Spring 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA4

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

How Is the Time Spent?

A look at some commonly held sterotypes of one- and two-parent families

Virginia T. Rowland
Assistant Professor, School of Home Economics
Louisiana State University - Baton Rouge

Sharon Y. Nickols
Professor, Department of Housing, Interior Design, and Consumer Studies
Director, Family Study Center
College of Home Economics
Oklahoma State University - Stillwater

The increase in the number of one-parent families in the past decade has been dramatic. Today, over 20/a of families with children are maintained by a separated, divorced, widowed, or never-married parent.1 Among these families, 9 of 10 are maintained by mothers. One-fifth of children under 18 years of age presently live in a one-parent family, an increase of well over 50% in the past 10 years.2

These changes in family structure have spurred concern about everyday life experiences in families maintained by one parent. Information about dysfunctional aspects of life in one-parent families is readily available,3 but there is little reliable information about day-to-day activities in these families. As Extension continues to address problems of families in achieving a quality of life, more information is needed about families in alternative lifestyles. Oneparent families, particularly, are cited as a high priority audience for home economics programs.4

To better understand everyday events and perception of the adequacy of their time resources, our 1981 study compared mothers in one-parent and two-parent families. The data from this study conducted in Oklahoma by the OSU Family Studies Center refute some stereotypes about differences between one-parent and two-parent families and provide the basis for programming recommendations.

Time as a Resource

Time is recognized as one of the most basic resources for families, but it's considered in short supply by many people. Individual perceptions of the adequacy of time to conduct daily affairs potentially affects management of time resources. How time is allocated and perceptions about the adequacy of time resources have implications for programming needs of families.

A Study of Time


In our study, we interviewed divorced and married mothers in families identified through churches and social organizations. Each family had two children; the younger child was in elementary school, and the age of the older child ranged through high school. We conducted each interview in the family's home in the spring during the school year.

The mothers were predominately white, Protestant, and had attended college; most were 35 to 40 years of age. Twenty of the 30 married mothers and 27 of the 29 divorced mothers interviewed were employed, with administrative and professional occupations prevailing. Educational attainment and occupational status were higher than in the general population.

We asked mothers to respond to a set of statements about their perceived adequacy of resources, including time for personal and family roles. We also asked the mothers to recall how time was used in the previous 24-hour period, which was always a weekday, to provide data for comparison of time use in the 2 family types.


Results of t-tests of the mothers' responses on adequacy of time for various activities are presented in Table 1. Divorced mothers perceived their time to help children participate in organized youth activities and to do housework to be less adequate than married mothers. On other time demands, divorced and married mothers didn't differ in their perceptions of the adequacy of time.

Table 1. Mothers' perceived adequacy of time.
  Mean response*

Statement   Divorced


I have enough time for myself   3.4 3.6
I have enough time for the activities that I want to do   3.8 3.6
I have enough time to spend with my spouse (or a friend of the opposite sex)   4.0 4.1
I have enough time to spend with my children   4.5 5.0
I have enough time to help my children participate in organized youth activities   4.6** 6.2**
I have enough time for housework   3.7** 4.5**
* Scale: 1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree.
** Indicates significant difference at the .05 level.

These results deal with perceived time and provide an indication of time pressures divorced mothers face in regard to housework and children's activities. What about actual time use by mothers in the two family structures? Results of t-tests for difference in time use are in Table 2.

Table 2. Mothers' time use.
  Mean minutes on record day

Activity   Divorced


Employment   424* 179*
Housework   136* 265*
Leisure   157* 227*
Family member care   76 94
Personal maintenance   571 597
Other activities   76 78
* Indicates significant difference at the .05 level.

As a group, divorced mothers spent over twice as much time in employment as married mothers.

Married mothers who were employed were more likely to hold part-time jobs compared to employed divorced mothers whose jobs tended to be full-time. Obviously, when a large amount of time is spent in one activity, time spent in some other activities must be reduced. Divorced mothers in our study spent only half as much time in housework as married mothers. They did less food preparation, clothing care and construction, and shopping compared to married mothers. Even though less time probably is needed to do housework for three people instead of four, we believe the wide difference in time spent by the two groups points to differences in lifestyles of the families.

The divorced mothers in our study averaged about two-thirds as much time in leisure pursuits as married mothers. The larger proportion of employed mothers in the divorced group probably explains this difference.

