Parenting: Most exhausting job ever? Time for a raise?

Parents agree, child care is exhausting, despite the rewards, found a Pew Research Service study released this week. So why do we pay our child care workers so little?

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Stay-at-home mother Jocelyn Gonzalez takes a stroll with her daughter Delilah in Los Angeles, California October 2. According to a Pew Research Center study of government data released this week, many parents find staying at home with their kids more exhausting than paid work.

In findings that should come as a surprise to no one who has worked a job while a spouse took care of the kids (or vice versa), a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey has found that parents ranked child care as #1 for activities found to be "very tiring."

My wife and I work from home, and so we don't see a work/child separation – just a constant game of "OK! your turn to take care of the baby while I get some work done..." punctuated by the occasional happy family walk or outing to a baby-friendly eatery. But among our friends who have gone back to work, there is an almost universal anecdote – the sense of guilty relief felt by those who move away from near full-time child care back into the working world, with its ordered ritual and ample opportunities for uninterrupted adult conversation.

That written: It's an important corollary that parents also rank child care at the top of "very meaningful activities" (above leisure, housework, and paid work in that order) – exhausting or not, it's clearly meaningful and important.

Child care is also – and as a new parent, I personally have no way of understanding what's going on here – apparently not very stressful for parents:

Only 3% of child-care activities are rated as “very stressful,” compared with 4% of leisure activities, and 5% of work-related activities (housework and paid work). Instead, parents report that they are “not stressed at all” in 52% of child-care activities, compared with 20% of paid work and 37% of housework.

This may have something to do with older children not screaming at high volume and/or, like toddlers, constantly seeking out caustic cleaning chemicals and shallow-but-dangerous bodies of water.

The report indirectly opens the door to an important conversation about how child care workers are paid and treated, however – the stress of the nanny's or day-care worker's job can hardly be overstated, but the pay can hardly be understated.

As per BLS employment statistics, child care workers make a median wage of $9.38 a hour – better than some fast food jobs, but not dramatically so. Taken along with the general treatment and pay of American teachers versus their Asian and European counterparts (US teachers get middling pay for punishing hours), it raises some important questions about what, precisely, we mean when we declare "children first."

The BLS report also raises some interesting points about gender roles. The "How Moms and Dads Spend Their Time" segment of the survey may or may not surprise you: dads spend nearly twice as many hours on average per week working; moms, by contrast, spend nearly twice as many hours on average per week doing house work (17.4 hours versus 10.0) and child care (13.5 versus 7.3). For those righteously irritated by the inherent gender inequality, grab hold to this: the amount of time dads spend on child care and housework has gone up considerably in the past half century.

Dads spend about half as much time as moms on physical care of the kids (changing diapers, dressing the child), half as much on managerial (organizing a schedule, etc.) and half as much on educational care. But when it comes to recreational time, dads catch up, putting in 2.2 hours a week to mom's 2.5.

Not surprisingly, according to the Pew Research report on the study: "Mothers report feeling 'very tired' in 15% of child-care activities, and fathers feel this way in 6% of their child-care activities."

For what it's worth: I'm doing my part to boost the numbers of exhausted dads to a gender equality-friendly level.

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