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Children, young people and families

Divorce deepens gender inequalities in parent-child time

After a divorce, the time kids spent with their mothers doubled - but time spent with fathers remained extremely low.

16 February 2023

By Emily Reynolds

Separation – even an amicable one – can have a significant impact on children and how they relate to the world. Research has shown that separation or divorce can have a negative impact on children's development, for one. And there are obvious repercussions for parents, too, many of which are gendered: women's career progression is often impacted by divorce, and men frequently become less involved in their children's lives post-separation.

A study published in the European Journal of Population further explores this gendered element, looking specifically at time children spend with their parents post-separation. It finds that time spent with mothers doubles after parents split up – and that time spent with fathers remains extremely low. Break-ups also had a significant impact on the kinds of activities that children took part in.

Data was collected from a longitudinal study of around 5000 children in Australia born in 2000. On one day each year when the children were aged between 4 and 8, their parents filled in daily diaries every fifteen minutes noting what they were doing; children filled in these diaries themselves from ages 10 to 14. The researchers coded the information provided by the children into a list of activities, and also noted who the child was with.

In the first wave of data collection, all children were living with two parents. The team then formed two subsamples: children who transitioned from living with two parents to living with just one, and children who remained living with both parents. The researchers looked at how children spent their time before and after separation.  Specifically, they looked at the time children spent with both their mother and father; time spent just with their mother; time spent just with their father; time alone; educational time outside of school, such as reading, studying, or going to the library; and unstructured leisure time spent watching TV, playing, or texting. In their analysis, the team also took into account other factors that could influence the results, such as whether children had siblings, whether their parents moved a new partner into the home, and socio-economic factors.

The results showed that time spent with mothers almost doubled after parental break-ups: before separation, mothers spent around 2.5 hours a day with their children, increasing by 2 hours post-separation (although this may seem like a small amount of time, diaries were taken during weekdays when children were at school). Time spent with fathers remained extremely low: pre-separation, fathers spent around 50 minutes a day with their children, a figure that remained approximately the same post-break-up.

Unsurprisingly, the children spent substantially less time with both parents together after the break-up. Other forms of activity were also affected. Boys in particular were more likely to see an increase in their unstructured activities, and spent less time in educational activities outside of school. This suggests that mothers take on the majority of the parenting post break-ups.

Overall, these effects were temporary: after four years, mother-child time had returned to pre-separation levels. Time spent with two parents decreased dramatically for one year, though it increased after this. Time alone also returned to pre-separation levels after two years. This supports the so-called 'set point theory', which suggests that major life events can affect our behaviour in the short term but that this behaviour returns to baseline levels over time. The team suggests that, in this case, this could be because levels of stress decrease, childcare patterns are rearranged over time, or new relationships begin after separation that can replace time spent with parents. Of course, it's also likely that as the children aged, they became more independent. A child of seven is likely to want to spend more time with their parents than a child of eleven, who might value their own independence.

The study didn't look at exactly how spending more time with mothers and less with fathers impacted children. Did it change their behaviour, how they related to their parents, or how they related to themselves or others? Reducing time spent in educational activities and increasing time spent in unstructured activities will also affect children in terms of intellectual or interpersonal development – future research could explore this further.

Parents who are separating could also take the results from this research into account when sharing childcare post-separation. Fathers are already spending too little time with their children even pre-separation – so ensuring enough time is being taken together doing structured activities could be beneficial both for parents and their children when dealing with the stress of a break-up.