The gender inequities in care work are well-documented. According to the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), in 2019, women spent 2.16 hours per day on household activities such as cooking and cleaning while men spent 1.39 hours.* Further, women report spending 16 percent more time purchasing goods and services. Experimental ATUS data from 2019 and 2020 showed that women spent an average of 1.7 hours per day and men spent an average of 46 minutes per day caring for and helping household children.
Discrepancies in the time women spend on housekeeping only increase around the holidays due to events and child care closures. A 2021 YouGov poll found that 48% of women-identifying respondents said they do most or all of the Thanksgiving dinner cooking, while 25% of men said the same. Women are more likely to spend time cultivating family relationships around the holidays—planning events and sending cards. Research from the past thirty years maintains that this “kin-keeping” work of maintaining family ties is mainly performed by middle-aged women. Holiday “magic” is care work.
The demands of the holidays take an uneven toll on women, too. A 2021 Ellevest study found that 38% of women disclosed stress around the financial cost of the holidays, in addition to existing financial stress. Studies have found that emotional labor, the work of managing everyone’s feelings, around the holidays can impact women’s mental health.
The holiday season is a particularly stressful for low-income families. According to a recent Household Pulse Survey, more than 63 million Americans found it to be somewhat or very difficult to pay usual household expenses. This tight budget makes shopping for Christmas gifts difficult, particularly when income supports such as the Child Tax Credit are uncertain. And time off to engage in this work is a luxury not all families are afforded. Professional care workers, for example, continue to power through the holidays, carrying out essential jobs without adequate pay or time away with their families. For them and countless other low-wage workers without paid family and medical leave, the time to engage in extra care work around the holidays is scarce. The holidays tend to emphasize inequality across American households—with this year looking like one of the most unequal in decades.
Economist Diane Elson offers three ways to address inequity in unpaid care work and honor the importance of emotional labor. First, we must recognize unpaid care work and understand its true value. This could translate to thanking the ‘kin keepers’ of your family or reflecting on who plans the office holiday party. Second, the amount of unpaid care work done by women must be reduced. This might mean changing our expectations around the holidays or creating community structures that share care work responsibilities. Finally, care work must be redistributed. This holiday season, that could mean baking the pie yourself or ensuring that the hosting chores are equally divided.
To redistribute emotional and domestic labor, individual actions are important, but meaningful change will require policies that value caregiving work. Unfortunately, the United States currently operates with an individualized and disjointed care infrastructure.
The holidays are often a time where we pause and reflect on the importance of love and care in our lives. This year let’s reflect on how we share care and remind our elected officials of the importance of valuing and structurally supporting care.
Would your holiday season be less stressful if you had more access to quality early child care for your three year old? Would your cousin have an exciting new job to report if she was able to re-skill with an expanded Pell grant? Would there be more food on your table if you could expect to receive a January 15th payment from the Child Tax Credit? Would your dad equitably share cooking responsibilities if he could take more paid leave?
From the Build Back Better bill to state family and medical leave laws, structurally supporting care work in the United States would be a true holiday miracle.
* In the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), individuals are randomly selected from a subset of households that have completed their eighth month of interviews for the Current Population Survey (CPS). ATUS respondents are interviewed only one time about how they spent their time on the previous day, where they were, and whom they were with. For more methodological information, please visit https://www.bls.gov/tus/atususersguide.pdf.