Contrary to popular myth that children in oneparent families receive less care from parents, divorced mothers in our study didn't spend a significantly different amount of time in family member care compared to married mothers. However, the way that time was spent did differ. Of the time divorced mothers spent in care of family members, one-third was used for transportation, while the married mothers used nearly half their family member care time for transportation.

The two groups of mothers didn't differ significantly in time spent in personal maintenance, which included sleeping, eating, and personal hygiene. Nor did they differ in time spent in other activities, which included unpaid work, school, organization attendance, and time for which no accounting was given.


Our conclusions from this study are that lifestyles of divorced and married mothers and their children differ in important ways, primarily due to the greater amount of time divorced mothers spend in employment and the corresponding reduction in time for leisure and housework. These differences in time use are reflected in divorced mothers' reports that they haven't enough time for housework and helping with children's organized activities.

The two groups of mothers didn't differ in their perceptions about the adequacy of time spent with their children. Divorced mothers and married mothers spent about the same amount of time in direct family member care. This finding contradicts the popularly held stereotype that mothers in one-parent families neglect their children. However, there were time constraints facing single parents that restrict the amount of time devoted to transportation. This difference between one-parent and two-parent families may be linked to one-parent mothers' reports that they have insufficient time to help their children participate in organized youth activities.

Implications for Programs

Recognize Diversity

Several implications for Extension surfaced in this study comparing time resources in one- and two-parent families. First, Extension personnel must recognize the diverse nature of families. In today's society, there's no one family structure that is "best"-families vary and it's important to recognize this variability and incorporate it into Extension planning.

Don't Stereotype

Second, stereotyping families can only lead to misinterpretation. Families themselves may be susceptible to past assumptions about everyday life in various family types. Extension programming can help families assess their resources for adjusting to new lifestyles and coping with change. For example, an assessment of actual time use through keeping a time diary may reveal satisfactory allocation of time or it may point out the potential for reallocation of time to more closely achieve family goals. In many ways, Extension leaders can help families become more aware of themselves and their own resource management.

Accommodate Time Problems

Third, Extension personnel should find ways to accommodate time constraints of mothers heading one-parent families so that children in these families can participate in Extension programs. Special efforts may be needed to arrange carpools or to find meeting places within walking or biking distances for children. Volunteer leaders should be encouraged, and may need special training, to include children from a variety of family structures in Extension programs. It may be necessary to change rules that require parental attendance for certain activities to include children from one-parent families.

Specially Design Programs

Fourth, if Extension is serious about treating one-parent families as a high priority audience, greater attention must be given to the design and delivery of programs to those parents. Programs may need to be designed for individual consumption, such as newsletters geared to the interests and needs of single parents. Including an extra copy of the newsletter with the suggestion that it be passed along to a friend could add to its effectiveness. Extension personnel could identify existing agencies and organizations working with single parents and offer to serve as a resource person or speaker.

Seminars and short-term study groups provide parents with opportunities to learn and, at the same time, encourage them to build self-help networks with other one-parent families. Program information on streamlining housework should be based on the assumption that mothers heading families probably already have reduced time spent at housework, as well as in leisure, about as much as they can. In new time management programs, greater focus should be on setting priorities, examining standards, and substituting other resources for one's own time.

Update Continually

Finally, Extension personnel should be aware that the audience of single parents is constantly changing. Parents become single, enter groups, and exit by remarriage. Child custody arrangements change. Programs must continually be updated, but there may also be a need to repeat a program or seminar because of the changing audience. Extension personnel must use their knowledge and resources to help one-parent families achieve a quality of life that is optimal for their lifestyle.


  1. U.S., Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, "Household and Family Characteristics: March, 1981," in Current Population Reports, Series P-20, No. 371 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982).
  2. U.S., Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, "Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March, 1981, in Current Population Reports, Series P-20, No. 372 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982).
  3. Robert S. Weiss, Going It Alone (New York: Basic Books, 1979) and Judith S. Wallerstein and Joan B. Kelly, Surviving the Breakup (New York: Basic Books, 1980).
  4. U.S., Department of Agriculture, A Comprehensive National Plan for New Initiatives in Home Economics Research, Extension, and Higher Education, Science and Education Administration Miscellaneous Publication No. 1405 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981).