Motherhood and apple pie? Not in the 21st century

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The 1950s was the heyday of the housewife when six out of 10 married women stayed at home. Days were spent in a routine of cooking, cleaning and caring.

But for the granddaughters of this postwar generation, life has become busier. Despite the advent of labour-saving devices such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners and convenience foods, women with children are finding that there are ever more demands on their time. Now, more than half of mothers work full time.

Inside the home, evidence published yesterday indicates, there has been a steady decline in the domestic workload. Half a century ago, mothers spent about 78 hours a week on domestic tasks. This has fallen to 48 a week. The main savings have been in cooking and cleaning - the jobs that have benefited most from modern technology.

In the 1950s, mothers spent about 15 hours a week on domestic chores and 13 hours on cooking, but this has fallen to 6.6 hours and 5.9 hours in 2005. The average amount of time spent preparing food has fallen to 13 minutes per meal although the time modern mothers are gaining on their grandmothers is in danger of disappearing. More than four out of 10 prepare separate dinners for their family, making up to three different meals per night.

While food shopping took up 6.7 hours in the Fifties, this has been cut to 2.4 hours today, largely thanks to the weekly visit to the supermarket. The amount of time spent on pampering husbands has also fallen - from 10 hours per week to three.

While the commitment to looking after relatives has slipped with the demise of the extended family, the number of hours spent looking after children has remained fairly constant at 25.2 per week.

One area of change is that more women are choosing to get involved in children's play rather than inviting other youngsters over and leaving them to themselves. More than six out of 10 dedicate two hours a day to entertaining their children, although watching television has replaced board games in popularity. Reading and picnics still remain the favoured pastimes.

The research, commissioned by the food manufacturer Dolmio, was based on interviews with 2,000 women. Separate research by the Economic and Social Research Council found that the hours saved in domestic chores are being transferred to the workplace.

Three-quarters of households now have dual incomes. The biggest growth in female employment is among mothers with pre-school age children - the proportion of whom with jobs has doubled since 1979.

In contrast, the overall number of men in work has fallen. Despite increases in the number of hours among top earners, working hours among men are falling.

Susan Harkness of Bristol University, who examined why women's workloads were continuing to rise, believes men are doing just half an hour more a week than in previous decades. Dr Harkness found that 60 per cent of working women who earned the same as partners would take time off if a child was sick. Working mothers put twice as many hours into housework as partners.

"Women do more around the home because they are paid less than men," said Dr Harkness who believes change will only occur through a "complete cultural rethink" rather than government policies promoting work-life balance.

She added: "The situation is more equal if the women earns as much or more than her partner. However, many women choose to spend more time with their sick children as a matter of personal taste. And we know that women who work part time are the happiest although they are also the most badly paid."

The Dolmio research painted a more charitable portrait of fathers. It said that 31 per cent now cooked for the family more than four nights a week and 76 per cent of women said they felt supported by spouses.

'I shopped every day to prepare fresh meals'

Elisabeth Gregson, 83, from Prestwich, Manchester. Mother in the 1950s.

"When I got married in 1943, I gave up my job as a fever nurse. My husband worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day as a boiler-fireman. We had three children. It was very hard work - especially on wash days, which was Monday. We used a tub and a dolly stick. I used to go shopping every day and prepare fresh meals. Our favourites were steak and kidney, tripe and onions, cow heel and beef and potted hoof. My husband never cooked, although he did do the washing-up when he could. My mother-in-law lived with us and she would look after the children when we went out dancing. I'm not against working mothers - it gives them another interest other than the home and children."

'It's not worth breaking your back cleaning'

Nicola Wellman-Riggs, 32, of Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Granddaughter of Elizabeth Gregson.

"We have a girl who is six months old and I'm working part time, so it is very early mornings and late nights. I get up at 6am and I'mon the go until 11pm. I'm on maternity leave but plan to go full time again when my daughter is old enough to go to nursery. As a marketing consultant I can work 50-60 hours a week. My husband and I are foodies and I have travelled to India and Thailand for cookery courses, but he likes to cook most nights. My grandmother used to be house proud. I admire that and it's lovely to have a clean home but its not worth breaking your back for. We don't live near my family - I moved south for my career - so it can be difficult. Most of the time I feel shattered.