Study challenges biases against same-sex marriage and parents and highlights less time devoted by heterosexual dads.
Female same-sex parents spend 40 percent more time engaged in child-focused activities than do different-sex parents. This finding challenges biases against same-sex parents and demonstrates high levels of investment in children by same-sex couples.
The extra time comes largely because, in female same-sex unions, both mothers typically offer as much child-focused activity as do mothers in different-sex partnerships. Fathers with female partners spend only about half as much time on child-focused activity.
“Our findings support the argument that parental investment in children is at least as great – and possibly greater – in same-sex couples as for different-sex couples.”
These findings come from our study of how U.S. parents spend their time. Women in female same-sex relationships and women in different-sex relationships each spent around 100 minutes per day engaged in child-focused activities, compared to an average of 50 minutes per day among men who were married to, or cohabiting with, women. Intriguingly, fathers in same-sex relationships spent roughly the same time as the mothers (around 100 minutes). So they doubled the time typically provided by dads who were co-parenting with moms. However, these findings should be treated with caution because the study included only 17 fathers with same-sex partners.
By child-focused activities, we mean time spent engaged with children in activities that support their physical and cognitive development, such as reading to them, playing with them, helping with homework, bathing them, and taking them to the doctor. It also includes time parents spent in teacher-parent meetings and taking children to extracurricular activities. It did not include activities such as watching television with children or doing housework while a child was around.
Time spent in child-focused activities, as well as the frequency of certain family events or activities, such as eating meals together or reading books, is associated with better child outcomes, as opposed to time when the parents are around but their energy is focused on other things. This is one reason we measured child-focused, engaged parenting time, instead of just any time spent with children.
Our findings show that parental investment in children is at least as high – and possibly higher – among same-sex couples as among different-sex couples. Our study suggests that, on measures of child-focused time, children with two parents of the same sex families actually seem to receive more time investment. They received more focused time from their parents – 3.5 hours a day, compared with 2.5 hours by children with two different-sex parents.
We were surprised to find that women in same-sex couples spend as much time with children as do women with different-sex partners. We expected that women with male partners might be compensating for the lesser amounts of time that fathers provide.
Importantly, our results were derived from nationally representative data. This addressed concerns about prior studies on parenting in same-sex families, which have often relied on non-random sampling that could potentially bias the results. Our study used the American Time Use Surveys, a nationally representative time-diary survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, pooling 11 years of data from 2003 through 2013, with a sample of over 40,000 parents, which included 55 parents in same-sex relationships.
These figures explain why our findings should be interpreted with caution. We did find statistically significant differences for parents in same-sex relationships compared with those in different-sex relationships. Furthermore, these differences persisted even when we controlled for a wide range of factors such as age and number of children, hours of work and parental education, all of which influence time spent with children. Nevertheless, the sample of same sex couples was small.
Our study was unable to explain exactly why parents in same-sex relationships devote twice as much focused time to their children as do fathers with female partners, but prior sociological research can provide hints.
First, it’s possible that selection plays a large part. That is, the ways that same-sex families come about, such as partnering with someone who already has a child, going through insemination or surrogacy, or going through the lengthy process of adoption, suggest a strong desire to be a parent.
Second, parenting remains a gendered process. Fathers coupled with women still tend to be the main breadwinners, and their partners, even when they have paid employment, take on more domestic responsibility. This explanation is supported by our finding that fathers in same-sex couples – albeit a very small sample – devoted about the same amount of time to their children as did same-sex mothers. That’s double the amount provided by heterosexual dads.
Header photo: Caitlin Childs. Creative Commons.
Government agencies should stop focusing on whether parents in same-sex unions provide a depreciably different context for children. For example, it is unnecessary to conduct intrusive home visits or have parents go through expensive court proceedings in order for a same-sex partner to adopt their partner’s biological child, particularly when that child was born into the union.