Reading a daily newspaper can be so depressing, don't you agree? Everything is bad for you. You can't even enjoy a guilt-free cup of coffee. But some recent research, on how parents manage to spend as much time with their children as 40 years ago, is very encouraging. So why don't we read more about it in the media? This essay was published in the Home News Tribune on 02/16/07.
New research gets copious media attention as trends come and go. Remember way back in the '80s when parents used to put their infants to sleep on their stomachs? Now in 2007, don't you dare! How about a decade ago, when large amounts of beta carotene could prevent cancer? Now in 2007, that's beta what? When a major myth is busted, why don't we hear about it at a level that matches the original media blitz?
The myth I want to focus on posits: If mothers work outside the home, children suffer because of less parent-child contact hours. To the contrary, researchers Suzanne Bianchi, John Robinson and Melissa Milkie found: "Parents are spending as much and perhaps more time interacting with their children today than parents in 1965, the heyday of the stay-at-home mother." The authors of this research have written a book titled "Changing Rhythms of American Family Life" and came to their myth-busting conclusion by analyzing four decades of time-diary surveys, where parents chronicle all of their daily activities.
"For married mothers," states Robert Pear (The New York Times, Oct. 17, 2006), "the time spent on child-care activities increased to an average of 12.9 hours a week in 2000, from 10.6 hours in 1965. For married fathers, the time spent on child care more than doubled, to 6.5 hours a week from 2.6 hours." How could their findings be correct? How can mothers who work more hours than ever before continue to spend as much time with their children as they did 40 years ago?
The authors explain, "By increasingly engaging in multitasking and incorporating their children in their own leisure activities, parents have deepened their time to circumvent the simple zero-sum trade-off between work and the other areas of their lives." Isn't it also counterintuitive to discover that mothers these days are getting as much sleep and leisure time as in earlier decades? One key factor that explains this paradox is that mothers are spending less time than their own mothers doing housework. Fathers have increased the time they spend on both domestic chores and fathering.
Referring to this research, Robert Pear continues, "Fathers have picked up some of the slack. Married fathers are spending more time on housework: an average of 9.7 hours a week in 2000, up from 4.4 hours in 1965." Lest I give you the impression that life is wonderful these days, there is clearly a downside to this good news. "Today's mothers feel more rushed," stress the authors, "as if they are doing everything at once, than their mothers did. This is common across all mothers, though more intense for those who are employed — especially when compared with fathers."
Nevertheless, why do I wish we would hear more media hoopla about this research study? Three reasons: First, this is a win-win situation for children. Parent-child contact hours are critical in child development. If these precious hours that parents and children spend together are stable and not declining, that is terrific. Second, it indicates that parents really care and are exerting themselves.
That brings me to my final point — resilience. Parents have been handed difficult circumstances (here we focused mainly on employment) and have landed on their feet. They have kept their eyes on the goal of secure and supportive family life and will not be deterred. That is a great accomplishment for parents of this generation, and it is also a great thing for their children to observe and internalize. It's good to know, that even though times have changed, the commitment of parents to their children has not.
Be Counted columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a Marriage Therapist in Highland Park and can be reached at DrAlanSinger@aol.com He blogs at www.familythinking.com