tasks, as parents can be responsible for children or undertaking tasks relating to child care while not in the same room as them. On the other hand, the co-presence of a parent does not necessarily indicate that the parent's primary activity was child care: the parent may be undertaking another primary activity (for example, meal preparation) while in the same room as the child; or they may be completely involved in the child's activity, for example, breastfeeding or reading to the child. In some cases, such as if both parent and child are asleep in the same room, there may actually be no active care being done by the parent. The data, therefore, are a very broad indication of parents' involvement in children's lives. A useful indicator of the likely degree of parental involvement is the activity of the child. Parental involvement is likely to be lower when the child is asleep, for example, compared to when the child is involved in personal or interactive care activities (as listed in Box 1). This analysis, therefore, includes measures of total time with children, as well as total time in different activities.

3. Craig, L. (2007). How employed mothers in Australia find time for both market work and childcare. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 28(1), 89–104.

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