It’s Not Just Moms Who Want to Work Less

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Part-time doesn't sound half bad. Photo: Latinstock/Corbis

The Atlantic ran a piece yesterday by Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at UVA, which notes that happier mothers tend to work part-time, not round the clock. “The news cycle is stuck in a lean-in loop,” he writes, “but studies show mothers report more happiness when they can lean homeward.”

It’s true that not all women wish to run large companies. Many are just trying to make all aspects of their lives work. And Wilcox is careful not to mistake correlation with causation. He does not say, anywhere, that women who work full-time would be happier if they worked less; he notes that it could simply be that the happiest women have the luxury to take part-time work.

Fair enough. But here’s my question: How many men would feel this same way if there weren’t a stigma associated with making such sacrifices?

In fact, if you ask men what they prefer, as the marriage researcher Paul Amato and his colleagues did in 2000, 20 percent will tell you that they'd prefer to work part-time. Another 25 percent will say that they would prefer not to be working at all. In other words, only 55 percent of men in Amato's study wanted to work full-time. “So a desire to spend less time in the labor force,” Amato and his colleagues wrote in the book Alone Together, published in 2007, “appears to hold for many husbands as well as wives.”

Granted, the number of wives in Amato’s sample who wanted to work part-time was higher (48 percent) than it was for their husbands, and the number who wanted to work full-time was lower (19 percent). But these numbers may simply reflect the different realities of husbands and wives at this moment in time: If you spend more time on childcare and housework, which women still do, then the prospect of a full-time job on top of that is exhausting; conversely, if you're expected to work full-time, as men still are, then you do it, but it's tiring, and you fantasize about cutting back or bailing altogether.

So perhaps the best way to understand the data Wilcox has put forward is that a lot of people would enjoy working less. Men would; women would. They share some motivations and not others. Sometimes it's based on guilt or exhaustion, other times for genuine pleasure. But the fact that mothers are happier when they work part-time than when they work full-time probably doesn't tell us much about the state of women's roles in the workplace. More likely, it suggests that very few Americans — male or female — want to work as hard as Sheryl Sandberg works — or, for that matter, as hard as they themselves are working right this very minute.